Week in Review

Parliament bullying: in their own words

Some of the most damaging words in the report into bullying and harassment at Parliament come directly from the lips of those who spoke to reviewer Debbie Francis or made written submissions.

The independent report has raised serious concerns about the workplace culture. Below are some of the most telling quotes from the document.

On the importance of a healthy parliamentary culture:

“Just because it’s politics and people are passionate doesn’t mean any of us can behave like arseholes around this place. It’s a privilege to serve here, and the people who put us here expect us to lead and want to respect us as leaders.” - MP

On Parliament's high-intensity culture:

“I realised that, for the time I serve here, there is no way that I can nurture myself and there is no safe place for me. Don’t get me wrong, I chose this job and it’s a huge privilege, but it comes at high personal and family cost.” - MP

“This workplace is so ridiculously demanding that only 24-year olds and older people can survive in here and then only with extensive self-medication. Anyone sane or with a family just gets out.” - staffer

“It’s the weird intimacy of the parliamentary cultural bubble that can deform even a strong character. Every Friday when I get to my electorate I think ‘thank God for real New Zealanders keeping me grounded’.” - MP

On the lack of leadership development:

“Some of them [MPs] come in as really experienced people leaders and it shows once they get here...For others, it can be like taking a blue-collar worker and making them CEO overnight. They have no idea about how to lead people or model behaviours that set the right tone. They also sometimes lack the self-awareness to see they need some training. The result is some great leaders and some bloody awful ones.” - survey respondent

“When I compare myself to the CEOs and leaders with whom I engage, it feels like they’ve had all the development the world has to offer and I’ve had none, mostly because we’re all too afraid of the taxpayer reaction to that sort of spending. And yet, in leadership terms, this is the hardest gig there is.” - MP

Parliament bullying inquiry reviewer Debbie Francis leans heavily on the words of those who spoke to her or shared their views for her report. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

On complex and uncertain employment relationships:

“In my head my boss is the Parliamentary Service. In my heart it’s my MP." - survey respondent

“MPs don’t like to be told what to do about staff. MPs don’t read any of those emails about employment things from the Parliamentary Service.” - staffer

“HR said to me, ‘at the end of the day, MPs don’t change. We can’t tell them how to treat their staff because they’re elected’.” - staffer

“It’s disgraceful in a 21st century workplace that a Member’s relative or a Party hack with none of the required skills can be hired with no scrutiny or little push back.” - survey respondent

“I get the privilege of working in this fascinating place on stuff that makes a difference to New Zealand but every day I worry I’ll stuff something up and me and my reputation will be gone by lunchtime. When you’ve got a mortgage and a family, it frightens you all the time.” - Ministerial Services employee

“I’d never speak out about any bad stuff to anyone under any circumstance. As soon as I do, I get branded a troublemaker and branded as disloyal to my boss and the Party. Next time the music starts up at election time, there won’t be a chair for me. Or, even before that, I just get evented out [terminated] with no reference and a hole in my CV.” - Parliamentary Service employee

“This whole thing is so incredibly precarious. You just know that, short of your MP pointing a gun at you…you’re the one that’s going to get the chop.” - survey respondent

On the lack of diversity in the workforce:

“This is a place for idealistic 24-year olds or older women…it’s stereotypical but partly true for all that.” - survey respondent

“Whenever I come here, I know that I have to suspend my Māoriness. All my values, like manaakitanga, must be put into abeyance in te ana o te raiona. My Māori constituents know this and pity me for it.” - MP

“There is a quiet understanding that some roles simply cannot be filled by parents (particularly mothers) of pre-teens because of the excessive evening hours required.” - survey respondent

"This whole place feels so white and middle class." - survey respondent

A wordgram from the report of the most common words used to describe the experience of working at Parliament. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

On poor HR practices:

"It’s as if, every election, 120 small businesses start up from scratch, with nothing to guide them. It’s like a triennial groundhog day.” - staffer

“How can the most complex, sophisticated and demanding workplace in New Zealand have such an antiquated, unprofessional, essentially casualised workforce model?” - staffer

"Because there’s a code of silence among [MPs] about who behaves poorly, and no transparent reporting on key metrics, a few of them just keep on getting away with stuff for years." - survey respondent

"When I’ve experienced bullying, management just end up putting it back on you, say you have no evidence, don’t listen, don’t take action, say you made it up to suit yourself.” - survey respondent

”When I walked into HR it was like I walked into the lion’s den. I got interrogated and [the accused] just kept on working.” - survey respondent

“HR and managers were personally supportive, but the prevailing culture was to protect and insulate ministers. That’s how they roll. They’ll always put the minister on a pedestal. It made me feel horribly expendable.” - Ministerial Service employee

On the lack of pastoral care:

“These bloody EAP posters everywhere. HR and managers keep pointing at them and telling you to go there rather than doing anything to find the root of the problem. They just tick the wellbeing box.” - survey respondent

“It took me at least two years to heal and rebuild my confidence after I was let go on a breakdown. I mean I had had a long career as a successful professional and then suddenly I was just out. I couldn’t sleep, I became ill, I had to take anti-anxiety medication. I couldn’t even look for a job for six months because I had no confidence at all.” - former employee

“There’s no one but me. I’ve learned over the years that only I can hold this kind of stress or fear. I can’t worry family with it. It has to be kept inside.” - MP

“There’s a majority of absolutely lovely MPs and ministers who are real people people and who would be excellent leaders anywhere. They are just awesome. Then there’s the few who are various shades of shits."

