23 Aug 2022

Labour MPs say Gaurav Sharma has lost their trust

11:50 am on 23 August 2022

Labour MPs who arrived at Parliament today ahead of the caucus meeting to vote on expelling Gaurav Sharma said they didn't trust him.

Dr Gaurav Sharma arrives at parliament before a caucus meeting that will determine if he is expelled from the Labour Party

Gaurav Sharma arriving at Parliament today. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Sharma was suspended from the caucus last week for repeated breaches of trust.

On his way to Parliament this morning, Dr Sharma said he planned to present his case at the caucus meeting.

"I want my case heard, whether it's predetermined or not ... there needs to be an independent investigation so that my name can be cleared, as I've said if anybody has made any claims against me - but also an independent investigation into the claims that I've made.

"There are other MPs in a similar situation who have been affected by bullying. I've been able to provide screenshots ... they're all bullies and as I've said there's multiple colleagues who are going through the same situation."

Whips reject accusations of bullying

One of the primary accusations Sharma has levelled at the party has been complaints of bullying by the Labour whips, which he said was enabled by the Parliamentary Service.

Former chief whip Kieran McAnulty has borne the brunt of the accusations, along with the whips office generally. He said the past 13 days had been "incredibly tough".

"It's really awful to be accused of something that isn't true in any instance, but to then have that play out in the public, it's been really, really tough."

He said he would be happy to participate in any kind of investigative process, but Sharma's claims had been looked into and rejected.

Kieran McAnulty

Kieran McAnulty Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"I haven't thrown around labels throughout this whole thing, I'm not going to start now. I know that what I've been accused of isn't true and I stand by my record on that and I point to the support that I've had from colleagues around my approach.

"Ultimately at the core of this is concerns that were raised by staff and we brought in a process that provided a fair process to deal with those - not just taking the concerns seriously but also making it fair for MPs as well."

McAnulty said he had worked hard to make the Parliament environment more welcoming to new MPs.

"Through my time as junior whip in the first term it became clear to me Parliament was a sink-or-swim environment, and I wanted to do what I could do to change that," he said.

"The professional development programme was all about identifying areas where people could develop and offering that support - that could be in the form of a mentor, that could be in the form of a coach, it could also just be linking them up to a single MP ... there's so many aspects to an MP's job that is daunting, even just standing and talking in the house and having opposition members heckling you.

"I worked really closely with Ruth Dyson, an extremely experienced MP, then I had Michael Wood as chief whip before I became chief whip. I was definitely ready to take on that role, and ... it was through my observations as a new MP that I realised the need to bring in a professional development programme.

"I put together a proposal, got financial support for that, and it's a really robust programme that is available to 65 MPs.

"I just have to maintain faith that those that know me know that I'm not a bully, I've never bullied anybody - and they know that the accusations are false."

The current chief whip, Duncan Webb, said he had never yelled at an MP that he knew of, and he took his job very seriously.

"My job's to help MPs at their job, and I think I do that to the best of my ability... It involves if anything, nurturing and helping MPs do their job as best they can."

He also rejected Sharma's claims about MPs being coached to avoid the OIA.

"Knowing OIA is an important part of the job and I think that's just a natural part of talking about it and just making sure people know what the rules are."

Webb said he was really happy with the way he and the rest of the whips team had managed Sharma.

"He's got an opportunity now to speak about his conduct and what his complaints are and we'll listen to him then... I don't think there was any failure on the part of the whips team."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the party had worked hard on creating an open environment for MPs.

"You would have heard from our MPs themselves today ... to say they're scared would be to imply they're scared of me, I don't think that many would argue that is the case.

"Ultimately whether of not he is expelled will be a decision for caucus. The rules set out really clearly the process. He is by rights able of course to speak - as he was at the last meeting but chose not to attend - and then there is a full ballot in order to confirm a decision.

"He has certainly made statements that are blatantly incorrect and he's referred to members of staff, MPs and others who actually haven't had a chance to defend themselves, and that makes me deeply uncomfortable."

Caucus members say Sharma lost their trust

MPs by and large assured reporters the meeting's outcome had not been predetermined, but many spoke openly about not trusting Dr Sharma.

Dr Gaurav Sharma arrives at parliament before a caucus meeting that will determine if he is expelled from the Labour Party

Dr Sharma arrives at Parliament before a meeting that will determine whether he is expelled from Labour's caucus. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Auckland-based List MP Helen White came into Parliament the same year as Dr Sharma and said she had kept in touch with him to ensure his wellbeing.

"I think that he's made his own choices and so I ... think he's going into this with his eyes open. I think he's been given good, fair treatment, been offered the mediation, suspension... I've talked to him quite a lot and I think it was really important that there was a welfare check on him regularly, so I've done that."

