If we expect elected officials to represent us, shouldn’t we afford them the same protections and opportunties that we expect?
I can’t count how many times I’ve either heard or said that we need to elect more women, more young people, more people of colour, more indigenous people, and more people with different lived experiences.
But what if the place to which we’re trying to elect them doesn’t support the diversity their perspectives bring?
We often hear about the challenges that exist to getting new and different voices elected, but what happens after they do get elected? Or rather, what barriers exist for them when they get to a legislature?
This isn’t a straight forward answer and to be honest, not a ton of people are familiar with the mundane policies and procedures of their own legislative assembly (or municipal council, or House of Commons).
I get that. I have a degree in Political Science, but it wasn’t until I started working in politics that I realized the barriers that exist within the actual legislature.
DYK: Brenda Robertson was the first woman elected to the New Brunswick Legislature in 1967 — only 52 years ago? And when she was elected, a women’s washroom didn’t even exist in the Legislature.
Think about that.
It took 50 years after most women got the right to vote for a woman to be elected and when she was, she reported to work without a proper bathroom.
“Okay, but that was 52 years ago Katie, obviously things are much better…”
Not really. There have only ever been 42 women elected in New Brunswick and 5 of them were elected just this year. New Brunswick has never had even 20% women elected at one time.
And what about people of colour? Well in New Brunswick there has never been a person of colour elected. And there has only been one indigenous person elected — TJ Burke in 2006.
So, how can we accelerate inclusion in legislatures? Although this analysis will have more of a focus on women, adopting many of these changes would also have benefits for other underrepresented groups.
Elect Assemblies that look like the folks they’re representing
In Canada today, the population is over 50% women, but we don’t even hold of 30% of elected seats across Canada. Research suggests that the interests of a particular group will not properly be represented without 30% of that population at the table. It also suggests that there are both social and economic benefits to diverse representation — and this is in all leadership, not just political.
In a recent podcast I highlighted the fact that many legislatures only update their rules when they have to. If the person to which the rule is discriminatory against isn’t actually elected then it’s very difficult to even know the barrier exists. Saskatchewan is a great example of this — just 7 days ago the Toronto Star reported that the Saskatchewan Legislature updated their rules to allow for parental leave because an NDP member is pregnant.
Organizations across the country are working hard to elect more representative legislatures including Equal Voice, but we can all do our part by identifying folks, asking them to run, and supporting them. We also have the power to support candidates with our votes.
Adopt Family Friendly Policies
Family friendly policies can range from physical accommodations, to parental and caregiving leave, to childcare to predictive calendars, to legislative changes, and much in between.
The Toronto Star article I quoted above outlines that “work will be done to install change tables in the legislature’s public and MLA washrooms. A high chair will also be brought into the cafeteria.” These are small steps that can go a long way for parents — both MLAs and visitors to legislatures. These additions would also be incredibly low cost.
Fixed Legislative Calendar
The government of the day controls the legislative calendar which means they have control over when the MLAs need to be in the legislature. In some cases, legislatures have a fixed calendar, but in other cases like New Brunswick, the government can basically decide. A fixed legislative calendar would allow MLAs to better predict when they would be in their ridings, or when they would be away at the legislature. A number of jurisdictions also formally abide by school calendar allowing MLAs to be in their ridings during spring and holiday breaks.
Childcare for elected officials is something I’ve spent much time thinking about. In the case of New Brunswick, it’s just not as simple as saying “we should have childcare at the Legislature.” There are some real logistical challenges based on the small number of children which includ staffing, physical space, and cost. What I think would make the most sense is working with local childcare providers to have a few spots set aside for children when the Legislature is sitting. The Legislative Administration Committee ( LAC) could vote on whether they would authorize subsidies for MLAs or not. I’m sure there would be other innovative ways to solve these logistical challenges and I look forward to hearing input and discussing them.
