Bullying and harassment in Parliament - one year on

Parliamentary Service is trudging through a list of recommendations aimed at stamping out systemic bullying and harassment. But an expert says these reviews don’t change workplace culture, and the Francis Review is no different.

It’s been more than a year since the Francis Review into the Parliamentary workplace confirmed a culture of systemic bullying and harassment.

From the outside, not much appears to have changed - politicians continue to lob insults at each other across the debating chamber, under the guise of robust debate.

But behind the scenes, Parliamentary Service is implementing dozens of recommendations from the Francis Report.

Parts of the implementation programme have been described as slow-going and disorganised.

Parliamentary Service chief executive Rafael Gonzalez-Montero said working through all of the recommendations and changing the culture within Parliament would take time, and he was pleased with the progress so far.

However, CultureSafe director Allan Halse said he had no faith this review, or the implementation of its recommendations, would stop bullying and harassment in Parliament.

Halse said these types of wide-scale reviews were used by organisations to make it look like they were doing something, but the reports produced were largely “HR speak and rhetoric”.

The review, carried out by independent culture change contractor Debbie Francis, found systemic bullying and harassment; harmful behaviour between staff, managers, MPs, media and the public; low accountability for bad behaviour - especially for MPs; and a group of serial offenders, whose identities were an open secret.

The review was launched in 2018 after a spate of high-profile bullying allegations.

In 2018, Labour’s Meka Whaitiri was stripped of her ministerial portfolios following a physical altercation with a staff member. Later in the year ousted National MP Jami-Lee Ross was accused of bullying and sexual harassment by multiple women. And in 2019, National MP Maggie Barry was cleared of allegations of forcing a parliamentary staffer to carry out party political work.

These were not isolated incidents, and the report pointed to the normalisation of widespread bullying and bad behaviour.

“In many cases the pain described to me by respondents was profound… Some respondents were still obviously shaken by their experiences after years had passed.”

More than three-quarters of those interviewed had experienced or observed "unreasonable or aggressive behaviour that intimidates or threatens"; 14 respondents to an online survey had experienced sexual assault, with more than 100 subjected to unwanted touching or sexual advances.

"Bullying infests every aspect of Parliament and everyone knows it,” one survey respondent said.

In the report, Francis said it was hard for her to adequately convey the devastation expressed by those respondents who alleged that they had been bullied, harassed or otherwise victimised in the parliamentary workplace.

“In many cases the pain described to me by respondents was profound… Some respondents were still obviously shaken by their experiences after years had passed.”

And the review found the risk of bullying and harassment was heightened due the high-intensity culture; a lack of investment in leadership development; barriers to making complaints; and unusual and complex work arrangements.

These complex, triangular employment relationship, meant staff were employed by Parliamentary Service, but worked for an MP. Because they weren’t employed by the MP, they did not have a mechanism to bring a personal grievance against them.

If either party had an issue, Parliamentary Service would invoke the “breakdown in relationship” clause, the staffer would be given a few weeks’ pay, and they would leave.

This left politicians largely insulated from employment matters, and meant there was frequently no accountability.

One former Ministerial Service employee, who spoke to Francis said “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”.

Last month, a new law designed to allow contracted employees, such as labour hire workers, to allege personal grievances against the business or organisation controlling them. This meant staff now had an avenue to bring a personal grievance against an MP.

“It was always going to be a challenge taking this volume of work on, in addition to our business as usual."

While this law change was one step in the right direction, Francis laid out a set of 85 recommendations, including changes to policy and processes, she believed needed to be implemented to address the issues raised during the review.

Parliamentary Service’s Gonzalez-Montero said implementing the recommendations was a big undertaking but one that those in charge were committed to seeing through. 

“It was always going to be a challenge taking this volume of work on, in addition to our business as usual. However, I am very pleased to see how we have tackled this challenge and maximised our efforts by incorporating the implementation of recommendations into other work like preparing for the transition to a new Parliament,” he said.

So far, 29 of the recommendations had been fully implemented, with work on a further 40 underway.

