Reading the report on bullying and harassment at Parliament I got quite nostalgic. Debbie Francis, a personnel consultant, has gone to the heart of that wonderfully engaging, intensely stimulating place.
I was there only three years but would have happily stayed for life had I not had a young family at the time.
Parliament is intoxicating, as anyone who has worked there, as an MP, staffer or a reporter as I was, can confirm. You're caught up in a heady contest of principles, interests, personalities and arguments of national importance, many of them happening right in front of you, all in the confines of the building.
It is addictive for someone with an abiding interest in politics. It's deeply informative, extremely demanding and very hard to leave. When defeated MPs look ill on election night it is not just rejection they are feeling, it's withdrawal. They will have to return to life at a lower key.
But having surveyed all the people who have worked at Parliament since 2014, Francis finds it less intoxicating than "toxic".
"Staff work under unforgiving deadlines and pressure not to drop the ball on important and sensitive matters," she reports. "Both members and staff told me they felt it was virtually impossible to ever show any vulnerability or self-doubt, even with colleagues, as this could be exploited by others for competitive advantage.
"Most staff tended to be open only with a small number of trusted colleagues and then only late at night with a wine or, for staff, at 'therapy' sessions on Fridays when members are generally absent from Wellington."
One of them told her, "We get together, vent about our awful weeks and gossip madly. It's like a survivors' club."
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Francis emailed the survey to the 1100 people working in Parliament or electorate offices, followed it up with interviews for those who wanted one and ran some focus groups. She got over 1000 responses. It sounds like most got around to the exercise on a Friday afternoon.
Said one, "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."
Maybe, but they leave with a privileged insight to government and concepts of public policy, particularly economics, that they probably didn't have before and will be invaluable in their future work.
So what is this bullying and harassment? Among 120 MPs there will be many who have not had personal staff previously. A few will not acquire the patience to lead people and some will be perfectionists. Leaders cannot be perfectionists.
But everyone elected to Parliament needs assistants who can accept the pressures of public life.
The word "bullying" these days covers a multitude of sins. Francis asked if they had experienced: destructive gossip, undermining, demeaning language, unfair isolation or exclusion, lack of co-operation and support, or aggressive behaviour.
More than half said yes to at least one of those. Their "bullies" were not just their boss. They said they also suffered bullying from the public and the press gallery.
One staffer told her, "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."
There speaks somebody in the wrong job. Am I allowed to say that? The statement falls into at least two of the bullying categories above but it's also true. Competent political operators understand how news media works and can deal with journalists.
Sexual harassment is different and intolerable but it ranges from unfunny jokes to unwanted advances and contact that can be called sexual assault. Out of 1000 people at Parliament, 54 ticked the box for unwanted sexual advances. That is 5.4 per cent.
There must be a way to expose those creeps without subjecting everybody at Parliament to the time-consuming and no doubt costly human resources overkill she has prescribed?
She wants extensive induction and training programmes for everyone working there and a code of conduct that all would need to sign, including the press gallery. She wants MPs to have less say over who is hired to work in their offices so that staff might have the usual public service protections against a political boss.
Ministerial offices used to be staffed entirely by public servants. Press secretaries came from the Tourism and Publicity Department. That was changing when I was there. Political appointees were coming in: they were better.
Politics requires its own skills and commitment. Many who succeed learn the ropes on a ministerial staff. Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson worked for Helen Clark.
I can't see Parliament adopting all of Francis' prescription but it will probably provide more protections for the weak in the place where we need the strong.
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