Bryce Edwards: The Seriousness of the Maggie Barry bullying allegations 

Bryce Edwards: The Seriousness of the Maggie Barry bullying allegations 

Allegations of bullying and illegal activity in Parliament continue to dog National MP Maggie Barry, with leaks and anonymous interviews from former staff coming out daily since the Herald broke the story on Saturday.

The latest startling allegations were broadcast this morning on RNZ, in an 11-minute interview with an anonymous former employee of Barry’s. The person claims: “She would call staff stupid, say that she couldn’t believe that they had been given a degree; she would talk about their sexuality behind their back to me and other staffers”. The whole interview is well worth listening to: Ex-staffer speaks out.

The complainant describes working for Barry: “It was Jekyll and Hyde stuff. It was terrifying at times. It rocketed from absurd one moment to terrifying the next. She would be absolutely lovely and then a small thing would trigger her and she’d be absolutely furious, just red-hot fury.”

The former staffer also made allegations that Barry requested that National Party campaign work be carried out which, if true, would be against the law. The former staffer said “about 50 per cent” of his work was actually for the National Party.

He claims: “The very first piece of work that I did on my very first day was to create her email newsletter which campaigned for Dan Bidois… and which also asked people to join the National Party… We collected membership funds, people would pay their membership dues at the electorate office… she would solicit membership from the office… All of those things are unlawful.”

Some of Barry’s conversations were recorded by staff, but he says: “She told staff to record her – and I wasn’t the first staff member to record her, other staff members recorded her. She told us that was a good idea because then she could go off to another meeting and we could go back and check the tape.”

He said Parliamentary Service had also encouraged him to make recordings after he complained to them about Barry’s behaviour. They told him to “document interactions” with the MP. And these recordings have now been supplied to RNZ and other media outlets.

This is well covered in Craig McCulloch’s news report, Maggie Barry bullying claims: Ex-staffer speaks out. This article confirms that “RNZ has seen text messages which appear to show Ms Barry requesting the staffer carry out political work during office hours.”

McCulloch also reports on another employee of Barry, who disputes the above allegations, saying “she had never been bullied by the MP in the six years she had worked with her”.

In terms of the recordings, she says she feels “betrayed and violated” by them. Similarly, Barry is also quoted objecting to this process of accusations: “It is a little odd and unfair having to answer allegations anonymously and also to be taped without my knowledge.”

Earlier allegations about Maggie Barry

The scandal actually broke on Saturday, when the Herald published Kirsty Johnston and Derek Cheng’s in-depth account of bullying in Barry’s office – see: Former staff accuse National MP Maggie Barry of bullying. Here’s the original list of Barry’s alleged crimes: “swore and yelled at staff; called an employee ‘stupid’; used derogatory terms about other elected officials, which made staff uncomfortable; referred to people with mental health issues using offensive terms like ‘nutter’; discussed her employees’ sexuality in the workplace; expected staff would do work for the National Party during office hours, which they felt unable to refuse while knowing it was wrong, because they were scared.”

The article appears to be based on claims made by the same person in the RNZ interview. He explains that he had gone to the media with his allegations in the wake of the Jami-Lee Ross scandal when National was downplaying bullying in the party: “When you’re the subject of bullying investigations it takes gall to claim that Jami-Lee Ross was a one-off, that there are no other bullies that the party is aware of”.

On Sunday, further allegations were published in Nicholas Jones and Kirsty Johnston’s National backs Maggie Barry as more allegations detailed. This article is based on details “outlined in a document by Parliamentary Service, summarising a meeting” with the former staffer.

Then on Monday, Newshub published yet more allegations, apparently from a different complainant, who described Barry’s office as a “toxic” workplace – see Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s Exclusive: National MP Maggie Barry hit with fresh bullying allegations.

Here’s the key part of the story: “the source said Ms Barry would lash out at staff and that she was ‘totally intimidating’. ‘She would attack and belittle your work in front of other people.’ They worked in her ministerial office, and said staff would break down in tears. The staff member said Ms Barry would treat everyone below her station with ‘utter contempt’ – including referring to officials in her ministerial departments as ‘hired help’.”

The article also presents Barry’s response: “I can’t comment on individual employment issues, but there were no investigations or formal employment complaints laid during my three years as Minister, nor were there issues raised with me by Ministerial Services”. However, Bracewell-Worrall reports, “No formal complaints were laid, as the staffer said they were worried it might harm their chances of getting more work at Parliament”.

Allegations of illegal use of taxpayer resources for electioneering

Although the Maggie Barry story has mostly focused on her alleged bullying, perhaps the more potentially explosive allegation is that she had her staff do party political work instead of parliamentary work. Of course, this is common in MPs offices, but because it is unlawful it is not normally made public. Party political work is not an allowed use of taxpayer resources, and parliamentary staff are supposed to only do work relating to parliamentary purposes.