Parental Leave (and other leaves)
Here is the big one. Many folks became familiar with Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand after her actions relating to the horrific mosque shooting. But in 2018, Prime Minister Ardern became the second elected head of government ever to give birth while in office. She then took maternity leave for 6 weeks.
If we accept that parents in Canada ought to have access to adequate parental leave (which I believe we do), should we not also expect that those elected to represent us ought to also have adequate access? (I also realize not everyone does have adequate access and that’s something we should also continue to advocate for).
In New Brunswick, like in a number of other legislative assemblies, MLAs’ pay will be deducted if they’re not in the Legislature. Here is what the legislation in New Brunswick says:
“The annual indemnity, as adjusted, of a member of the Legislative Assembly shall be reduced by one day’s pay for each day exceeding five on which the member is absent from a sitting of the Legislative Assembly for reasons other than those set out in subsection (5).”
(d) the member is absent due to
(i) serious illness related to a member of his or her family,
(iii) exceptional family circumstances, or
(iv) injury or illness of the member, certified by a medical practitioner if of more than five days’ duration;
The MLA could also be granted leave by the speaker, but I’m not sure why we would leave something like parental leave up to the discretion of the speaker. So unless we consider parental leave “exceptional family circumstances” then the speaker could decide it a is no go for any particular MLA.
The legislation is only one barrier to parental leave. The first question is actually how/would the MLA be paid. We know that parental leave is administered through employment insurance and in many legislatures, MLAs don’t actually contribute to EI — which doesn’t just mean they wouldn’t be compensated for parental leave, but all leaves that are paid out by EI.
MLAs don’t actually sit at the legislature all that often either, so what about when they are in their constituencies? I actually think this is a bit of an easier solution. Much of MLAs’ time in their ridings is spent doing constituency work, going to meetings, and going to events. Solutions to this might be employing an additional staff person to work on constituency work and attend meetings, and appointing a member nearby to help provide a voice and representation while the local MLA is away. This is actually a fairly common practice when there isn’t an MLA and a by-election has yet to occur. I think these suggestions are a bit high level. I hope we can create a more meaningful dialogue about what this could look like. I generally think this is a solution that I would accept, but I don’t think it would be sustainable for one full year and I don’t actually think an MLA would expect that.
Even if we get to a place where it is accepted that elected officials should be afforded parental leave, I do think it will be much longer to get to a place where both men and women are afforded the same treatment without bias — that’s certainly still the case more broadly in society.
Adopt clear Harrasement Policies
Patty Hajdu, the Federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development & Labour introduced amendments to Bill C-65. These amendments moved to include legislative and political staff in harassment protections. This started a conversation around the country about protection for legislative and political staff, including in New Brunswick. The question was simple, are these staff members protected? The short answer was no. And the answer is still no.
The New Brunswick Legislature often mirrors the Government of New Brunswick’s operation policies and when necessary, they implement them. This is problematic. The executive branch = the Government of New Brunswick whereas the Legislative Assembly = the legislative branch. This means the government and the legislature are separate entities and therefore should be treated as such.
Harassment & sexual harassment policies are nuanced. There needs to be a clear reporting structure with a clear process that is communicated clearly to staff (the theme here is clear). In the Legislature, the reporting structures are far more complicated than in the civil service. There is an added layer of complication if the alleged harasser is an elected member of the Legislative Assembly. Now also consider the current situation in the New Brunswick Legislature — a minority situation.
Let’s run through an example: Person x is an employee of the Government Members Office and they receive unwanted harassment of any nature from a government member of the Legislative Assembly. In a “normal” workplace the typical next step would be person x filing a formal complaint with either their manager or HR representative. In this situation, the HR representative is a staff person of the Legislative Assembly and as such has no authority over either person x, the alleged MLA, or the party so basically they can’t do anything. The manager would likely be the chief of staff, who also has no authority over the MLA, but could without cause fire person x. The HR person or the chief of staff could bring the complaint to the Legislative Administration Committee, but that committee is likely majority government members. What would likely happen is the chief of staff would bring the complaint up with the leader (in this example, the premier), or the chief of staff in the premier’s office. At this point I’m sure you’re thinking that this process surely does not protect the anonymity of person x, nor does it really respect their human rights and you’d be right.
