Comment

Inquiry’s sunlight the best disinfectant for Parliament

Trevor Mallard's decision to launch an inquiry into bullying and sexual harassment at Parliament is a chance for politicians to be held to the same standards as the rest of society, Sam Sachdeva writes.

On the face of it, it would be easy to dismiss Speaker Trevor Mallard's inquiry into bullying and harassment at Parliament as just another working group destined to deliver a well-intended but possibly fruitless report.

But it should take only a moment or two of reflection to realise that Mallard's decision should be seen as a welcome opportunity to hold the feet of politicians and others to the fire, and to ensure that the Beehive and wider parliamentary complex is a healthy environment for workers.

Traditionalists have long defended Parliament's reputation as a "bearpit" as a necessary evil to ensure that those in power are held to account.

That may be true when it comes to ministers and governments writ large, but it seems a convenient fig leaf to cover up wider mistreatment of employees that go beyond a reasonably robust working relationship.

Of course, Parliament provides a unique environment in some regards.

Speaking about the inquiry, Mallard expressed concerns about loyalty complicating the willingness of staff to make complaints about high workloads or long hours, while the ability of politicians to dismiss the employees on the basis of "irreconcilable differences" also distinguishes them from most workplaces.

But on balance, the public have every right to expect that their elected representatives should be held to the same standards that apply in their own workplaces.

One shortcoming highlighted in law firm Russell McVeagh's internal inquiry into its handling of sexual harassment complaints, remarked upon by Justice Minister Andrew Little, was the gap between the legal talents which saw lawyers rise to partnership positions and the skills needed to manage those below them.

Some MPs must find themselves in a similar position, with the campaigning abilities which won them a seat or a high spot on their party's list a far remove from the talents needed to oversee the staff charged with handling their affairs.

Too often, there have been whispers after the fact about MPs whose inability to retain employees was supposedly well known, with Meka Whaitiri and Jami-Lee Ross the most recent examples.

If that was true, why weren't those in a position to act informed sooner? It is a question in need of a proper answer.

Going back further, the resignation of Todd Barclay following a Newsroom investigation was the result of either a young politician poorly advised by his mentors and government officials, or a first-term MP who somehow felt able to act with impunity against his staff - either of which points to a failure in the system.

A similar inquiry into sexual harassment and bullying at Westminster in the UK found a tradition of "deference and silence" which helped to cover up misconduct, as well as some "atrocious treatment of young women by MPs".

Whether the same problems are found here is not yet clear, but Mallard is right to signal problems with, and possible changes to, the "onboarding" process for new MPs as well as the employee settlement and payout practices which have provided a cloak for misconduct in the past.

The Speaker would do well to look at the bigger issues, such as why the Parliamentary Service continues to be exempt from the Official Information Act despite numerous reviews recommending that it be brought within the scope of the legislation.

Making the organisation subject to official information requests would not magically solve cases of bullying and harassment, but the threat of the spotlight could make MPs think twice about dismissing staff or treating them poorly.

As they say, sunlight is the best disinfectant - and the darker recesses of Parliament House and the Beehive could do with a thorough clean.

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