Power Play: Rogue MP Gaurav Sharma's social media missile propels Labour into damage control

10:24 am on 16 August 2022

Labour MPs will be meeting for an urgent caucus this afternoon, as the party tries to manage the snowballing damage from the serious allegations being made by one of its own, Gaurav Sharma.

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Hamilton West MP Gaurav Sharma. Photo: Twitter / Dr Gaurav Sharma

The party will have to act swiftly to stop the MP for Hamilton West from posting further claims against some of the most senior members of the party, or neutralise his attacks - neither of which is a straight forward proposition.

Labour is in damage control, with Sharma continuing to voice sweeping and serious allegations, so far with little to back them up or give them credibility. The longer this situation continues, the greater the political risk if his narrative starts to take hold.

He timed another Facebook bombshell to drop as Prime Minister and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern took to the podium for the weekly Monday media briefing in the Beehive theatrette; as she was detailing a new deployment to Ukraine, reporters were taking in his latest social media missile.

RNZ understands complaints from staff in his own office were the genesis of this whole dispute; faced with a number of complaints and a high turnover, the decision was made to impose a hiring freeze while Sharma underwent people management training, infuriating him further.

So began months of complaints and counter claims from him, culminating in the explosive op-ed in the Herald last week; he has continued to use social media to defend his corner and make further, and more detailed, allegations.

He claims to be the victim of a bullying and control campaign that spans the whip's office, Parliamentary Service and the Prime Minister's office.

Ardern says making sure staff are supported in any employment disputes with MPs is the focus.

Employment breakdowns are now treated differently after the Debbie Francis report criticised the widespread practice of paying off the staff member and sending them packing if the working relationship with the MP broke down, leaving them in place to carry on with no consequences. As well as the impact on the staff who had to leave, it all happened under a shroud of secrecy, mainly benefiting the MP, because there were non-disclosure agreements involved.

While "ultimately" Ardern says the new approach is the "right move ... [it] does bring some extra layers of complexity".

She also backed the whips saying it's their job to make sure MPs are fulfilling their duties, which meant sometime leave was denied, for example, but she denied a widespread culture problem saying that did not constitute bullying. She also noted the internal avenues MPs have if they want to complain, including contacting the leader directly, which she says did not happen.

Labour MPs RNZ spoke with Monday night were "surprised and saddened" by Sharma's claims, and said they'd experienced none of the alleged treatment by past or present whips.

This is spiralling out of control for the governing party as Sharma continues to push out allegations, with Labour on the back foot trying to defend some matters covered by employment confidentiality, some anonymous so they're not sure exactly where it's coming from or based on, and facing accusations of widespread bullying in its ranks.

Ardern was left to face a barrage of questions about the post during her media briefing and what Labour intended to do about it, without the change to eyeball his latest accusations.

The caucus can decide how they will run this meeting, but on face value there would be enough for him to face accusations of breaches of Labour's rules, specifically around bring the party into disrepute and could choose to pursue censure, suspension or even expulsion.

If Sharma agrees to participate in the special caucus meeting, it's a chance for him to put his case, and for MPs then to thrash it out in private. The next question is how far his colleagues are prepared to go following his direct, and very public, attacks. Suspension is shaping up as the most likely option.

If his public attitude towards Labour and some of its most senior people is anything to go by this could be a humdinger of a caucus meeting, with emotions running high and careers at stake.

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