20 Aug 2022

Week in Politics: Gaurav Sharma's lonely future

1:51 pm on 20 August 2022

Analysis - As Labour MP Gaurav Sharma faces almost certain expulsion and a lonely future as an independent in Parliament he's continuing to go public with explosive claims about the party and the prime minister.

MP Gaurav Sharma

Gaurav Sharma was suspended from caucus on Tuesday and now may face an explusion from Labour's caucus. Photo: Supplied / Facebook

After Gaurav Sharma is expelled from Labour's caucus on Tuesday, as he almost certainly will be, the MP will have just two options.

He can stay on as an independent until the next election, or call it quits and resign from Parliament.

The West Hamilton MP was suspended from caucus on Tuesday after going public last week with a litany of complaints and claims of "rampant bullying" within the party. The vote was unanimous.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said what he had done was grounds for expulsion but his colleagues had wanted to give him a second chance. He was offered mediation, with his status to be reviewed in December.

Sharma rejected mediation and gave an interview to Newshub on Thursday.

He repeated all his bullying allegations and then went even further - he accused the prime minister and her office of a cover-up and said the suspension had been a " kangaroo court" decision.

Ardern's office reacted with a statement on Thursday night saying caucus would meet on Tuesday "to consider a motion to expel Gaurav Sharma".

Labour's handling of this has been far from exemplary.

Ahead of the formal caucus meeting on Tuesday when the suspension decision was put to a vote there was a secret meeting on Monday evening, to which Sharma was not invited.

He was informed of the formal meeting on Tuesday but didn't attend.

He was inadvertently informed that it was taking place, by one of the participants, and subsequently had a phone conversation with another Labour MP who told him the Monday night meeting had sealed his fate.

"It's all pre-determined," the MP said.

Sharma has given Newshub a recording of the conversation, so there's no doubt about what was said. Newshub hasn't identified the MP.

Ardern told media after the formal caucus meeting that there had been no pre-determination, and the secret meeting was held because Labour MPs didn't trust Sharma and wanted to be able to talk freely about the situation.

After the Newshub interview went to air Ardern's office described the phone conversation as a misrepresentation.

The full interview is on Newshub's website.

In it he does something the party would consider unforgivable - he gives details of a workshop for 2020 intake MPs about how to handle information in election year.

Apart from not saying anything the prime minister might have to react to, they were told ways to avoid the Official Information Act - "how to talk to somebody without having a track record of it so nobody could track it down the road".

He was asked in the interview what he would do if he was expelled, and he replied that he wanted to continue serving his constituents.

Gaurav Sharma's constituency office

If the the West Hamilton MP decides to resign from Parliament, it could force a by-election. Photo: RNZ / Leah Tebbutt

Sharma is a doctor and was a GP before going to Parliament. He could decide to serve his constituents by opening up his clinic again.

If he stays on he will have a lonely life as an inconsequential MP without a party, not participating in any decision-making and being cold-shouldered by his former colleagues.

His political career has ended before it even got off the ground. That's if he ever wanted one, and it isn't obvious that he did.

He could decide he's had enough and resign from Parliament, forcing a by-election which Labour wouldn't want. If he's out for revenge, that could be a way to get it.

The seat had been held since 2008 by National and was considered to be fairly safe. Sharma won it on the back of Labour's 2020 landslide

Since then the party's support has slumped and given that by-elections are nearly always bad for governments anyway, National would very likely grab it back.

There's been speculation Labour could use the so-called waka-jumping legislation to force Sharma out of Parliament, something Ardern said hadn't been discussed.

It has that option if he continues to be dangerous, but although it would take him off the stage it wouldn't necessarily shut him up and the result would be the same as a resignation - a by-election Labour could and probably would lose.

Sharma's problems started with staffing issues in his parliamentary office. Complaints were laid against him by staff who had quit, Labour's whips got involved, Sharma reportedly refused to be mentored and the Parliamentary Service froze appointments.

One former staffer who spoke to the Herald said there was a culture of bullying in Sharma's office that was so bad they needed counselling.

Ardern said the staffing freeze was resolved on 10 August - the day before Sharma went public with the "rampant bullying" article published in the Herald .

When his claims were disputed, Sharma published a 2,600 word statement on his Facebook page. "I stand by my claims that I have been subjected to ongoing bullying by the Parliamentary Service and the Labour whips," he said.

The Parliamentary Service has since confirmed Sharma has one staffer working for him. It had offered to facilitate further appointments but no progress had been made on that.

That's not what he was suspended for. It went way beyond the relatively trivial matter of staff management.

Kieran McAnulty

Labour's former chief whip Kieran McAnulty Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

It was the way he went public with his complaints and the way he targeted former chief whip Kieran McAnulty and current Chief Whip Duncan Webb.

It was also the way he claimed other MPs had been bullied, something Ardern said she was unaware of. The unanimous vote to suspend him doesn't stack up with a bunch of unhappy victims backing Sharma.

That's what he claimed, saying he had hundreds of pages of evidence and if other victims told their stories their accounts would fill a couple of books.

The caucus would also have been intensely frustrated about the timing of Sharma's assault on his own party.

Labour MPs had been contentedly watching National deal with the Sam Uffindell scandal, knowing it was generating a great deal of negative media coverage for the opposition.

Within minutes of the Herald publishing Sharma's astonishing article, any advantage gained from National's woes was wiped out.

The Sharma story took over, "rampant bullying" was a great angle, Ardern was forced into damage control and had to call a caucus meeting.

The tables had been turned, big time.

Throughout the Sharma saga the MP has appeared to show amazing naivety about what the consequences of his actions would be.

He didn't seem to have any conception of the brutality of party politics, and what happened to MPs when their caucus turned against them.

Stuff Columnist Ben Thomas, a former National Party press secretary, said Sharma was now finding out what real bullying meant, and had an explanation for the MP's strange ignorance of political reality.

"Labour's 2020 'red tide' washed the unsuspecting Sharma up on the shores of Parliament on an unlikely electorate win," Thomas said.

"He may as well have been transported to the wonderful land of Oz."

Thomas said the unusual thing about Sharma was "an almost complete indifference to a political career and a lack of understanding of internal discipline and convention".

After the Herald published Sharma's first article, Labour set out to "defang and then destroy him", Thomas said.

Leader of ACT party David Seymour

ACT leader David Seymour said police should be able to issue infringement notices with minimal paperwork. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Parliament was in recess this week so there wasn't much else going on. ACT leader David Seymour took the opportunity to fill the gap.

He launched a new crime policy which would give police the power to deal out swift penalties to burglars.

Announcing it outside an Auckland superette which had been ram-raided, Seymour said police should be able to issue infringement notices with minimal paperwork, RNZ reported.

"We want to liberate our local cops from the paperwork and bureaucracy so they can deal with these kids," he said.

"If a cop catches a kid shoplifting, we say: 'We've gotcha, here's your punishment'."

Seymour has backing from Retail NZ and the Newmarket and Parnell business associations.

Kalpesh Patel, the ram-raided superette owner, said the policy was a long time coming.

"We've been screaming for law change," he said. "If something hasn't been working for that many years, it has to be changed."

Parliament last week repealed the three strikes law, an ACT Party initiative.

Last month a police report observed there had been a 400 percent increase in ram raids over the past five years.

*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.

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