Politics

Overdue review into harassment and bullying in Parliament

The Speaker has launched a full-scale independent review into bullying and sexual harassment in Parliament following a raft of serious incidents.

Earlier this year, Labour’s Meka Whaitiri was stripped of her ministerial portfolios following a physical altercation with a staff member, and ousted National MP Jami-Lee Ross was accused of bullying and sexual harassment by multiple women.

This year has also seen revelations about sexual harassment and bullying in New Zealand law firms, including Russell McVeagh, which has a similar workplace structure to Parliament in terms of the long hours, hierarchy and bubble environment.

Incidents of bullying and harassment have long been a feature within Parliament, but this is the first independent review of this type to delve into systemic and cultural issues.

Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard said the independent external review would be carried out by Debbie Francis, who has experience doing similar work with police and defence. Francis has also carried out past reviews of Parliamentary Services.

The review is almost certain to turn up serious problems, with Mallard saying no party was exempt from these issues: “Incidents have occurred over many years in these buildings, which are unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, Francis said she expected to find “less-than-acceptable” behaviours given the hours, stress, power imbalances, and the bubble environment.

A health and safety review of Parliamentary Services was always on the cards, but recent incidents in New Zealand, and a similar review of the British Parliament led to Mallard stepping up the urgency of the review, and the level of independent resources needed to carry out a thorough and meaningful inquiry in the current environment.

The review, which will take place over the coming months with a public report due in April, would establish whether bullying and harassment had occurred, and the nature and extent of this towards staff who had worked in the building since October 2014. People who worked for Parliament outside that timeframe would not be turned away.

This included staff from Parliamentary Service, the Office of the Clerk, Ministerial Services and Secretariat Services. It would include contract staff and former staff. Party leaders and party whips would also be interviewed by Francis.

“Bullying and harassment are unacceptable in any workplace, including at Parliament,” Mallard said.

“All the agencies involved want their staff to feel safe and supported.”

While attitudes had changed since Mallard became an MP 30 years ago, there were still cultural workplace issues, he said.

“The concern that I have is, actually, we might have hit the backend of the 20th century but I’m not absolutely convinced that attitudes are quite where we would expect them to be now.”

Parliament had also dropped the ball when it came to training and supporting MPs and Parliamentary staff to be good managers.

This became apparent during the Whaitiri case, and the issue was likely to be more widespread, with some MPs offices having high staff turnover in recent years.

This was further complicated by party loyalty, which stopped people from making complaints when being pressured or bullied into things like doing extra work, or longer hours.

Recommendations

The review aimed to identify what needed to change to help improve the workplace, with Francis providing a set of recommendations with the report. While people were welcome to share specific personal stories, the public report would not focus on any individual cases – it would look at general patterns and trends, and recommendations to improve the workplace.

Recommendations could include changes to employee settlement or payout practices, Mallard said.

Currently, there was international attention on cases involving settlements and confidentiality agreements, including the size of payouts, confidentiality arrangements, who asked for the agreement, who was bound by them, and how.

This was also a live issue in New Zealand, where one of the women who had made complaints about Ross’ behaviour had signed a confidentiality agreement with the National Party.

Mallard said he wanted to make sure Parliament was following best practice on this issue, “and I don’t have confidence that at the moment we are”.

The review could also look at other tools, like making Parliamentary Service subject to the Official Information Act, or changing the employment law by which staff were governed.

Francis said she would include these changes in her recommendations, if she believed they would help Parliament become a better employer.

Confidentiality

Confidentiality was paramount, and all submissions would be stored on a separate IT system, with all files – other than the the final report – destroyed at the end of the review.

No information or documents would be given to police or any other authorities, even if someone disclosed a crime. In the case where any criminal or serious issues were disclosed, the person would be supported and given access to counselling. It was up to them to decide whether to report anything to the authorities.

Law firm MinterEllisonRuddWatts would be giving legal advice, especially around confidentiality of submitters.

Francis said she commended Parliament for setting up the review, saying every workplace should hold a mirror up to itself.

Mallard described the review as proactive, however, it was unlikely to feel that way for those who had suffered harassment and bullying in Parliament for decades.

But the rise of the #MeToo movement, public allegations of bullying and sexual harassment by Whaitiri and Ross, and the conclusion of Dame Laura Cox’s review of the British Parliament had created a perfect storm for Mallard to launch the in-depth inquiry.

Cox’s independent report into the British Parliament was damning, finding a tradition of “deference and silence” that “actively sought to cover up abusive conduct” and gave no protection to those reporting bullying or sexual harassment.

The Cox report included quotes from anonymous submitters who said meaningful change would take “several generations”.

The New Zealand review was expected to cost between $150,000 and $200,000.

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