THE CONVERSATION: Pelham’s mayor says he’s being bullied. We ask an expert.

Professor Tony Volk. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Politics or bullying? Pelham’s mayor says he’s being bullied by the Region. We sit down with expert Tony Volk to see if there’s anything to it.

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
The VOICE

In response to last week’s Regional Audit Committee’s motion, which called on the province to investigate Pelham’s finances, Mayor Dave Augustyn called the Region’s actions “bullying.” This is a tactic Augustyn has used before. Last year, he complained that scrutiny of Pelham’s finances was politically motivated bullying—payback for Pelham’s involvement in other regional matters.

Augustyn’s use of the term raised eyebrows then, and his return to it last week elicited similar responses from Regional Councillors and residents alike. To dive deeper, the Voice reached out to Brock University’s Tony Volk. Volk is a professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies, and has published extensively on issues surrounding bullying. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Piccolo: To make a long story short, the Town borrowed from its own reserves, leaving it with no cash on hand. Then it took out substantial new loans for a community centre. The residents of Pelham have been appealing to the Region to investigate the Town, so that people can know exactly what happened and why it happened. The Mayor has repeatedly called this sort of investigation “bullying.” Some ask whether this really constitutes bullying, considering that it’s legislative action trying to investigate the Town, and not really a particular person. We wanted to get your thoughts on what bullying is, and whether in any sense of the word this situation is bullying.

Volk: In the sense that I view bullying, and the sense that many researchers view bullying, there are a couple of criteria that are difficult to apply to this scenario. The first and most important thing about bullying is that you have to have a power imbalance. In this case, the power is public pressure—is that greater than the power that the Mayor wields? The fact that public pressure can’t get the Mayor to do what it wants suggests that no, it’s not. It’s not pressure against an individual, per se—this isn’t like a thousand people telling someone to jump off a bridge. There you’ve got real social pressure. This is asking for a job to be undertaken, and a job that’s based on following people’s opinions in particular. It’s hard to argue that the voters are bullying the Mayor if they don’t vote for him. Now, if people were personally harassing the Mayor, and calling him up in the middle of the night, those sort of tactics, that could be considered bullying. But if all they’re doing is adding to a petition, then it’s not really feasible to consider it bullying. The other aspect is that it has to do harm to an individual. Again, if the bullying has a personal tone against the Mayor, affecting his mental health, that would be harmful. On the other hand, if this is simply stress that comes with the job of public service, that would not be harmful. Getting somebody to do something they don’t want to do isn’t necessarily bullying. There are multiple examples of this—parents get their child to do something, but it’s not harmful, especially in the long run, if you make a child take a time-out if they keep colouring on the wall.

In this situation, it looks like the Mayor is suggesting that it’s the Region, or the Audit Committee in particular, that’s bullying on behalf of the residents—it’s the residents who are lobbying the Region to do something. There was a meeting on a Monday morning, and several residents in the audience lobbied the Regional Councillors in advance. But it’s a legislative effort—the Audit Committee passed a motion essentially asking for the province to conduct an investigation. [If it’s a power imbalance, then] it seems like it’s a very formalized power imbalance, a legal one.

In that case, it could be a power imbalance, but that would be more akin to the parenting scenario. This is a behaviour that presumably—unless the law itself is unfair— does not cause harm. It’s there to protect the Region’s finances, and its application does not in any way directly target a mayor, unless the mayor has done something improper. It’s difficult to call that a harmful behaviour, when it’s doing what it’s legally intended to do, which is safeguarding the system. I’m going with your narrative, and I can’t claim to have in-depth knowledge of this context, but from what you’ve presented, that doesn’t seem to meet the criteria of harm. It’s goal-directed, it involves a power imbalance, but it’s not harmful if that measure is for the public good, and doesn’t specifically affect a proper mayor.

I guess it’s inevitable that it appears as though it’s affecting a particular individual, in that the Mayor is representing the Town in a sense. The Mayor’s at the crux of this as a figurehead, but only in the same way that in the investigation of a company the CEO is on the hot seat.

The Canada Revenue Agency audited me and my wife once because they wanted to get our childcare receipts. That’s a government organization that has more power than I do, and there was a specific goal, to make sure that I wasn’t committing fraud. But it wasn’t bullying, because it’s not harmful. You can’t argue that it was out to harm me unless I’d done something wrong. You can’t argue that the Mayor is being harmed by this behaviour. It’s part of his job to provide financial accountability, and the only harm that would come is if they find misdoings. If they [conduct an investigation] and the Mayor’s exonerated, I presume that it would help his reputation.

Because your information on this is largely coming from what I say, I want to make sure that I try and imagine how the Mayor would defend himself. He’d say that because it’s a political body, this is politically motivated in the sense that some of the members of the committee are politically opposed to him.

The political system is set up to be conflicting—“adversarial” is a better word. That’s true of any political party. Once you have the votes, you can bully, and they tend to in a sense bully the opposition. Trudeau can pass whatever he likes at the federal level and say to hell with the opposition. They don’t have the votes to stop him. Harper tried doing that when he had a minority, and tried cutting the funding of the other parties, and they went to the Governor General, because he didn’t have the power to do it. But if he had the power, he could’ve yanked the rug out from under them, which would have been bullying. To single out [an investigation of Town finances] as one of bullying, [then] everything that’s done politically is potentially bullying. Within that context, you could maybe make a technical argument that there’s bullying, but it would be such a narrow version of bullying that it’s not really applicable in a moral or practical sense. Because again, that’s how the system is set up. Whoever has the votes gets the power. It’s institutionalized, adversarial behaviour…if you want to call that bullying that would be stretching the use of the word.

There should be another word for it, unless it’s a political situation in which an individual has personal information publicized by a political opponent, or the recipient of sustained personal attacks.

Thinking about it more, I think that you could make a strong case that there is not a power imbalance. If the CRA is auditing me, I have the recourse of launching legal action, saying that they have no right to do this, or challenging their right to do this. Now, in the case of the CRA versus me, maybe there still is a power imbalance. But a mayor’s office ought to have sufficient resources to challenge an unfair use of power by the Region that specifically harms a mayor without serving the public good. I would think that the Mayor has enough resources at his disposal, I’m sure he has legal counsel of his own.

Yes. The Town sent its lawyer to the Region, and sent a letter warning of legal action, and so forth.

So he has a recourse to defend himself. Power is a difficult thing to define. You can be smaller than somebody physically and [still] have power over them physically. A good rule of thumb is: Can the person effectively fight back? In this case, I would imagine that the Mayor has means of fighting back. If the Mayor is able to fight back effectively with a lawyer, because this is an unfair use of power, then it’s not bullying. If the Mayor has no legal recourse, and this is grossly unfair, and the Council is deliberately exploiting it because of that reason, then yes. But none of those things seem to apply here.

A common sentiment we’ve heard seems to be that bullying is not the right word—it conjures to mind visions of malevolent schoolyard behaviour, actions in elementary school and high school that can be traumatizing, compared to something political.

I would say that the political system is adversarial by design. It has checks and balances to prevent gross incidences of bullying and abuse, and I presume the Mayor has access to those checks and balances. If those checks and balances fail, then either his case wasn’t deserving, or there are flaws in the system. But that’s not the same thing as saying that the Council is trying to bully the Mayor.

Thanks very much. I appreciate your time.

You’re very welcome.

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