On cases of bullying and harassment:

"Bullying infests every aspect of Parliament and everyone knows it." - survey respondent

“There’s a majority of absolutely lovely MPs and ministers who are real people people and who would be excellent leaders anywhere. They are just awesome. Then there’s the few who are various shades of shits…and everyone knows who they are, and no one ever challenges them…at least not obviously or effectively.” - survey respondent

“The fundamental problem is the power imbalance. It’s a master-servant relationship and they’re treated like gods. While they are due our respect, they are not gods.” - survey respondent

“It became a joke it [dealing with the MP] was like battered wife syndrome.” - survey respondent

“I had to buy [clothing for the MP]. Then one day we were on a visit. I was carrying a spare [item of clothing] and [the MP needed it. And then [the MP] yelled at me for not ironing it.” - survey respondent

“It’s actually the combination of mild sexism with mild racism. The women of colour round here get it the most. There’s no one big bad thing, but it adds up to a really icky experience.” - staffer

“It isn’t OK that everyone knows so and so is an entitled egoist with zero management skills who is repeatedly wrecking people and that no one does anything. The emotional and financial freight is being paid by staff, not the Member. How is that leadership?” - survey respondent

“Anyone with a tendency to be a bit harsh will get ultra-harsh here. Every character trait gets magnified and amplified.” - survey respondent

“I loved Parliament so much. I loved most of the people. But in the end, it cost me my health, my wealth and my happiness.” - former staffer

On bullying and harassment by the public:

“I love that our Parliament is so open that people can lunch on the lawn. But then things happen, and you think – I hope they are getting the intelligence analysis right.” - MP

"In one electorate office I asked staff if they were on the receiving end of inappropriate behaviours from the public. One staff member said to me, after a pause for reflection: 'a bit…do death threats count?'” - Debbie Francis

On bullying and harassment by the media:

“[Journalists at Parliament sometimes] cross the line into disrespect in pursuit of clickbait. Their behaviour can further fuel the overall environment of gossip and intrigue.” - survey respondent

“Gallery behaviour is unacceptable… they come in there perfectly nice people and then adopt this persona of the classic bully. You can watch it happen.” - survey respondent

“Recent circumstances mean we need to seize this moment. We need to go big or go home.”

On sexual harassment at Parliament:

“Every time that guy is in a lift with women, his eyes are on their chests." - survey respondent

“The MP invaded my personal space and he did this with most women. I don’t know if it was intentional or just from habit. He always liked to touch the arm of any woman he was talking to, which was unpleasant, and I had several women complain to me about it.” - survey respondent

"They didn’t really seem to know how to deal with this…I felt like I was the accused, not him.” - complainant

On the harm caused by bullying and harassment:

“I was warned [the MP] was bad before I started. But I thought:.. I’m mature and experienced, I’ll deal with it. But I just couldn’t cope with it. It shocked me. It’s taken me years to recover. I still can’t bear it that my last job in the workplace ended so badly.” - former staffer

“They told me they were sending me into the lion’s den, and it was a difficult office…but I wasn’t expecting it to be so dire…how could they do that?” - private secretary

“It felt like the fall was further and more humiliating because it was Parliament. I had big dreams for my job there, but it just destroyed me.” - survey respondent

“One of the things you put aside here is your integrity to call out bad behaviour because the power imbalance is such you just can’t. It gets to you and you deal with it by going out and getting drunk.” - survey respondent

“The whole place just tolerates a level of behaviour that would create a huge outcry anywhere else. So, when it happens to you, you think there must be something wrong with you because everyone here just accepts it as normal.” - survey respondent

On the path ahead:

“Recent circumstances mean we need to seize this moment. We need to go big or go home.” - survey respondent

”We…need to be wary of adopting point solutions to something so complex as parliamentary culture…it’s a complex ecosystem and if we are to be the best that we can be, it’s going to take collective effort over several years and successive governments.” - survey respondent

”This is so worth doing, even though it will be hard going. This is Aotearoa. We’re proud to of being a high integrity, nice, caring nation. We’re proud of our healthy democracy. We’re understated as a people and we don’t do entitlement and arrogance. I think all New Zealanders want the leaders of our democracy – in fact all those who work in Parliament – to model the positive values of our nation.” - survey respondent

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