When Newfoundland and Labrador’s House of Assembly sat for the first time in 1833, it took up residence at a tavern in downtown St. John’s. The owner, Mary Travers, was less than impressed by the behaviour of some honourable gentlemen. When the colony’s first democratic government failed to pay her rent, she unceremoniously kicked them to the curb and confiscated all their furniture as damages. When the government summoned her to the bar of the new House to demand their things back, she laughed in their faces and told them to pack off unless they paid her rent.
The House of Assembly eventually got its stuff back, but there are no records that Travers ever got paid. She died in 1854 on Prince Edward Island.
As it turns out, the government caucus in 2018 apparently still operates much like a barroom brawl, and a number of women involved still aren’t getting their due. But the wayward daughters of Mary Travers may have finally come to collect on the back pay owed by the old boys club of the provincial government. And if Premier Dwight Ball isn’t careful, he might find himself washed out into the gutters of Duckworth Street along with the rest of the trash.
For those of you blissfully unacquainted with the cut and thrust of political life at the eastern fringe of North America, here is a brief recap of the (still unfolding) madness:
On Tuesday, April 24, former premier and PC opposition leader Paul Davis spent question period alluding to harassment and bullying problems within the Liberal cabinet. Premier Dwight Ball categorically shut him down: “no, there has been no allegations that have come to me on any issue facing our caucus.” So far, so good. Outside the House, Davis revealed to the press that he had been approached with complaints about colleagues by Liberal MHAs who felt they could not raise the issue publicly—or presumably in caucus.
A formal complaint was filed the next morning against Municipal Affairs Minister Eddie Joyce, a former boxer and boorish firecracker from the west coast of the island. Joyce then (unintentionally or otherwise) revealed the identity of his complainant while talking to media, prompting that person—who turned out to be Service NL Minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh—to come forward publicly. In a legendary interview shortly afterwards, Joyce insisted that he had no idea what Gambin-Walsh was talking about, identified another potential complainant (PC MHA Tracey Perry), and insisted that he could not be considered a bully because he had given out municipal funding to people. (There is no purer expression of Classical Newfoundland Politics than “I control the patronage, so I can do as I please.”)
Premier Ball turfed Joyce from cabinet the morning the complaint was filed. That afternoon, he hastily booted him from the party after an outraged opposition demanded to know why Joyce was still sitting in caucus next to the woman he’d spent most of the day mocking on camera. According to Ball, the morning of April 25 was the first time he ever heard a complaint about his caucus. Leaks to CBC confirmed that a least two members of the premier’s staff—his executive assistant and his chief of staff—had already fielded complaints about Joyce.
Meanwhile, the day that allegations were first hinted by Davis in the House, Education Minister Dale Kirby sent a panicked email to everyone in caucus demanding that anyone leaking information outside the party come forward immediately, as “there is no greater violation of political trust!” (This is an especially rich line coming from the architect of the failed 2013 leadership putsch in the NL NDP that effectively destroyed the party.) For his trouble, Kirby got a shoutout from Democracy Watch for his bald-faced effort at intimidating whistleblowers.
So on Monday, April 30, the House sat again, this time without Joyce or Kirby. The education minister had been removed that morning following a new complaint from Liberal MHA Pam Parsons. She alleged that Kirby had spent the weekend calling party members and urging them to boycott a fundraiser she was hosting, which is an astonishingly petty powerplay to attempt while cabinet is under the microscope for bad behaviour. Along with another Liberal MHA, Colin Holloway, Parsons also filed a complaint with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary over an abusive anonymous Twitter account named “WackjobNL” that was rumoured to be operated by Kirby to slam his colleagues online. (Those allegations have yet to be confirmed.)
Speaking of Holloway—as of Tuesday, he officially upgraded the situation at Confederation Building from a “problem” to a “gongshow.” Holloway filed four harassment complaints against other MHAs: not only Joyce and Kirby, but Paul Davis and NDP leader Gerry Rogers because they insinuated in the House that Holloway was himself being investigated for harassment. (As it turns out: the Town of Port Blandford had complained about Holloway in an email that CC’d Davis, Rogers, and the premier’s office, but a) it was not a harassment complaint, and b) the agency charged with looking into all these complaints has not concluded whether or not they’re going to investigate Holloway. Everything’s fine!)
But most damning of all (so far) was former Finance Minister Cathy Bennett’s exclusive interview with CBC Radio on May 1. She said that she regularly experienced bullying, harassment, intimidation, ostracism, and gaslighting from other MHAs during her time in cabinet, which was her main reason for resigning last summer to sit as a backbencher.
As these complaints keep piling up in public, questions have naturally turned to Dwight Ball’s role in all this. Bennett stopped short of implicating the premier himself in problematic behaviour, but she did observe that “the leader of an organization has the right and responsibility to set the tone and also set the values by which the organization needs to operate [and if] they don’t, the bad behaviour will continue.”