She said the caucus had strong and good communication and she had not seen or experienced any bullying or been yelled at.

"I've had a really good experience. When I've done something wrong Kieran [McAnulty] has been actually really lovely to me, and so have the others, and I have a great respect for those people involved. Like, Duncan [Webb] is a really good person so that is not my experience."

"It's not that kind of team, and I look back on the history of Parliament and I think we've got a long way to go but I think we've come a very long way, it's a really collegial environment in comparison."

Labour MP Helen White gives her maiden speech to the House

Helen White Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

She rejected Sharma's claim that MPs had been coached to avoid the Official Information Act.

"No, I think that by the time Gaurav was looking at those things he was probably looking through a lens, like, listening differently and that just happens. I've seen that in employment relationships a lot where people just can't, they are no longer feeling anything but looking for those defences so yeah, it's not something that I'm unfamiliar with as a process. People hear what they want to hear, especially when they're angry."

List MP Ibrahim Omer also entered Parliament at the same time and said he had a lot of contact with Sharma as part of the ethnic caucus.

"I think a lot has been said about it, you would have heard the prime minister talking about it quite a lot. I think the problem for me is the caucus tried to engage, he didn't respond, and that is a problem. How do you engage with someone who's not willing, just not engaging but throwing accusations around?

"He was part of the team obviously but, you know, his level of engagement - not everyone engaged at the same level. But he was pretty much part of the team.

"I have never seen anyone being bullied and I have engaged with Gaurav. We could talk every now and then - he never indicated to me that he was being bullied, I've never seen anyone being bullied."

He also rejected the claim MPs had been coached to avoid the OIA.

"No, not at all. The class of 2020 got together for the purpose of professional development and that was not the only one, that was probably about the third professional development session that we had and Gaurav was part of the first one that we had in Auckland. So this was really to help the MPs to get around.

"You know, we all are new, we don't know how things work sometimes, but we are learning ... that's what that session was about."

He said the question of trust was somewhat irrelevant now.

"I think after the question of trust was raised, he made an interview, explosive interview, so I think the question of trust is irrelevant now."

Diversity, Inclusion and Ethnic Communities Minister Priyanca Radhakrishnan said Sharma had breached caucus rules.

"That's what's happened with the suspension. He's continued to, and we'll meet today and discuss what happens next."

"We haven't heard his side, have we, because he didn't turn up to caucus. So we'll see what happens next."

MP for Northland Willow Jean-Prime said nothing had been predetermined but she did not trust Sharma.

"He's got an opportunity to come to caucus this morning and talk through it with us, I'm hoping that he may attend."

Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti said she had no experience of bullying within the caucus whatsoever.

"Absolutely not ... in fact all I can say is I've had great experiences within the caucus."

Commerce Minister David Clark said the caucus was unified, despite Sharma's claims of bullying.

"We're a unified caucus very focussed on what we came here to do, and there'll be a discussion... I think it's pretty clear, my colleagues are people that I trust and we'll be having a conversation today and any comment will wait till after."

List MP Camilla Belich said Sharma had been given a fair process.

"I think it's a real shame that he didn't take up the offer of mediation - I think that's the process most New Zealand workers would have their workplace issues resolved is through that mediation process so I'm really disappointed he didn't get to do that.

"He has definitely lost my trust through his behaviour, so that's very upsetting and disappointing."

She also said she had not experienced any bullying.

"I have the utmost respect for my colleagues, it's not something I've experienced at all. As you'd know I had a baby last year, I took my baby along to most of our caucus meetings, I found it a really supportive environment."

MP for Palmerston North Tangi Utikere said he didn't trust Sharma, and "members in the caucus will have reflected in the last wee while, and reflect on his action, and we'll form our own views on that".

Transport Minister Michael Wood said he thought the offer of mediation was a good opportunity for all the issues Sharma had raised to be talked through.

"I think that was a good and fair and reasonable and constructive way of trying to work through these issues. That wasn't taken," he said.

"It's very hard to trust someone when we've seen some of the behaviour over the last week, but there'll be an opportunity for that discussion to be had and for him to have a say if he wants to.

"As is well known there is an expulsion motion on the table, but we'll work through a proper process around that before anything is decided. Obviously there are real concerns about his behaviour and the lack of trust that caucus colleagues have in him but as I say we'll work through a process and decide at our meeting today."

David Parker said Sharma's claims were just attention-seeking behaviour.

"I know for example of Kieran McAnulty that he's trustworthy, mature and I believe him."

He said the claims about McAnulty were wrong.

Sharma said the trust had been "broken from the other side".

Party President Claire Szabó said she would not be making any comment ahead of caucus this morning.

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