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Political Roundup: Bullying and bad behaviour in Parliament

by Dr Bryce Edwards

National MP Maggie Barry. Image sourced from Wikimedia.org. Photograph by Mark Tantrum.

The bad behaviour of New Zealand politicians has been a major focus of this year in politics. Actually, this has been happening throughout the world recently, as the growing mood against elites and sexual harassment has led to a refreshing openness and scrutiny of what goes on behind the scenes in places of power.

2019 might well see further revelations about politicians’ wrongdoing, especially because of the newly-launched parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of staff by politicians. Parliament’s Speaker, Trevor Mallard, has essentially given the green light for allegations about misbehaving politicians to be brought out into the open, via his official “Bullying inquiry”. The inquiry will be led by Debbie Francis, an independent external reviewer who has recently completed work on bullying and harassment at the NZ Defence Force.

Will the review be effective or a whitewash?

Will complainants confine themselves to using the official channels of what is an inquiry with a relatively narrow ambit and very limited ability to research and achieve much? Already, former parliamentary staff are choosing to go outside of the review, using the media to make their complaints public – see Kirsty Johnston and Derek Cheng’s Herald article from the weekend: Former staff accuse National MP Maggie Barry of bullying.

The Barry scandal may be the first of many revelations and allegations to come out about MPs in this fashion. Staffers are likely to see that Mallard’s review is relatively limited in scope and likely impact, and instead choose to go public. I explained some of the review’s shortcomings on The AM Show this morning – see: Simon Bridges bats off Maggie Barry allegations, says staff have a ‘spring in their step’.

Although Trevor Mallard has received plaudits for launching the review of behaviour in Parliament, really it was inevitable, considering some of the recent revelations about bullying in Parliament. It’s probably the least Mallard could do in this situation, without being accused of a cover-up. By front-footing the problem, but at the same time allocating few resources and setting such a limited scope, Mallard is likely hoping he has done just enough to assuage public concern.

Herald columnist Lizzie Marvelly has some similar concerns, arguing the inquiry needs more teeth: “While I support the spirit of the review, from the few details currently released to the public, I doubt it has been equipped with enough firepower to make a significant difference. It doesn’t have the power to subpoena documents, and will rely heavily on self-disclosure from affected staff. Most of the information gathered will never be released to either the public or Parliamentary Services” – see: What will spill out when the rug is lifted?

She also worries that the abilities and inclinations of the politicians to suppress negative information will kick in: “if MPs or senior staff members suspect that their conduct may be reported to the review, what lengths will they go to in order to suppress information? At this stage, within its current framework, the ability of the review to fulfil its brief and deliver the impetus for change raises more questions than it answers.”

There are also questions about whether the review is independent enough. Although Trevor Mallard has hired an independent investigator, it’s hard to imagine Debbie Francis will be really applying rigorous scrutiny to the Office of the Speaker. So, there’s an argument to made for having the investigation taken right out of the arena of the Speaker. After all, Mallard himself has something of a reputation as a bully, and so this review might be seen as being compromised by him.

For more on Mallard’s alleged bullying, see Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s ‘He was a bully’: Christine Rankin accuses ‘crude’ Trevor Mallard of bullying. In this, former head of WINZ, “Christine Rankin says she was subjected to a campaign of bullying from senior ministers who wanted her out – and that Speaker Trevor Mallard was among them”. Rankin makes some specific allegations against Mallard: “He was a bully… They were all bullies and they revelled in it.” According to this article, Rankin “says ministers would whisper and laugh about her during meetings – with Mr Mallard using language that still makes her too uncomfortable to repeat.”

Problems with employment arrangements in Parliament

The review will need to deal with some of the core issues about how Parliament operates – especially in terms of the peculiar employment arrangements of the staff that work for politicians. Although their bosses are in practice the MPs, legally they are actually employed by the two main agencies of the Parliamentary Service and Ministerial Services.

This means that, quite often when there is a problem between an MP and employee, a payment is simply made to the employee to make the problem go away. The employee leaves with a payout, and the taxpayer pays for it, with no great consequences for the MP.

This is explained by Act Party leader David Seymour: “There is no other workplace in New Zealand where you can be a bad boss and get rid of somebody, no questions asked, and some other entity – in this case the Parliamentary Service – picks up the tab. I think that’s actually the biggest problem here” – see Derek Cheng’s Winston Peters has ‘no idea’ why bullying review into Parliament is taking place.

