People who work with abuse victims are much, much better humans than I am. They don’t judge. They educate, they help, they focus on healing and they try to make the world a better place.

I carry grudges. I judge.

But as I approach the issue of abuse, harassment and misconduct in politics, I’m going to try to separate my deeply held grudges against people in politics who should have known better from my call to action.

I want to share some tools to help change politics for the better, so that in the results of an election we don’t only see the outcome, but also that we have applied the best of ourselves along the journey.

What everyone who works in the field of politics requires is bystander training. Victims of abuse – be it child abuse, sexual abuse, workplace harassment, marital abuse or elder abuse – will note that they repeatedly tried to tell their story and get help, but nothing happened. “From my experience, a child who is being abused has to tell — on average — seven people before their story is taken seriously,” said survivor and activist Sheldon Kennedy.

Political colleagues, we have the power to help others and to stop abuse. We need to become active bystanders.

Political colleagues, we have the power to help others and to stop abuse. We need to become active bystanders. Bystander intervention programs aim to empower individuals to confidently intervene in an incident in order to stop it or help resolve it. To speak up. To document. To intervene. The best outcome is to teach individuals how to intervene in real-time, when inappropriate behaviour is happening.

Most bystanders want to take action. They are not indifferent. They do care. But most of the time people fail victims because they don’t know what to do when confronted with abuse, or assume others have already done something.

This scenario appears to have played out in the controversy around former MP and Ontario Progressive Conservative Party president Rick Dykstra.

A senior Conservative staffer was quoted in Maclean’s saying he assumed that someone had taken action when reports were communicated to him about an alleged case of sexual misconduct perpetrated against a female political employee. Like most bystanders, the senior Conservative staffer said he assumed that people who had interacted with the victim had urged the victim to do something. He said he assumed authorities would also do something. Of course, none of these outcomes were realized.

Bystander intervention is even more critical when the alleged abuser holds a position of prominence, such as a politician, because victims are much more hesitant to come forward and make a public report.

In most cases of misconduct and harassment, there are many bystanders who have a gut feeling that something is wrong or actually know something is wrong, but don’t do anything about it. And that’s clearly the kind of passivity that the abusers are counting on.

We have the potential, if we join together and support each other, to influence outcomes and to prevent harm in the political realm. If we actively intervene when we see bad behaviour and report abuse if it happens or as we become aware of it, there is a chance the behaviour will not repeat itself.

Together we must build better politicians. We must acknowledge that winning does not always bring about meaningful change. It simply reinforces existing power relationships.

There is training available in Canada to help you be a good bystander, to help you figure out how to take action against abuse, harassment, bullying and misconduct. Sheldon Kennedy’s Respect Group, for example, was founded to help empower people to take action. Courses are offered by the Red Cross, at universities and colleges, and through workplace assistance programs. Look into it. And ask your local elected representatives if they have taken it.

Photo: Shutterstock/By grynold

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Michele Austin
Michele Austin served twice as a chief of staff under Stephen Harper’s government. She is now a senior adviser at Summa Strategies.

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