Storm in Parliament over bullying and bad behaviour

Peter Wilson (RNZ)
Wellington, December 5, 2018
High stakes, high stress, bad temper and bullying often go together and in Parliament; it is a perfect storm.
Meka Whaitiri was stripped of her portfolios after allegedly assaulting her Press Secretary, National MP Maggie Barry has been accused of treating her staff badly and Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell has been stood down while bullying allegations made by former employees are investigated.


Labour MP Meka Whaitiri was stripped of her portfolios after allegedly assaulting her press secretary (Photo by Phil Smith for VNP)
Not just powerful men
Ms Barry and Ms Maxwell deny the allegations, and the fact that recently three women have been accused of bullying does not prove anything except that the problem is not restricted to powerful men.
What has become public in the last few days is almost certainly the tip of a nasty iceberg, and an increasing number of revelations are likely as employees feel empowered by the inquiry into bullying and harassment in Parliament announced by Speaker Trevor Mallard.


Speaker Trevor Mallard (Photo by Phil Smith for VNP)
It is the first investigation into a problem that has been rife for decades.
High stakes, high stress, bad temper and bullying often go together and in Parliament it’s a perfect storm.
Hostile environment
Speaker Mallard says the environment can be toxic and he would not recommend it to his children as a place to work.
It often is toxic, and anyone who has worked there for any length of time knows that.


National MP Maggie Barry is accused of bullying parliamentary staff (Photo for RNZ by Tim Graham)
There are MPs and ministers who bully their staff, there are senior officials guilty of the same thing. It is inexcusable but should not be surprising, because Parliament is by its nature a hostile environment.
Opposition MPs criticise and vilify government MPs, and they in turn are attacked by the other side. That’s a way of life in an adversarial political system.
Multiplier effect
However, the hostility can and does boil over. An MP who comes out the Debating Chamber furious about being humiliated and encounters an errant staffer is not likely to be an understanding boss.
And when a mistake made by an official leads to public embarrassment, such as relying on incorrect information, the reaction can be dire.


Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell is accused of bullying by her former staff (Photo by Commission for Financial Capability)
When MPs and Ministers make their way through the cordon of press gallery reporters waiting for them on what is known as the bridge, the battleground that leads to the Debating Chamber, they expect to know what is in store for them.
Their Press Secretaries should have put them in the picture, they should have worked out what they are going to say and be able to anticipate difficult questions.
It does not always work out that way, and a hesitant or inaccurate answer is seized on by the media as evidence that they do not know what they are talking about or they are being misleading.
Slow recovery
It is difficult for a politician to recover from a blunder like that, because it will also be seized on by the opposition if it is a Minister or Government MP involved, or by the government if it is an opposition MP.
They will go for the throat.
It was Ms Whaitiri missing a photo opportunity with the Prime Minister that led to the encounter with her Press Secretary that ended up with the secretary allegedly bruised and the minister sacked.
Ms Barry is an aggressive MP in the Debating Chamber and she has been accused of behaving in a similar way to her staff.
Before that, Jami-Lee Ross was accused of harassment by several women amid the meltdown that ended with him quitting the National Party.


Jami-Lee Ross (Photo by Phil Smith for VNP)
And before that there was Aaron Gilmore who, despite being National’s lowest-ranked list MP, clearly believed in his own importance.
Not everyone is bad
It was his “do you know who I am?” outburst at a waiter in a restaurant which began the ignominious slide which ended with his resignation.
The behaviour of these individuals should not be seen as tarnishing all MPs and ministers.
They don’t all let bad temper get the better of them, they don’t all allow stress to dictate their behaviour.
Former Prime Minister and Finance Minister Sir Bill English, for example, had a reputation for being a really good boss to work for and the pressure he was often under was as high as it gets. He was said to never raise his voice in the office.


Sir Bill English (Photo by Richard Tindiller for RNZ)
Bad behaviour has been part of Parliamentary life for a long time but Mr Mallard’s inquiry goes back only to October 2014, the beginning of the last Parliament.
It won’t deal with what was arguably an even more toxic environment – the pre-MMP era when National and Labour were brutal contenders for power.
The introduction of minor parties and the need for coalitions has tempered Parliament in both its processes and its attitudes.
Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament’s Press Gallery, 22 years as NZPA’s Political Editor and seven as Parliamentary Bureau Chief for NZ Newswire. Indian Newslink has published the above Report and Pictures under a Special Agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

 

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