Premier David Eby’s decision to eject an MLA from his caucus over a staff complaint has drawn a new line in the sand for what’s considered acceptable behaviour by elected officials — and it’s a big change from what’s been allowed in the past.
Eby stripped Parksville-Qualicum MLA Adam Walker of his parliamentary secretary role and removed him from the BC NDP caucus on Sunday, after a “human resources” investigation substantiated allegations Walker had in some way mistreated an employee in his constituency office.
The complaint did not involve any sexual or criminal allegations, which are the red lines that previous leaders typically used to decide whether to fire an MLA.
Instead, the Walker case appears to centre on an employee-employer dispute involving unspecified employee complaints, multiple discipline and grievance processes, medical leave and emerging workplace policies, according to legal receipts.
“Based on the conclusions of that investigation, I felt that I had no choice but to remove Mr. Walker from our caucus,” said Eby.
“While difficult, this was the necessary decision,” he added.
Walker said his expulsion came out the blue, and called it a “gut punch.”
“I have given so much to the party,” he said. “This was never something I was expecting.”
The BC NDP caucus, I gather, remains equally stunned.
The decision has sent a chill through rank-and-file MLAs, who are surprised Eby went so far as to fire Walker for an internal staff HR dispute. Some have wondered why the premier didn’t instead shuffle Walker out of his role as Parliamentary Secretary for the Sustainable Economy, and relegate him to the backbench.
That sort of quiet sweeping of an issue under the rug is exactly how staff allegations have been handled before by political parties.
But Eby, it appears, is making a deliberate point to his caucus: Under his watch, there will be zero tolerance for MLAs accused of mistreating their staff. That includes bullying and harassment of any kind.
The move represents a sea-change in how MLAs in government are to be judged.
There is a long, distasteful history of MLAs from all parties mistreating their staff in B.C. politics.
The stories that are whispered in the hallways are awful — staffers verbally berated for mistakes they didn’t make, left on-call for ludicrous demands by politicians during all hours of the day and night, and yelled at, belittled, insulted, demeaned or mistreated.
There was often little recourse, because the old school atmosphere of B.C. politics attributed weakness to people who complained. Perhaps you aren’t cut out for politics, they’d be told, or your skin isn’t thick enough to hack it, or you aren’t loyal enough to the party to understand what it takes to win. Push your complaints too far, and your career vanishes.
Parties often put their toughest operators in key oversight positions, ensuring that any staff complaint was viewed through the lens of what’s best for the party, and not the individual’s well-being. The last three premiers before Eby chose partisans with awful people skills to manage staffing decisions, adding a cruel twist to an already non-existent HR process.
Those who’ve pushed through horrible experiences with “difficult” or “demanding” politicians, as they are called, wear their survival like unofficial badges of honour. Others vanished on stress leave, quit or were fired.
Not all MLAs mistreat their staff. Most, in fact, do not. Many forge lifelong bonds with the people who work for them, and help mentor them upwards into the civil service and to run for public office one day.
But very few, if any, of the MLAs who have clashed with their staff during the 15 years I’ve covered B.C. politics were held to account for their actions.
One NDP cabinet minister, who is no longer in office, was so notorious for bullying ministerial staffers that the office of former premier John Horgan (itself a hotbed of HR issues) had to put in place special protocols that allowed both ministry officials and the minister’s own staff to say no to the minister’s requests, without fear of being berated and fired. It largely failed to curb the behaviour.
One previous BC Liberal cabinet minister so badly mistreated their ministerial staff that the then Opposition NDP blanketed the ministry with freedom of information requests to try and catch the person in action. The records were always carefully redacted.
Neither minister was punished, demoted or ejected from caucus.
Eby has heard the same stories, and witnessed the same behaviour from colleagues, during his 10 years in politics. He appears to want to put his foot down as premier.
Walker, meanwhile, said he intends to use the arbitration process with his BCGEU staff to fight the allegations and “clear my name fully.”
Perhaps he will succeed in shedding more light on what has actually occurred. But it’s unlikely he’ll make it back into the NDP caucus before next year’s election.
Eby appears to have made a very public example out of Walker, on purpose. He’s set a new standard for behaviour among his government MLAs. And quite frankly, it’s long overdue.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio. firstname.lastname@example.org