Bad apples in the Parliament's barrel

11:12 pm on 25 May 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Opinion - The report that has just revealed serious bullying, sexual harassment and even sexual assault in Parliament won't surprise anyone who has worked there.

Parliament buildings

Parliament buildings Photo: Daniela Maoate-Cox

The inquiry set up by Speaker Trevor Mallard went back to October 2014 and investigated a situation that's existed for decades with little or no redress for the victims.

Now it has been laid bare in the report by independent reviewer Debbie Francis but still the elected representatives guilty of grossly abusing their positions remain anonymous and will likely never be publicly identified.

It's clear from the report that most MPs aren't atrocious bullies or sexual predators.

"There's a few who are various shades of sh**s ... everyone knows who they are, and no one ever challenges them," one respondent said.

Another spoke of "a known minority" whose conduct was unacceptable.

Yet another described the fundamental problem as a power imbalance. "It's a master-servant relationship and they're treated like gods."

MPs don't really have much power, unless they're Cabinet ministers, and backbenchers have hardly any. But for some of them, being elected to Parliament does give them a sense of vast importance and entitlement.

And when bullies feel that way, there's usually going to be victims.

It depends very much on the nature of the individual - and unfortunately Parliament may have more than its share of bad apples.

Nasty attitudes and bad behaviour in Parliament is often attributed, at least in part, to the combative nature of the place. It's aggressive, inside and outside the debating chamber.

The report acknowledges this, saying its character is unique with high pressure, long hours, unusual and complex employment arrangements, intense media scrutiny and a high level of competition even within political parties.

All that is true, but many MPs handle it without abusing or harassing their staff. For everyone who behaves badly, there are others whose employees speak of them as great people to work for.

Again, it is the nature of the individual.

The most alarming aspect of the report is the reference to three alleged incidents Ms Francis considered were "extremely serious, and some appeared to be part of a multi-year pattern of predatory behaviour".

They all related to male on female violence and may be the subject of further investigations, she said.

It will be interesting to see whether anything comes of that.

Something that came through strongly from the respondents was an almost total lack of empowerment to do anything about the egregious behaviour they had suffered from.

One who did complain was told "why not just try to talk it out with him". That's a blazing indictment on the system and an example of just how inadequately the problems are perceived.

What Speaker Mallard must do now is decide what can be done to change a culture in which perpetrators feel they can get away with almost anything, and obviously some of them have.

The report puts up numerous recommendations, including establishing a special advisory board to oversee the transformation of Parliament's culture. It will have to have teeth if it is to do any good.

Another is for party leaders to "affirm a no-tolerance approach" to bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. That could have an impact, because the one thing most MPs fear is not being chosen for re-election.

For it to work, party leaders would have to take a much harder line that simply affirming their no-tolerance approach.

What it really needs is a system where victims can report what has happened to them in the knowledge that they will be listened to, that action will be taken and that their careers won't be damaged. Parliament has a long way to go.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, NZPA political editor for 22 years and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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