Here is where it gets even trickier — we’ve seen the recent move towards party leaders ejecting caucus members for alleged harassment and sexual harassment claims, but what would happen in this current New Brunswick context? If a member was ejected from caucus, the government could fall. This is of course a hypothetical, but not necessarily one that could have been predicted even 6 months ago.
How can we expect that parties will take claims of harassment seriously when they’ve got so much to lose? The answer is we can’t and that’s why all legislatures — and parties for that matter, need to adopt their own harassment policies that have clear reporting structure with a clear process that is communicated clearly to staff (and volunteers on the party side).
By having appropriate policies and procedures, not only are staff protected, but a better environment is created which may support the recruitment and retention of a more diverse staff. All the while equally protecting and outlining the consequences if you engage in harassment.
Other ways to promote inclusion
Make the prayer more inclusive, or get rid of it all together!
Those following #NBPoli know that this has been a topic of discussion as of late. Kevin Arseneau in New Brunswick raised an issue with the opening prayer in the Legislature — each day that the Legislative Assembly sits, the first order of the day is the Lord’s Prayer. I remember the first time I was in the Legislature as a guest. I heard the prayer and I immediately thought to myself “what is happening right now???” What happened to separation of Church and State?
Forget the ideological issues I have with this — but consider for example folks who put their name forward to run who do not submit to Christianity. What message does this send to them? And although it is not a mandatory prayer, it is nonetheless an exclusionary action for those who do not identify with that religion. I did a quick google search and the 2011 Canadian Census shows that 67% of Canadians self-identified to christianity; whereas 23.9% identified with no religion at all. I would suspect that the first number will continue to decline while the second one grows. I’d also wager a bet that folks not identifying with a religion tend to be younger Canadians.
Perform a modernization exercise
Similairly with the prayer — there are a number of outdated policies and procedures that could use a refresh.
A great example of this recently played out in BC. Basically a staff member was reprimanded for wearing a shirt that showed her shoulders (I know, how scandalous…) Although I find it outrageous that a staff member would be reprimanded for showing their arms, this “conservative business casual” is the attire chambers across Canada follow. Some legislatures interpret this more freely. I generally support the idea of members adhering to higher standards while in the actual chamber, but I certainly had no trouble showing my arms while a staff member entering the Legislature, and it would shock you to learn that my level of respect, decorum, and critical thinking skills were not impacted.
If you took the time to comb through the rules, I’m sure you’d find a zillion more like this one.
Create better bathrooms
Bathrooms. I am passionate about bathroom. Remember when I said that about 50 years ago the New Brunswick Legislature lacked women’s bathrooms? Well they exist now, but the bathroom situation could be seriously improved. First of all, many of the bathrooms are the single bathroom style, but these are gendered. I ask myself every day why single stall bathrooms are still gendered. So my first suggestion would be to create gender neutral washrooms by removing the little man or woman symbol and replacing it with a toilet symbol – for example:
Also, remember how we’ve talked a lot about family friendly stuff? Well while we’re at it, let’s add changing tables to ALL bathrooms. They don’t even currently exist in all of the women’s washrooms. So let’s add them everywhere.
Finally, let’s get some menstruation products in the bathrooms.
And while we’re discussion this – folks reading, think about addressing these three steps in your places of business.
Okay. So I outlined a number of things that could be done pretty darn quickly for very little money that would accelerate inclusion in legislatures. Some are already doing these things, others aren’t. This list is also far from exhaustive and quite frankly a bit shallow at times, but if we can’t even address changing tables in the washrooms how on earth can we expect our legislatures to become diverse and welcoming spaces?
I’d love your feedback and your personal perspective or experiences.