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Harassment in Parliament: Complicated issues require complicated conversations

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Photo: Justin Trudeau/flickr

Halifax NDP MP and deputy party leader Megan Leslie says she "cannot believe" Liberal leader Justin Trudeau went public with allegations of "serious personal misconduct" by two Liberal MPs against two NDP MPs.

But really, given the state of the nation -- the fascinating, mostly thoughtful, sometimes insightful, occasionally knee-jerk conversations triggered by recent Jian Ghomeshi allegations but now broadened to include issues of consent, rape culture, sexual and workplace harassment, who-knew-what-when-and-what-did-they-do-about-it-when-they-found-out -- it's hard to imagine Trudeau reacting otherwise.

Last Wednesday, Trudeau called a press conference to announce he was suspending his MPs and referring the allegations to the Speaker of the House.

The backdrop: in the bus returning from Cpl. Nathan Cirillo's Hamilton funeral on Oct. 28, an NDP MP -- whose name Trudeau didn't initially know -- sat beside him. She told him about two incidents of harassment by his MPs, one involving her, and a second a colleague.

Trudeau asked his party whip to investigate. She and her opposite number in the NDP caucus each met with the NDP MPs.

It's not clear the details they learned -- although the NDP says the most important message was neither woman wanted to go public -- but Trudeau's ex-post-allegations options seem limited.

He could have ignored them. He could have privately admonished his MPs and considered the case closed. He could have kept quiet but sent a message he would not sign the MPs' nomination papers for the upcoming campaign.

But what if there'd been another incident, perhaps more serious? If Trudeau had known but done nothing… just ask CBC managers about that.

Trudeau was at pains in his press conference not to identify the MPs, their genders, or even their party affiliations. But in hot-house, everyone-knows-everyone's-business Ottawa, a planted seed sprouts rumours, and rumours beget news.

The NDP accuses the Liberals of playing this for partisan purposes. There's undoubtedly something to that. But their own often over-the-top counter-attack seems equally tinged.

These are serious, complicated issues that require serious complicated conversations. Not to mention having a serious conversation about how to make sure the accused MPs are able to defend themselves against allegations we are not privy to and which may never be formally made.

None of this will be easy. But it's necessary.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: Justin Trudeau/flickr

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