COMMENTARY: The Senate needs to solve its Meredith problem — fast
A new children’s book tells us that senators are the “wise old owls” of Canadian politics. According to some former Senate staffers, one member of the Upper Chamber might better resemble a duck — a bird known for mating habits that are less than consensual.
Don Meredith, named to the Senate in 2010, most recently made headlines over his sexual relationship with a teenage girl. Now, three of Meredith’s ex-employees have spoken to the Huffington Post about sexual harassment and bullying allegations under investigation by the Senate Ethics Office, which first emerged way back in 2014.
The allegations are highly disturbing. According to two female ex-employees, Meredith had a practice of closing a double set of doors to his office whenever he wanted to work with them: “Once the doors close — which was not able to be opened from the outside if it was locked — well, I felt like I was trapped and he was able to touch me and be very … all over me.”
The woman further alleged that the senator, an ordained pastor, used his faith to harass her: “The way that his religion prays is to actually put a hand on the person next to you — and he would use that excuse to touch me more than just putting his hand on my shoulder for the prayer.” By touching her breast or bottom, for example. The experience, she said, “was sickening” and made her feel violated “every time.”
Why didn’t the employees immediately report the harassment, or quit? Meredith allegedly told one woman “he would hunt [me] down if I ever would talk” and threatened to ruin employees’ careers. Another former male staffer said that “you get caught up in there, and the psychological pieces come to bear whereby you don’t want to quit or you need your job … You need to make bills. You have family. You think you can survive it, but then over the long haul, it’s like torture.” That same employee described working for Meredith as “just a horrible professional experience.”
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These allegations remain unproven, and we don’t know under what circumstances Meredith’s accusers left their jobs, or what happened while they performed them. But even that’s disturbing. Why on earth is the inquiry into Meredith’s workplace behaviour taking so long? The Senate Ethics Office opened its investigation in 2015, citing “an irregular rate of staff turnover and other patterns” in Meredith’s office that caught the attention of the late Senate Speaker Pierre Claude Nolin and senior senators.
Sexual harassment has been on Parliament’s radar since Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau suspended two members from his caucus on harassment allegations in 2014. Just last month, members of the House received training on dealing with workplace harassment, based on new guidelines brought into force to prevent this kind of behaviour.
In this climate, and under the government of a self-professed feminist prime minister, you would think the Senate would be a little more focused on these issues. Apparently not. According to the Senate Ethics Office, the length of an inquiry depends on such boilerplate as “the issues that are involved, its complexity, the number of individuals that are required to be interviewed, scheduling issues, the number of process issues that are raised by the various parties and the time that is required in order to properly canvas and dispose of relevant issues.”
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As for Meredith, he has refused to comment on the harassment claims and has refused to step down over his affair — deeming the situation a “moral failing,” claiming that he has been “under the guidance of spiritual advisers” and assuring us he has read the Senate’s new code of ethics. While he has been expelled from the Conservative caucus, he has not been suspended from his job, and continues to collect his $140,000 annual salary.
The Senate standing committee on ethics and conflict of interest is set to recommend a course of action this week in that regard. But suspension is as far as they could go. According to Senate rules, Meredith cannot be removed from the Upper Chamber unless he is found to have committed a crime.
Of course, sexual harassment can become a crime if it crosses certain lines, notably if it becomes physical in nature. So the Ethics Office has a duty to expeditiously investigate and report on this matter if it suspects that a crime has been committed — and not just because justice demands it.
The longer this latest cloud hangs over the Senate, the more the institution will sink into disrepute — at a time when it is set to consider key legislation, including the government’s marijuana legalization proposals. Children’s books may be cute, but they won’t restore the Senate’s reputation if it is mired in sleaze.
Tasha Kheiriddin can be heard between noon and 2 p.m. ET on Toronto Talk Radio AM640. She’s also a columnist with Global News and iPolitics.ca, where this piece first appeared.
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