Democracy is messy, it doesn’t have to be mean

OPINION: The shambles that was the prisoner voting rights bill’s passage through Parliament has again highlighted just how messy democracy can be, but it's time to stop being mean, writes Laura Walters


It’s a word politicians, and others who work in the Parliamentary precinct, use to cover all manner of sins. But they shouldn’t.

Despite numerous awareness campaigns on the prevalence of mental health issues and bullying in schools and workplaces across the country, in the highest house in the land, it appears nothing’s changed.

The recent Francis Review into the culture of the Parliamentary workplace revealed systemic bullying, harassment, and an environment conducive to high levels of stress, anxiety and mental health issues.

One anonymous contributor to the review said: “I want New Zealanders to be proud of our Parliament. I can’t bear it that they watch us all behaving like savages at question time. 

"Dame Whina [Cooper] reminded us to be careful what our children see. We should also be careful what the citizens we want to engage in our democracy see from us as elected leaders.”

Another said: “We must behave with dignity and respect for each other, even while we contend on issues and ideas. It’s no longer OK to use ‘robustness’ as an excuse for bad behaviour.”

More than a year on, politicians continue to play the person, rather than the ball, and say and do whatever seems necessary in a game of political point-scoring.

Neither side of the House has a monopoly on the urge to belittle others - often through the use of harmful references to mental health. 

And all the while they hide behind that catchall word: 'robustness'.

The recent passing of legislation that will grant some prisoners the right to vote was a lesson in how not to do democracy.

The final stages of the bill were a shambles, and led to the introduction of an inconsistent piece of legislation, because of what many New Zealanders would classify as petty politicking.

In an attempt to kill the bill, National voted in favour of part of a Green Party amendment that called for the right to vote to be extended to all prisoners - an amendment that couldn't be further from National's position on prisoner voting. National hoped the passing of the amendment would result in New Zealand First pulling all support for the prisoner voting bill, at the very least the Opposition hoped it would create an inconsistency that would make the law change unworkable.

This saw a second piece of legislation come before the House this week, in an effort to rectify the issues that arose from last week’s game playing.

In the end, the law was passed as initially intended by the coalition: prisoners who are sentenced to less than three years will be able to vote - something they have not been able to do since the law was changed in 2010.

But the process was unnecessarily complicated and confusing. It detracted from an important human rights issue and a significant piece of legislation, which was backed up by rulings from the Supreme Court and the Waitangi Tribunal.

As Finance Minister Grant Robertson said at the time: “the greatest commitment you can show to democracy is when you uphold the rights of people that you despise, or people that you don't like, or people who have done things that you don't agree with… not [with] some little political trick.”

It was a frustrating and confusing process. And while democracy is often messy, it should always be grounded in principles and integrity.

Andrew Little isn't the first to be drawn into the game of name-calling politics, but he should know better. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

When the related legislation (to fix last week’s botch up) came before the House on Tuesday, Justice Minister Andrew Little continued to lower the tone, with a flurry of jabs and insults.

Former first lady Michelle Obama has a well-known saying: “When they go low, we go high.” That’s an approach many New Zealand politicians are yet to grasp.

Little directed a range of stigmatising phrases and words towards the National Party, and MPs who opposed the bill, including Nick Smith - someone who is often, and unfairly, made the butt of mental health-related jabs owing to the stress leave he took 16 years ago.

The Minister said National was “covering up their own absolute craziness”, he referred to the party as “a mad mosaic gone completely crazy”.

He used the words “deranged” and “utterly mad” to describe the Opposition’s approach to the bill.

Little isn't the first politician to use this type of inappropriate type of language. Last year, Winston Peters called a reporter a "psycho" for asking legitimate questions about the allocation of taxpayer funds.

And while Little surely didn’t intend to make fun of mental health issues, his choice of words and mean attacks are unacceptable from a senior politician in a party that’s pledged to “take mental health seriously”, when allocating $1.9 billion to the issue in last year’s Budget.

It’s not enough to brand your party with the word ‘kindness’; you have to walk the talk.

High rates of mental health issues, addiction and suicide continue to be a reality in New Zealand. 

About 50 percent of New Zealanders will experience mental health issues at some point in their lives, with recent studies putting that figure much higher.

And as Justice Minister, Little will be well aware mental health and addiction is often a driver of offending and poor criminal justice outcomes - more than 90 percent of prisoners will experience a mental health or addiction issue in their lifetime.

Then there’s politicians themselves.

Leaders throughout history have struggled with mental health issues, including Winston Churchill, who lived with bipolar disorder.

The Francis Review again highlighted the difficult working environment politicians and Parliamentary staff are forced to operate in, and the toll that takes on their wellbeing. The workplace was described as high-intensity and often toxic.

And a 2017 study found New Zealand MPs work long days – an average of 13 hours and 20 minutes – and have the added pressures of travel, and being in the public eye.

Given the prevalence of mental health in the general population, and the additional pressures and responsibilities, there must be a portion of current and past Kiwi politicians who suffer from mental health issues.

But only a handful of New Zealand politicians have ever spoken openly about their mental health, including Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick, former Green MP Holly Walker, and last year Jami-Lee Ross, who had his own mental health issues thrust into the spotlight after a destructive scandal relating to a National Party leak.

“To say politicians sometimes act like children probably strikes most people as a waste of breath. But when I sat in on my first Question Time... I was surprised at just how much the scene played out like that of a class of tired, hangry kids.”

It’s not surprising more MPs don’t disclose their struggles, given the type of reaction, questions and stigma they are likely to encounter.

Language, like the type used by Little and many others in the debating chamber, gives credence to this fear of stigma and judgment.

As long as words like “crazy”, “deranged” and “utterly mad” are used by elected officials who are supposed to be setting an example, we can’t expect the country to move forward in talking about mental health openly and honestly. And stigma will remain a barrier to treatment and wellness.

In 2016 I wrote my first article from New Zealand’s Parliamentary Press Gallery. It began: “To say politicians sometimes act like children probably strikes most people as a waste of breath. But when I sat in on my first Question Time... I was surprised at just how much the scene played out like that of a class of tired, hangry kids.”

Not much has changed in four years, other than to say I now know it does a disservice to a generation of increasingly empathetic and aware Kiwi kids, to liken them to MPs.

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