15 Aug 2022

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says Labour caucus to meet over Gaurav Sharma situation

5:21 pm on 15 August 2022

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the Labour caucus will meet this week to deal with the Gaurav Sharma situation.

The caucus had not been due to meet until next Tuesday, because it is a recess week at Parliament.

Ardern has been fending off accusations of bullying within the government from her party's own Hamilton West MP Gaurav Sharma, who had an article published and doubled down in a social media post at the end of last week.

Sharma also said his claims of misspent taxpayer funding were hushed up, although the Parliamentary Service said his claims were investigated and no spending rules were broken.

In the latest development this afternoon, Sharma also shared screenshots on social media of messages he claimed were from fellow MPs also alleging bullying by former whip Kieran McAnulty.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 02: Dr Gaurav Sharma arrives at a Labour caucus meeting on November 02, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand. Labour's Jacinda Ardern claimed a second term as prime minister after claiming a majority in the 2020 New Zealand General Election on Saturday 17 October, claiming 64 seats.  (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Hamilton West MP Gaurav Sharma Photo: Getty / Hagen Hopkins

RNZ has repeatedly sought comment from McAnulty but he has not yet responded.

The screenshots were not attributed to specific individuals, but included complaints about serious mental health concerns and wanting to avoid returning to Parliament.

Sharma said one MP spent almost three hours in tears talking about how they were being treated, and he raised concerns with Ardern's chief of staff but nothing was done.

"Instead a few months later Kieran was promoted to a Minister of the Crown unfortunately sending a message to caucus members being bullied that their well-being and concerns didn't matter."

Labour caucus to meet this week

In a post-Cabinet media briefing this afternoon, Ardern said Labour would seek a resolution in a caucus meeting this week, "but front and centre will always be the wellbeing of our staff but also of our MPs".

No other MPs had raised with her that they felt bullied by the whip's office, she said.

"There will be times when there won't necessarily be agreement over their decisions. We do always need to make sure that they have avenues to raise disputes when they arise, I see that as very different to whether or not people believe they've been bullied."

She agreed there needed to be an alternative for MPs to raising concerns with the whips, but said the next rung up would be the deputy leader and leader of the party - Kelvin Davis and Ardern herself.

"Whilst a member of my staff was approached about six months ago, I never have been."

She said the party's rules were very clear that where the whips - who are responsible for party discipline and administration - were unable to resolve a matter, it could be elevated to the leader, people nominated by the leader, or lastly the caucus.

"That's very clear. As I've set out, those avenues have not always been used in this case", Ardern said.

She had exchanged some communication with Dr Sharma, she said, "but again I don't think it's in anyone's best interests to traverse that in great detail".

She said the way the matter was raised in the public domain raised concerns for the wellbeing of the MPs in question, but also for the wellbeing of their staff members. There were also privacy concerns to take into consideration, with staff easily identifiable.

Decisions over whether Sharma would be removed or whether the relationship was salvageable would be left to the caucus - as is also set out in party rules - she said.

"Ultimately my goal as the Labour leader is to have the Labour team work as a team, but sometimes that means allowing the team to address where they feel there's been a serious issue with one of our members .... here I genuinely want to hear what the view of his peers is, because that is my job."

Labour MP Kieren McAnulty

Former chief whip for Labour Kieran McAnulty Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

She said such meetings of caucus outside of sitting weeks were not unusual, and Sharma would also be invited to attend.

"When it comes to what happens next ... that's not something for me to predetermine here, that's something for caucus."

The meeting would also cover whether the decisions made in Sharma's case could have been more timely, although the delays were because "next steps were contingent on some of the interventions to deal with some of those management issues being accepted".

"But I do think that trying to find ways to make sure there's quicker resolution will be better for staff and for MPs."

She said she had seen interventions from former party whip McAnulty and current chief whip Duncan Webb used because concerns were raised by staff members around the management of Sharma's team.

"It's clear that there wasn't always agreement that was necessary, by Gaurav. But that doesn't necessarily constitute what he has characterised as bullying. I've looked at those processes, I've looked at those interventions. Whilst I don't believe they have substantiated his claims of bullying we'll always look to improve our processes, because some of them are new and they're there to look after our staff, but ultimately to also look after our MPs."

It was in everyone's interest to resolve the situation as soon as possible, she said.

Improving the culture at Parliament?

Ardern was confident the communication between the leader's office and the whips was as it should have been.

Various changes to the way staff are managed at Parliament were brought in as a result of the Francis review which looked into a bullying culture there in May 2019.

"It probably is understandable, that given that these are early days for some of these processes that they could do with some refinement. And we should be open to that," Ardern said.

One of the issues raised by Sharma was the Parliamentary Service working alongside the whips, "and that is a result of the Francis review ... those triangular relationships whilst ultimately I think being the right move, does bring some extra layers of complexity," she said.

The support provided for MPs had to be consistent and meet a very high-pressure environment, she said.

"Is this a tough place to be? Yes, and that's why we have for instance ensured that in this new intake we have professional supervision on offer, we have management coaching on offer, professional development on offer, and I can tell you that is a vast improvement on what I have seen in this place over the past 10 years."

She said Parliament had also been working on establishing a conduct commissioner. She believed there was a reason for such a role and Labour supported the creation of such a role.

"Having that extra person will only benefit this environment and that's one of the reasons why we support it."

"We've been very focused since of course we were privileged enough to be elected in 2020 with this enlarged team to make sure that our focus is to be unified, to work collectively and collaboratively, and to date we've done a pretty good job of doing that. I want to ensure that we continue to take that team approach into resolving this issue.

She did not believe it was a problem that she could not say whether any further Labour MPs had disputes with their staff.

"There are 230-plus people employed across our 65 MPs and from time to time there may be a minor disagreement that may need resolution. I think people would understand if that may not be escalated to me.

"I want to be sure that I'm not misleading you on if there are any issues, minor or significant. If it is significant of course I'd want to know because we do need to make interventions in those cases."

She said if there were repetitive issues between MPs and their staff she would more than likely be advised, but if an issue was singular she may not be.

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