Bullying and bad behaviour: Parliament’s perfect storm

7:58 pm on 4 December 2018

By Peter Wilson*

Opinion - High stakes, high stress, bad temper and bullying often go together and in Parliament it's 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 talks to media on her return to Parliament

Labour MP Meka Whaitiri was stripped of her portfolios after allegedly assaulting her press secretary. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Ms Barry and Ms Maxwell deny the allegations, and the fact that recently three women have been accused of bullying doesn't prove anything except that the problem isn't 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.

It's the first investigation into a problem that's been rife for decades.

High stakes, high stress, bad temper and bullying often go together and in Parliament it's a perfect storm.

The Speaker, Trevor Mallard

Speaker Trevor Mallard Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Speaker Mallard says the environment can be toxic and he wouldn't 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.

There are MPs and ministers who bully their staff, there are senior officials guilty of the same thing.

It's inexcusable but shouldn't 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.

Conservation Minister Barry announces the draft Kiwi Recovery Plan at Zealandia.

National MP Maggie Barry is accused of bullying parliamentary staff. Photo: RNZ / Tim Graham

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 isn't 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.

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's in store for them.

Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell.

Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell is accused of bullying by her former staff. Photo: Commission for Financial Capability

Their press secretaries should have put them in the picture, they should have worked out what they're going to say and be able to anticipate difficult questions.

It doesn't always work out that way, and a hesitant or inaccurate answer is seized on by the media as evidence that they don't know what they're talking about or they're being misleading.

It's difficult for a politician to recover from a blunder like that, because it will also be seized on by the opposition if it's a minister or government MP involved, or by the government if it's an opposition MP. They'll 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.

Jami-Lee at his resignation press conference

Jami-Lee Ross Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Ms Barry is an aggressive MP in the debating chamber and she's 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.

And before that there was Aaron Gilmore who, despite being National's lowest-ranked list MP, clearly believed in his own importance.

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 shouldn't 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.

Bill English will deliver his valedictory speech in Parliament this afternoon.

Sir Bill English Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

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.

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.

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