For his part, Ball denied any knowledge of Bennett’s troubling experiences, simply stating that what she describes was “not my experience” and that Bennett simply told him she was resigning for “personal reasons.”
Throughout this whole trainwreck, Ball has continued to assert two things: that he never knew about any of these issues until complaints were formally filed in the last seven days, and also that he’s “in charge” of his caucus and his government. Unfortunately, these positions become more and more mutually exclusive every time new information emerges.
This kind of ruthless self-owning has become the premier’s stock and trade. Remember May 2016 when Ball accidentally-on-purpose gave the most hated bureaucrat in the province a golden parachute and then spent a month denying it against all evidence? This is a different crisis, but involved the exact same defence from the premier: it wasn’t me; I didn’t do it; I have no idea; this is the first I’ve heard of it.
Now, of course, the premier includes a major caveat: even though I didn’t know about this, I’m still the guy in charge.
Let’s take him at his word. Say the premier is firmly in control and on the ball. He works alongside finance minister Bennett for 18 months but has no idea what she’s going through and never bothers to ask her, even when she suddenly quits cabinet. His ministers are (allegedly) stalking through the corridors of power to flex on their backbench colleagues for fun and/or profit, and we are assured that this was an unforeseen defect of Dwight Ball’s controlled chaos. The premier is sitting on a throne high above the capital city, white-knuckling his sceptre and sucking on his ring while his staff scurry around in the shadows fielding secret complaints against cabinet ministers from other cabinet ministers. He commands a caucus room full of MHAs he cannot see and hear. This person is not a leader; this person is barely a boss.
Alternatively, Ball commands nothing but his title. This seems more likely than Ball cosplaying as Tina Turner every time his cabinet meets in the Thunderdome. If the premier really does operate a regime where the left hand knows not what the right is doing, then maybe he did rely on a cohort of goons to browbeat uppity backbenchers into their proper place. This is maybe not so different from other Canadian legislatures—as the slow tsunami of harassment claims making its way across the country can attest—except perhaps that our own House of Assembly is more culturally and institutionally underdeveloped and an alarming number of its Big Men on Campus can’t or won’t draw a line between being “forceful” and being abusive. In this kind of environment, anyone feeling they were on the receiving end of bad behaviour would likely feel unwilling or unable to involve their party boss.
Or, maybe, there is the third and probably saddest possibility: that Dwight Ball (and many of his colleagues) do not understand what workplace harassment looks like, and doesn’t care to find out. It could play out before his eyes and he would never see it. He may genuinely just assume that most complaints and criticisms are just weak people unused to the “intensity” of political discussion. This is more or less how he shrugged off the questions raised about his toxic caucus by Bennett’s public interviews.
This is probably closest to the truth, because the dysfunctional environment of the current government caucus goes far beyond the Liberal party. The opposition Tories might have a field day digging up dirt about Dale Kirby’s bad behaviour, but they forget that “bullying” was their modus operandi for 12 years in government. They drummed Gerry Rogers out of the House back in 2013 over the dumbest social media scandal of all time; they browbeat the legislature and the public into the disastrous Muskrat Falls project; they let Premier Danny Williams smash anyone and anything he felt like smashing for any slight, real or imagined. Pigheadedness is a point of political pride in this province and being the loudest asshole in the room is often a mark of greatness. Ask the average person why John Crosbie is considered a great Newfoundland statesman and you are more likely to hear about the quick wits he used to burn opponents than anything he actually did. Our political system is built out of personality conflict, not policy dispute. Until we address this, we are only ever going to get garbage in, garbage out of the People’s House.
If there is a silver lining here, it’s that the government imploding from harassment claims might finally spur substantive changes in the House. This may be the incentive the Liberals need to finally establish the All-Party Committee on Democratic Reform that they have been promising for years. God knows there are scattered grievances to air.
Likewise: only God knows whether or not premier Dwight Ball will survive the next month. (Odds decrease every time some fresh harassment hell breaks loose.) He has somehow survived all previous exposures of his gross unfitness for the office he occupies, and calls for him to resign started almost immediately after he took office in 2015. This present legitimacy crisis may be uncharted waters for our parliamentarians, but it’s par for the course for this premier.
When asked about it, Ball maintained he’s not going anywhere. “Leaders don’t resign in challenging times,” he told reporters the day Bennett’s interview aired. “They stand up, and we will lead this province through this.”
Aye aye, captain. We respect your decision to go down with the ship. But that’s the thing about a mutiny: the captain doesn’t get to call the shots anymore.
This may suit Dwight Ball best anyway, as he barely seemed to call them in the first place.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.