Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister refused to answer questions Thursday about allegations of sexual harassment against a third PC MLA, citing confidentiality concerns.
At a campaign announcement, Pallister faced questions about Swan River candidate Rick Wowchuk, following a CBC report the MLA had shown a photo of naked women to a female constituency staffer almost three years ago.
It was one of five breaches of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly's respectful workplace policy by Wowchuk, according to the results of an internal investigation into his conduct.
Pallister would not say whether he was aware of the allegations against Wowchuk when he was nominated this spring. The former long-time school teacher was first elected to the legislature in 2016.
Wowchuk issued a statement apologizing for his actions and noting he has undergone "workplace sensitivity training," which he said he found "extremely valuable."
Among the other breaches reported by the CBC was a phone call between the assistant and Wowchuk, who was in the bathtub at the time and remarked he almost "FaceTimed the conversation." Another incident involved a comment about the staffer wearing a bikini.
Wowchuk is the third Tory MLA to face allegations of sexual harassment since the Progressive Conservatives were voted into power in 2016.
After the Free Press published a story April 9, alleging Nic Curry was embroiled in a controversy involving inappropriate behaviour with female staff, the Kildonan MLA was a no-show for the rest of the legislative session. He did not seek re-election.
"When you’re head of government and leader of a party, the buck stops with you." - Political scientist Paul Thomas
Last fall, longtime MLA Cliff Graydon was ousted from the PC caucus after allegations he made sexually inappropriate comment to female legislative staff. He is now running as an independent in the constituency of Borderland.
At a campaign event, in which he announced a re-elected PC government would move swiftly on an earlier promise to create 40,000 private-sector jobs, Pallister shed little light about the allegations against Wowchuk and his party's response to it.
He cited rules barring employers from disclosing any aspects of complaints or alleged incidents of harassment as the reason he could not be more forthcoming.
"I'll say this, though," Pallister said, "I'm always disappointed when allegations arise on the one hand, and on the other hand, I am pleased that people are willing to bring these allegations forward.
"That's why we strengthened the laws. That's why we brought in the measures we have — to encourage people in our workplace to be confident and to feel safe and to be sure that their concerns are being addressed."
According to the CBC report, the complainant, which the media outlet did not name, said when her working relationship with Wowchuk began to deteriorate in January 2018, she received no help or assistance.
She said she asked for a three-way meeting with Wowchuk and the premier's then-chief of staff, Philip Houde, but no one reached out to her.
Winnipeg political scientist Paul Thomas noted the allegations against Wowchuk seemed "to drag on for some time," which belies the premier's boasts Manitoba has a superior system for dealing with such issues.
Also pertinent is when Pallister learned of the allegations, he said.
"It seems the premier is a bit caught in his own claims about the (Manitoba) process (for dealing with harassment allegations) being the best in the country and his acceptance of this individual as a candidate for the party," Thomas said.
"When you’re head of government and leader of a party, the buck stops with you. So he needs to be clear about what considerations led him to allow this candidate’s name to go forward."
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said he was shocked, but not surprised by the allegations against Wowchuk. The premier has made a lot of noise about how there's a "no wrong door" policy, he said, "yet nothing ever happens until these stories hit the media."
Lamont again called for an independent officer to handle complaints about workplace harassment and bullying.
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.