Does heckling in the Manitoba legislature constitute workplace harassment?

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This article was published 4/6/2018 (1067 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Does heckling in the Manitoba legislature constitute workplace harassment?

That question has been on the mind of Speaker Myrna Driedger, as the Progressive Conservative government reviews harassment policies.

The review has been expanded to include input from former political staff and civil servants who worked at the legislature. The results should be released this summer, Premier Brian Pallister said.

Last week, Driedger called for "order" in the house at least 97 times, according to transcripts from Hansard. Many of those calls came when the public gallery was packed with young students.

On Monday, Driedger told house leaders she'd like to have discussions with all of them at a later date about heckling and "breaches of decorum."

"I think it’s important that when anybody’s in the gallery, but particularly students, when they’re watching and listening to a debate on such important issues and on how laws are made and watching democracy in action... I would like to see us elevate the quality of the debate without the heckling interfering with that," the Speaker said in an interview Friday.

"It’s a very different workplace, but I think we do have to try harder to make it more dignified, especially in today’s day and age. To make it a more respectful workplace, but to keep in mind also, it’s never going to be what normal workplaces are because that’s just not the type of environment that we have."

Driedger pointed to heckling in politics being a tradition as old as the first parliament at the Palace of Westminster in London.

"But I think we do have to ask ourselves: is this behaviour acceptable in the modern world?" she said.

The three political parties represented in the Manitoba legislature told the Free Press heckling can, and has been, taken too far in the past.

Heckling — which can loosely be described as speaking out of turn in the house — can be used as a stalling tactic or a strategic move to throw opponents off their game. But when it gets into personal attacks, Liberal MLA Cindy Lamoureux said, it has to stop.

"I don't believe that there has been anything constructive that's come from (heckling) at this point. It’s gotten way out of hand, and just the comments being shouted across the floor are not necessary in any way. There’s no justification for it," she said.

"I’ve heard just this week one person shout across the floor to the other side, ‘You’re disgusting,’ and that was during question period. I’ve had comments made to me about, ‘Did your daddy write that for you?’ -- which again is not necessary and is not constructive in any way."

Government house leader Cliff Cullen has been an MLA since 2004, and said there are things he's regretted saying in the house. "I think we’ve all probably done that," he said, referring to fellow MLAs.

Cullen believes heckling can be a way for politicians to voice their opinions and call out misinformation, but personal insults go too far.

"Once you get into specifically name-calling certain members, that’s not acceptable, that’s for sure. I think there has to be an ability to have respectful banter back and forth during debate, and I think that’s reasonable. As long as it’s respectful, I think that’s OK," he said.

Heckling during question period was one of the first shocks NDP Leader Wab Kinew experienced upon entering provincial politics, he said.

"When I first came here, I thought to myself, ‘A student in a school could never behave this way.' And one of the things that I said on a personal level is, ‘I don’t want this place to change me,'" he said during a scrum with reporters.

"Obviously, you spend a number of years in this place, it’s going to change you to a certain extent. I think that (heckling) is one of the things that we should look at reforming at the legislature."

A federal survey conducted by a non-partisan think tank last year found rookie MPs were the most disturbed by heckling in the House of Commons, with 60 per cent of respondents calling it a problem.

The survey also found 69 per cent of all MPs who responded generally thought heckling was a problem, and 72 per cent admitted they partook in the practice.

The survey, titled Cheering or Jeering? Members of Parliament Open Up About Civility in the House of Commons, was published in October by the Samara Centre for Democracy.

Michael Morden, research director for Samara, said heckling can hurt democracy.

"It's a small thing, it's a marginal thing, but there is good evidence that finds that when politicians are uncivil to one another, it gives citizens licence to be uncivil to one another. It also just drives down trust in politics, in government. It drives down political trust across the board," he said.

"So it might seem like it's pretty remote to the real world, but to the extent that anyone's watching, I think it is a problem for democracy."

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @_jessbu