COMMENT: Parliament is sometimes called "the people's house". Such a phrase is useful, I think, as it draws attention to the oft forgotten fact that MPs serve at the people's pleasure. We the people put them there, and we the people turf them out. As such, we arguably have a right to know what's going on in the halls of power.
In practice, however, the truth of what happens in the Beehive and Bowen House is usually hidden behind smooth (or not so smooth) politicking. Sometimes it's easy to see why the public has such a low opinion of politicians. When scandals hit the headlines, public goodwill diminishes rather rapidly. When the rug is lifted, and uncomfortable truths spill out from the cleverly constructed constraints various political advisors have erected to contain them, the public is often left shocked and disappointed.
Internal reviews into such scandals, conducted by individual parties, don't tend to inspire public confidence, especially as such investigations can seem to be cloak and dagger affairs, occurring behind closed doors, with little external transparency. Which is why an external Parliament-wide review is, in its intent at least, a good idea.
Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard announced the review on Tuesday, following recent highly publicised scandals involving MPs from both major parties. The review, which will look into bullying and harassment of staff at Parliament dating back to October 2014, also follows a number of embarrassing scandals engulfing law firms like Russell McVeagh.
Workplace cultures have been under the microscope lately, largely on the back of the global #MeToo movement. Treating colleagues and/or employees disrespectfully has been an open secret, thriving in a culture of silence for decades. Now, as the slogan goes, it appears that time's up for abusers, bullies and harassers.
No party is immune to scandals. I would argue that politicians are an interesting breed, and having so many of them in one place, variously vying for power, advocating for passion projects, feathering their own nests and/or trying to save the world, is a recipe for fireworks. In a game in which fortunes can change with the gusty Wellington wind, it's not difficult to imagine that such a charged environment might drive some rather heated workplace relations.
It should surprise exactly no one that bullying and improper conduct takes place at Parliament. I would even venture that it may be worse than many other workplaces. I'm not sure there would be a parallel environment anywhere in the public or private sectors where a group of people could be promoted to a position where they manage numerous staff without any baseline requisite of management experience. MPs come from many walks of life, and while some have risen through the ranks in their own professions before joining Parliament, others may never have been in a management role before.
The need for more management training has been voiced by Labour MP Stuart Nash. He told Newstalk ZB on Wednesday that "maybe some MPs need a little bit of training around how to manage people before they come or as part of their induction, because there are a whole number of MPs who are arriving here with no managerial experience whatsoever and yet they have staff who work in their offices and without experience or a level of competence in that area it can be difficult."
Nash also admitted that he assumed "there are pockets where there are bullies and there are those who work in fear". I doubt that management training will be enough to change that. Frankly, I don't believe the review itself will go far enough.
The review, which will rely on volunteered information from staff to publish a report with recommendations for the running of Parliament, is expected to present its report to the public in April next year.
While I support the spirit of the review, from the few details currently released to the public, I doubt it has been equipped with enough firepower to make a significant difference. It doesn't have the power to subpoena documents, and will rely heavily on self-disclosure from affected staff. Most of the information gathered will never be released to either the public or Parliamentary Services, and all confidential disclosures from staff will be deleted at the completion of the review. While the review itself is clearly worthwhile, it's debatable whether it will have the teeth to bring about meaningful change.
The lack of transparency also gives me pause. While I understand the need for confidentiality to protect vulnerable victims and whistleblowers, surely there will be a heavy public interest in some of the information presented to the review.
If, for example, the review uncovers multiple allegations of improper conduct levelled at an individual MP, should that MP's constituents not have a right to know that they've elected a bully? While workplace misconduct of some description arguably happens in most offices, those elected to public office should surely be held to a higher standard.
Which raises another problem for the review. As we've had proven (again) recently – with rather dramatic flourish – some MPs will go to great lengths to obfuscate the truth if they sense that their careers may hang in the balance. While Mallard and reviewer Debbie Francis emphasised the confidentiality of any disclosures made to the review, if MPs or senior staff members suspect that their conduct may reported to the review, what lengths will they go to in order to suppress information?
At this stage, within its current framework, the ability of the review to fulfil its brief and deliver the impetus for change raises more questions than it answers. The challenge for Francis and Mallard will be ensuring that the review actually delivers useful information, otherwise it risks looking like a waste of taxpayer money.
Which would be a shame, as I have no doubt that there are at least a few malignant bullies walking the halls of power unchecked. If done correctly, this review should flush them out.