Last month news broke with allegations of improper behavior by Councillor Chiarelli. This week, Councillor Chiarelli requested a leave of absence for stress-related illness as victims shared more first-hand testimonies of sexual harassment. For women working on Councillor’s Row, questionable workplace behaviour from elected officials was old news. The real news was that someone was talking about it.
In the weeks since the news broke, my boss and I have had several conversations about working conditions for Councillors’ staff and he encouraged me to share my thoughts in my Staffer’s Notebook.
The power dynamics leading men to exert dominance over women’s minds and bodies is well expressed by Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” We expect elected officials to be leaders in their community and we hold them to the highest standard of behaviour, yet it is democracy’s inconvenient truth that they represent the best and the worst of us.
The story of the powerful man and the intern is as old as democracy itself. I scoff at the surprise that it should happen here, in Ottawa. If the MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that years of sensitivity and inclusion training has done nothing to discourage those who use sex to control. We seem to take comfort in the suggestion that this behaviour is the purview of jerks. Drawing a clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys prevents us from looking at the ways our work environment enables abusive behaviour. Nowhere is this as true as in political offices. At all levels of government, the harassment and questionable hiring practices of elected officials take root in a garden carefully maintained by others.
I have worked as a political aide in federal and municipal politics. Everywhere, our employment conditions are precarious. Yet we work amidst organizations with mature and elaborate HR practices, alongside a well-represented unionized workforce. Be it in the federal or municipal government, elected officials are free to belittle, sexually objectify and threaten their staff while everyone looks the other way. And so the seeds of abuse sprout and grow unchecked, untamed and unmanaged. Our only recourse is to take it or leave it.
The image of one elected official representing one constituency has not kept pace with the complexity of representative democracy. Elected officials still hold office as a one-man show, but their operating budgets have grown to include a full-time staff providing the level of service that residents expect. Yet, everything in the staffing of political offices seeks to minimize the visibility of staffers and discount their existence. We are an extension of our employer, a line item in an operating budget, hired and fired at will. Our jobs have no requirements, our salaries are drawn from the same budget as office furniture and left to the discretion of each councillor. There is no salary scale, no promotion track, no equal pay, no performance reports, but most importantly, no complaint mechanism protecting us from the consequences of speaking out. Like office stationery we are expendable, and our value lies in augmenting a Councillor’s capacity without being noticed.
The low pay and precarious conditions of employment invite a workforce that is young, inexperienced and transient, unwilling to compromise its ability to find better paying work elsewhere in the organization. It also works to create a revolving door of young and inexperienced staff that carries with it a reputation for incompetence and ineffectiveness. Some departments will not let municipal staff interact directly with political aides in the absence of a manager. It works at cross-purpose with the City’s stated goal to be an employer of choice and with councillors’ need to receive sensible and knowledgeable advice in the conduct of their duties. Most importantly, it prevents the coalescence of stories, concerns and experiences into corporate memory and practices.
The precarity and sensitive nature of elected officials’ positions has explained their need for flexibility in staffing. For the most part, this flexibility has worked to the advantage of people like me: people with incomplete or patchy resumes, people with interrupted work experience, people whose personal lives have stunted their professional development, in other words, people who have difficulty finding work elsewhere. A CBC news item referred to our positions as “desirable” and I agree that my position as a Councillor’s Assistant has given me a unique perch into the complex levers of public administration. But being “lucky to have this job” combined with the unchecked staffing practices afforded to elected officials compromises our ability to challenge abuse, especially in the absence of clearly defined protections against retaliation.
We assume that the desirability of our position makes up for its precarity. This might be true for the stock staffer imagined from political tv series but for those who eschew the glamour of fiction, the desirability is subservient to the precarity. We have bills to pay, families to support. We make decisions to manage the precarity of our positions rather than its desirability: we keep our heads low, we don’t make waves. We can justify the low pay and long hours by the desirability of the position. But we cannot in good conscience justify vulnerability to abuse and harassment as the price to pay for a desirable position. Yet this is the message that the City sends staffers by letting elected officials make their own rules in matters of staffing.
Last week, Mayor Watson and Councillor Kavanagh issued a public statement stating that “All City employees, including employees of elected officials, have the right to a workplace that is free of harassment.” This is as true as it is meaningless. We may have access to counselling services and a shoulder to cry on, but we are institutionally kept at arm’s length from the City’s Human Resources. Once we avail ourselves of our 6 counselling sessions, our options to deal with harassment remain as binary as they ever were: take it or leave it. There is no HR pipeline to find us safe employment elsewhere in the City, no procedure to provide adult supervision to our employers, no protection against the gossip and rumours that may spread as a result.
The Clerk’s Office sent out an email reiterating the City’s commitment to be a workplace free of harassment and announcing a review of the recruitment and hiring process for Councillor’s Assistants. I hope that this review will be done in consultation with Councillors’ Assistants. However, I am concerned that the need for sweeping systemic changes, once identified, will meet fierce opposition from Councillors and inertia from City Staff.
Power is a tricky thing to pass on. It’s slippery and it doesn’t have handles.