One of the recommendations was the creation and implementation of the Parliamentary Workplace Code of Conduct, which would be adopted by political parties, Parliamentary Service, Office of the Clerk, Ministerial Services, and the Press Gallery.

The development of the code had been slow-going, with those involved describing an arduous process.

The work has been led by Anne Tolley, who is chair of the Cross Parliament Code of Conduct Steering Group, which has representation from political parties, Parliamentary Service, Office of the Clerk, Ministerial Services, the Press Gallery, PSA and E Tū. 

Gonzalez-Montero said he saw this as one of the key recommendations of the review, and one of the largest in scope.

Work began on the code immediately after the report’s release, and was on track to be ready in time for the next parliament.

There was also a new specialist HR advisory board, and a new chief people officer to lead HR services for Parliamentary Service and Office of the Clerk. Work on establishing an independent commissioner with investigative powers was also underway, and would continue after the September election.

A new diversity committee had been established, and it was working on developing a diversity and inclusion strategy.

And in an effort to encourage people to report health, safety and wellbeing issues, a confidential reporting channel had been established. The ‘Vault’ incident management system was first launched by the Parliamentary Service in November 2018, with the Office of the Clerk adopting the system in 2019, and Ministerial Services in February 2020. A total of seven complaints had been received through the channel so far.

"I believe the review gave everyone cause to reflect on their own behaviour and that as a result people are more conscious of how their words and actions may affect others."

Many of these recommendations sounded good in theory, but it was unclear whether they would be given the teeth to function as more than a token gesture, and whether staff would feel safe enough to raise their grievances.

Gonzalez-Montero said these changes weren’t a quick fix, and to create a sustained meaningful culture change would take time. But it was important to take the opportunity to do it right.

“I certainly get the sense that we are starting to see a change already. I believe the review gave everyone cause to reflect on their own behaviour and that as a result people are more conscious of how their words and actions may affect others,” he said, adding that he hoped people felt more comfortable raising any concerns they may have.

“I want to reiterate to them, that they should never fear speaking up. Inappropriate behaviour is completely unacceptable and we take any issues raised extremely seriously.”

Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard, who initiated the review, referred Newsroom to Gonzalez-Montero’s comments. When the report was released last year, he also said addressing these issues would not be a quick fix, “and any solutions will need to have input from those affected and address the systemic issues”.

“We have no fence at the top of the cliff, and then when you go over the cliff, you have nobody who actually cares."

But CultureSafe's Halse said he had no confidence this review, or any of the recommendations, would lead to systemic change in the culture of the Parliamentary workplace.

“Reviews are not effective because they are in isolation to what’s happened in the real world," he said.

Workplaces and institutions, including Parliament, were not able to change their culture and adequately deal with issues of workplace bullying and harassment until the system changed.

HR departments were set up to manage risk and protect organisations, and neither WorkSafe NZ or the Employment Relations Authority were adequately dealing with claims of workplace bullying, he said.

Going to the ERA was a protracted, adversarial process, which treated bullying complaints as HR matters rather than health and safety issues, which looked at the psychosocial harm done. And in 2018, WorkSafe admitted while it had received 100 workplace bullying complaints, it had never advanced a prosecution.

He added that “leopards don’t change their spots” and trying to bring about systemic change in an organisation without changing the people at the top was almost impossible. (About 70 percent of workplace bullying complaints are top-down.)

“We have no fence at the top of the cliff, and then when you go over the cliff, you have nobody who actually cares,” Halse said.

“There is no accountability or consequence in mainstream New Zealand and until there is, nothing will change in Parliament, which is simply another workplace.”

Halse said after a decade working in this area, he had no confidence in the system.

For things to change, there needed to be greater enforcement capacity of the country’s health and safety legislation in regards to bullying.

In the meantime, Halse called on politicians to champion this cause. While the Parliamentary workplace did not exist in a vacuum, the country’s elected leaders should be the ones initiating change, and setting an example for how a modern workplace should function.

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