17 Apr 2024

Abuse of MPs increased to 98% in 2022 - study

5:37 am on 17 April 2024
Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall answers questions during Question Time in Parliament's Debating Chamber.

File photo. Question Time in Parliament's Debating Chamber, August 2023. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Harassment of MPs increased on nearly every measure over eight years, with 98 percent now reporting some kind of harassment, a study has found.

The survey by Susanna Every-Palmer, Oliver Hansby and Justin Barry-Walsh from Otago University and Mental Health, Addiction and Intellectual Disability Services, was taken in October and November in 2022 and published on in the internationally recognised Frontiers in Psychiatry scientific journal on Tuesday.

It received anonymised responses from 54 MPs, including 11 ministers or associate ministers.

Overall, 98 percent of respondents reported some form of harassment - up from 87 percent in 2014 - but only 48 percent said they reported it to police, and 56 percent sought assistance from Parliamentary security.

Women were considerably more likely to face abuse on most counts than male politicians, with abuse increasing across 11 of the 12 different mediums - with social media overtaking emails, faxes and letters as the most prominent - compared to the previous study.

The only kind of abuse that did not increase in that time - alarming behaviour at an electorate office - was experienced at the same rate.

Professor Every-Palmer said the abuse experienced had significant psychosocial costs, is a threat to democracy, and requires a multi-pronged response.

"When participants described the nature and context of the harassment, three themes emerged: a changing landscape with racist, misogynistic, and extreme right rhetoric proliferating online; fear that they or someone close to them might be attacked, seriously hurt, or killed; and a feeling of inadequate support with resources not keeping pace with the changing landscape."

Beehive at night

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The authors said the sample size was too small to accurately consider if ethnicity or age was affecting the findings. They reported no financial support was received for the research, writing or publication.

Co-author Dr Justin Barry-Walsh, a forensic psychiatrist said the MPs were clear they and their staff needed more support and resources to manage the threats they were facing.

"For new politicians, de-escalation, safety, and cybersecurity training should be part of the induction package, and resources made available to increase home and office security measures," he said.

The data

Of the 54 respondents, 96 percent reported inappropriate social media contact, compared to the 60 percent of 2014. The same number - 96 percent - also reported inappropriate letters, faxes or emails, compared to the 68 percent of 2014.

Some 82 percent had unwanted approaches, up from 50 percent eight years prior, and 73 percent experienced distribution of malicious materials (48% in 2014).

The percentage who faced alarming behaviour at an electorate office was unchanged at 62 percent, while inappropriate phone calls targeted 56 percent of the MPs who responded (up from 45%).

Threats of harm affected 63 percent (up from 48%), 43 percent had their property interfered with (up from 31%), and 42 percent said they were followed (up from 22%).

Some 18 percent said they were subjected to physical attack or attempted attack (up from 15%), and several MPs reported attacks on their homes.

Women at 62.5 percent were far more likely to face gendered abuse, compared to just a quarter of men. Some 21.9 percent of women also received threats of sexual violence, something none of the men in the study reported, and more than four times as likely to face sexualised comments (40.6% for women, 10% for men).

Women were also more than twice as likely to receive death threats (34.4%) compared to men (15%), and more than five times as likely to face threats against family (28.1% compared to 5% of men), and more than three times as likely to face threats against staff (15.6% compared to 5% of men).

With the survey taking place in 2022 it was perhaps unsurprising that 57.9 percent received abuse related to Covid-19, but again this was more likely for women (62.5%) than men (50%).

"Participants felt the level of the abuse that intensified over the Covid pandemic had not abated at the time of the survey, despite the removal of the restrictions that had provoked the escalation of online hostility," the study said.

Women were also more likely to face abuse related to sexual orientation (15.6%) compared to men (5%).

However, men faced more abuse on political grounds (95%) than women (81.3%) and on religious grounds (20% compared to 15.6% of women).

A quarter of men (25%) and a third of women (33%) reported facing racial abuse.

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