Lori Turnbull is the interim director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and fellow at the Public Policy Forum.
In just 24 hours, two of Canada's political leaders resigned, one of whom was poised to become the premier of our largest province. Both men face allegations of sexual misconduct and both were promptly shown the door by their caucus colleagues. The message is clear: There is no place in Canadian politics for sex-related bullying and abuses of power.
In a hasty news conference, now former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown said: "It's never okay for anybody – for anyone – to feel they have been a victim of sexual harassment, or feel threatened in any way." On this point, he is absolutely right. It is well documented that the experience of sexual harassment is so common on Parliament Hill and in other political capitals that people who work there have come to expect it. This speaks to a truly toxic culture that, for years, has created a safe space for sexual bullies to threaten, harass and assault their colleagues and the people who work for them. It goes without saying that not every politician is a predator; however, in an environment where acceptance of sexual harassment and abuse has come to be seen as the unwritten clause in many job descriptions, predators have been able to thrive.
But not any more.
Politicians in Ottawa and around the country, regardless of partisan stripe, are united in their disgust at sex-related allegations and in their support for victims of sexual misconduct. It is worth reflecting on the fact that individuals who are privileged to be elected to public office have a unique and special responsibility as stewards of the public interest. Their job is to work for us, to protect us, to place the public interest ahead of any private interest, and to make Canada a better place to work and live. The idea that a public office holder is abusing this position of authority in attempts to pressure peers, employees or anyone else for sex is repulsive and completely unacceptable.
The swiftness and finality of the response to allegations of sexual misconduct is proof of the strength of the #MeToo movement as an agent of cultural change, one that can transcend and transform even a hived-off, elitist microculture that tends to be isolated and immune from the macro-level attitudinal shifts and developments that affect society at large. While other workplaces have long had policies meant to protect people from sexual harassment and abuse, political capitals have been slow to this. Political staff in most jurisdictions work without any kind of job security or codes of conduct to protect them, which can make them particularly vulnerable to the unwanted advances of powerful individuals who have too much power over their career trajectories.
Many people have wondered for years what it would take to reject this microculture once and for all. There is now a palpable change in the air in Ottawa and other political capitals. It has taken too long to get here and many people have been hurt, so let's not be too triumphant. But, instead of expecting to be harassed at work, politicians, political staff, and everyone else in this environment can, instead, expect and demand to be treated with respect by everyone in their workplace, without exception. This is transformative progress. There is a standard of personal integrity that has been articulated through our collective renunciation of sexual bullying. Predators take heed: Political life is not for you. You won't find a safe space there.
Obviously, the implications of the allegations against Mr. Brown for the political scene in Ontario are enormous. A year ago, Kathleen Wynne was setting records for being enormously unpopular. Today, she's looking like a premier again. The new Ontario PC leader has only a short time to earn voters' trust, given the fixed election date. Regardless of who goes on to form the government, the true defining moment of this election has already happened.