This misuse of taxpayer funds is one of those open secrets in Wellington that isn’t normally reported or debated because all the parties do it, and therefore none of them have an interest in exposing it. Occasionally, information comes to the surface – as it did after the 2005 general election, leading the parties to have to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars – but generally it remains hidden. It’s possible that now, with the allegations about Barry, we’ll see much more coming out about this misuse.

This allegation was made in the original report on this scandal, but yesterday Newshub published information about the existence of an email allegedly from Barry: “Newshub has seen an email from Ms Barry instructing a ministerial staff member to work on a letter to National Party members. The email was sent during a work day to a parliamentary email address. National refused to discuss the email without a seeing a copy of it. Newshub had agreed with its source not to share the email” – see Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s Exclusive: Leaked email reveals Maggie Barry told parliamentary staff to do National Party work which could be unlawful.

The analysis of electoral law expert Andrew Geddis is reported in the article: “When you have an email like this sent during work time, it looks very much like they are being asked to do it on the taxpayer dollar – and that’s what they are not allowed to do.”

Geddis is also quoted by Audrey Young in a previous report: “Taxpayer funding to hire MPs’ staff is given so that they can do their jobs as elected representatives, not to help them win re-election… If it gets misused for party purposes, sitting MPs get a massive advantage against their unfunded challengers” – see: Bridges says Barry management was no cause for concern, welcomes advice on definition of ‘political work’.

Geddis believes that “the situation may need closer scrutiny”, and he cites the Auditor General launching an inquiry into a similar issue in 2005, which “found that parties in Parliament had unlawfully spent $1.17 million on what he deemed to be political advertising”. He says that “It may be something similar is needed in this case”.

Debates about bullying

In dealing with some of the allegations about Maggie Barry, Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett have been emphasising that Parliament is a “robust workplace”, the implication being that what some people call “bullying” might well just be the natural high-pressure behaviour of an intense place like Parliament. Bennett has also said there needs to be a balance where people aren’t “too scared to have a joke or say something that could be cut and pasted and misconstrued in some way.”

It turns out that some of these statements have been created by National’s spindoctors, and distributed to all National MPs so that they can repeat them to the public – see Jason Walls’ Internal National Party email advising MPs on what to reply to bullying questions has been leaked.

But it’s not just National questioning what is considered bullying. Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has also spoken out on the issue this week, saying “The reality is that we are upon a new PC age where half the zing, excitement and enjoyment of life is being gutted and sucked out of society by people who decide that they will be the language Nazis” – see Scott Palmer’s Winston Peters blames ‘language Nazis’ for bullying scandals. This was in response to RadioLive’s Mark Sainsbury pondering whether the whole debate is “all a beat-up”, suggesting “everything is bullying these days” and it seems like “bullying season.”

Peters has also explained that the nature of Parliament leads to difficult interactions with staff: “If you’ve got a crisis on, that’s a serious crisis on, and someone is not stepping up then tempers tend to be raised and people tend to react. But that’s part and parcel of life. If you think we can have a tranquil, peaceful, calm life while you’re trying to handle crisis after crisis, and difficulties and all sorts of tension then I think we’re in dream land” – see Jamie Ensor’s Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters can’t be sure he hasn’t been a bully.

For the best discussion of bullying in Parliament, it’s well worth reading the observations of RNZ’s Peter Wilson, who is a 30-year veteran of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and has probably seen more of what goes on in the institution than almost anyone – see his opinion piece, Bullying and bad behaviour: Parliament’s perfect storm.

He says: “High stakes, high stress, bad temper and bullying often go together and in Parliament it’s a perfect storm.” But here’s his main point: “Parliament is by its nature a hostile environment. Opposition MPs criticise and vilify government MPs, and they in turn are attacked by the other side. That’s a way of life in an adversarial political system. However, the hostility can and does boil over. An MP who comes out the debating chamber furious about being humiliated and encounters an errant staffer isn’t likely to be an understanding boss. And when a mistake made by an official leads to public embarrassment, such as relying on incorrect information, the reaction can be dire.”

Wilson also points to the fact that a lot of recent allegations are against women, so “the problem isn’t restricted to powerful men”. Also, he makes the point that not all MPs are bullies or involved in bad behaviour. He cites Bill English as a good example, saying he “had a reputation for being a really good boss to work for and the pressure he was often under was as high as it gets. He was said to never raise his voice in the office.”

Finally, could the current allegations against Maggie Barry have an element of internal National Party dirty politics? I made the case for this on Monday on Newshub’s AM Show – see: Maggie Barry bullying claims possibly a ‘Nat-on-Nat attack’ – Bryce Edwards.