According to this article, Seymour believes that “that MPs could essentially treat their staff with impunity”. He therefore has a solution: “I, David Seymour, should be the employer of my staff, and then I can face the same employment laws that every other employer faces.”

National Party blogger David Farrar has also commented on this problem: “The Parliamentary Service is the employer and hence they pay for any costs of any employment disputes etc. There isn’t a huge financial incentive for MPs to avoid employment disputes. If you changed the arrangement so the parliamentary party or even the MP was the formal employer, then you could well end up with better incentives as if you have to pay out a dissatisfied staff members say $15,000 that is $15,000 less money you have for newsletters etc” – see: Maggie Barry accusations.

A further problem is that the parliamentary employment agencies have a reputation for being totally subservient to the MPs, which makes the staff even more vulnerable. One former staffer is quoted by Henry Cooke saying: “When you would go to Ministerial Services they very much had the attitude of ‘Yes, Minister’ ‘Whatever the minster wants the minister gets. They didn’t give a s….’” – see Henry Cooke’s Is Parliament a safe place to work? MPs and Speaker disagree.

This is best illustrated by Melanie Reid and Cass Mason’s important article, Bullied at Parliament – and nobody helped. This tells the story “of one woman who says she received no support when she was bullied by Jami-Lee Ross.”

This account suggests that the Parliamentary Service was aware of bullying against staff of Jami-Lee Ross, but did little to help them, instead just suggesting they resign. According to the staff member working for Ross, the Parliamentary Service staff “would just say ‘Look, you’re the one in the wrong here. You’ve been given a great opportunity by giving you a job … [Ross] has done so much for you and this is how you repay him?” The staff member now says this about the Parliamentary Service: “I wish that they would realise how crazy they were for defending Jami-Lee for everything he did.”

Just how toxic is Parliament?

Already this year, there have been major scandals around allegations of bullying and misbehaviour relating to Meka Whaitiri and Jami-Lee Ross, and so it’s not surprising that people are starting to ask questions about standards in Parliament and whether these scandals are indicative of the political working environment.

Obviously Trevor Mallard thinks things are bad enough to have this inquiry, and in launching it he’s exclaimed that “Incidents have occurred over many years in this building that are unacceptable” and “I wouldn’t recommend my kids work there”. Some other MPs agree – Kris Faafoi says that he had “seen some things I probably wouldn’t want to see”.

But Shane Jones says “In my experience it has been a relatively benign place to work”. And his own boss, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, has replied to questions from the media like this: “The only person who has been seriously bullied around this place is one Winston Peters by people like you”.

Henry Cooke also has another very good article that explains the new review, its limitations, and the unique employment relations of staff – see: Extensive review into bullying and harassment at Parliament. He reports on Mallard’s observations “that reviews into law firms have inspired the review, as they were somewhat similar workplaces with entrenched hierarchies, long hours, and a powerful ‘bubble’.” It is also noted that “Parliament is often a very stressful workplace, with intense public scrutiny, party loyalty, many deadlines, and a culture of long hours.”

Lizzy Marvelly’s column is also very good on this: “I would argue that politicians are an interesting breed, and having so many of them in one place, variously vying for power, advocating for passion projects, feathering their own nests and/or trying to save the world, is a recipe for fireworks. In a game in which fortunes can change with the gusty Wellington wind, it’s not difficult to imagine that such a charged environment might drive some rather heated workplace relations. It should surprise exactly no one that bullying and improper conduct takes place at Parliament. I would even venture that it may be worse than many other workplaces.”

Finally, one of the people who knows the culture of Parliament best is the AM Show’s Duncan Garner, who shared his own experiences last week: “I’d worked in Parliament for 17 years, and I’d become like them: mean, combative, cynical and I drank too much. I had to get out” – see: Parliament review will reveal drinking, cheating, sexual abuse, bullying – Duncan Garner.

Garner concludes with what he expects: “Parliament could be a bomb site by the end of this inquiry. You see that place rewards the winner and the loser is humiliated. The more public the humiliation then job done… I expect this review to highlight the total power imbalance between the worker and the MP, the drinking, the relationships, the Wellington wife, the sex, wanted and unwanted, the daily humiliation of the weak and of the wrong.”

MIL Analysis+Reportage – EveningReport.NZ