Week in Politics: Parliament inquiry could uncover appalling behaviour

5:34 pm on 30 November 2018

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - Speaker Trevor Mallard decides Parliament should set its own house in order, the immigration minister gets a mauling and NZ First gets its way with workplace legislation.

The Speaker, Trevor Mallard enters the House

The Speaker, Trevor Mallard enters the House Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Parliament is notoriously averse to looking into itself or its members, so Mr Mallard's announcement that there was going to be an inquiry into bullying was, to say the least, surprising.

Reaction was immediate, which wasn't surprising. Newshub's Duncan Garner, who worked in the Press Gallery for 17 years, said it would uncover drinking, cheating, sexual abuse, bullying and "the daily humiliation of the weak by the strong".

Garner has nailed it. Debatable behaviour has been going on for decades in Parliament. This inquiry will go back only to 2014, myriad incidents before then will be buried forever because there almost certainly won't be another inquiry.

And it will be carried out in a totally confidential environment. No-one, Mr Mallard said, would be identified or identifiable. You bet they won't. Can't have any political careers damaged.

It's not clear what will happen should evidence of criminal acts be uncovered. Presumably nothing because, according to Mr Mallard, the inquiry has nothing to do with blame.

He thinks MPs need extensive training on handling staff and says many arrive with no experience at all. He may have a point, but do people need to be trained to be decent human beings and to treat staff and others fairly? Surely that comes naturally. Or not.

The Speaker has something of a reputation himself, having punched former MP Tau Henare in the lobby of the debating chamber.

Former public service chief executive Christine Rankin said she laughed out loud when she heard him announce the inquiry.

She said she was relentlessly bullied by senior Labour Party ministers after they took power in 1999 - including Mr Mallard.

"He was a bully. They were all bullies and they revelled in it," she told Newshub. "He was crude and he was rude and it was directed at me."

Newshub put Ms Rankin's comments to Mr Mallard, but his office told them he won't comment on specific allegations.

Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters in the House

Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters in the House Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

This week marked the beginning of the last session of Parliament before the summer recess and the government moved swiftly to get its workplace relations legislation back on track.

The bill rewrites labour laws and the intention was to put them back to where they were before National came to power in 2008, with some exceptions.

It was held up when NZ First objected to some of its provisions - although by then it had been reported back by a select committee.

Winston Peters caused ministerial anguish by saying it was still "work in progress" and some of its clauses had to be reworked before his party agreed to support it through its final stages.

The legislation is now more business friendly. Collective bargaining has been strengthened but companies can opt out of multi-employer bargaining negotiations if they have "reasonable grounds" to do so.

There's likely to be some strife over the definition of "reasonable grounds" down the track, but the bill is safe. The right of union representatives to enter workplaces had been restricted - an issue businesses were particularly unhappy about.

The bill went through its second reading and the changes will be made during its committee stage.

Iain Lees-Galloway, the workplace relations minister, is in charge of the bill and handled the NZ First problem quietly and competently.

Within his other portfolio, life wasn't quiet at all. He's the minister of immigration and made the ill-fated decision to grant residency to convicted Czech drug smuggler Karel Sroubek.

This week he reversed that, and Sroubek is now liable for deportation when he finishes his prison sentence.

Mr Lees-Galloway said the information from his department, which he relied on to make his original decision, had been incomplete. He admitted he should have asked more questions, and could have handled the issue better.

 Iain Lees-Galloway and Karel Sroubek

Iain Lees-Galloway and Karel Sroubek Photo: RNZ / Carmen Bird Photography

It's been a fiasco, and became a huge political issue when National picked up on it and started digging into Sroubek's past. Opposition MPs embarrassed the government by revealing information about Sroubek in Parliament and demanding Mr Lees-Galloway's resignation.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was also in the firing line, and didn't do well when she said Kiwis should "read between the lines" if they wanted to know why Sroubek had been granted residence.

Now that has all changed, and he's no longer a desirable resident.

On Wednesday, National was granted an urgent debate in Parliament on the reversed decision, and MPs again ripped into Mr Lees-Galloway.

They said he clearly spent little time on the original decision, he totally lost the plot when he decided Sroubek should stay, and couldn't be trusted to make decisions in any similar cases that could come up in future.

For his part, Mr Lees-Galloway said he was reviewing the process for ministerial discretion which he had "inherited" from the previous government.

And finally - what goes round comes round.

Premier House, the prime minister's official residence, is to be renovated and security is to be beefed up at a cost of $3 million.

It was refurbished in 2011 when National was in power, and Labour had plenty to say about that. The painting bill was $215,000, carpets cost $55,366 and new blinds $3000.

"Every Kiwi family struggling to pay the bills knows that if you can't afford to pay for dinner, new carpets and curtains for the lounge get pushed a long way down the list," Chris Hipkins said.

Mr Hipkins is now the minister responsible for ministerial services, and signed off the $3m. He thinks that amount is "not too much" and Premier House is in "a pretty run-down state".

*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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