Code of Conduct Long Overdue

By Lisa Murphy

Commentary

In November, the Prince Edward Island Advisory Council on the Status of Women was active in the media calling for a code of conduct for elected officials, in light of a complaint of sexual harassment against a sitting MLA.

In recent months, in addition to this complaint, we have seen a stay-away order against a Charlottetown city councillor and have heard a school board trustee characterize communications on a school board as being like harassment.

Our governments have conflict of interest guidelines to ensure that elected officials do not cause harm to property or finances or gain financial advantage from their positions of trust. We set clear guidelines for what should happen after an elected representative misuses money.

It is past time to have policies and procedures to address behaviours that harm people verbally or physically or that are destructive to interpersonal relationships, and especially to deal with non-criminal activities. (We rely on our justice system to deal with criminal acts.)

Harassment is a serious issue and deserves serious attention. Historically, women have most often been affected by some forms of physical or verbal harassment, such as sexual harassment. This makes the issue an important one for the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women. When harassment involves elected officials, on the giving or receiving end of accusations, it requires particular attention. It is especially important in the sphere of elected representatives, where women and minority groups remain significantly under-represented.

There are good models for harassment policies in the public and private sectors, but these don’t apply easily to democratically elected officials, who were placed in positions of trust and authority by voters, not by managers or supervisors or boards. We have no clear human resource procedures for elected people, because they are not employees. There are no direct options for hiring or firing, promoting or demoting. Even where there are codes of ethics for those we elect (as there are for school board trustees) there are no harassment guidelines or specific procedures for reporting harassment in safety or for knowing it will be followed up with appropriate measures.

Even the best models for harassment policies and procedures would need to be adapted to deal with misconduct by elected representatives. Models for elected individuals would certainly require training in the real meaning of the code of conduct. This training would have to be of high quality and excellent focus. We would argue that it should include a high degree of sensitivity to gender and diversity. And any training program will only be successful if leaders show leadership by endorsing it, requiring it, and following up appropriately.

It is time to put our heads together to create codes of conduct with clear policies and procedures to support the people we elect to deal with people and relationships as ethically as they are asked to handle money and property.

Lisa Murphy is executive director of the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

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