Bryce Edwards: Toxic politicians under scrutiny

Bryce Edwards: Toxic politicians under scrutiny

There are just so many damning statements and statistics that need to be highlighted from today’s parliamentary bullying report. These all show that Parliamentary staff work in a dangerous and toxic place. But one of the most revealing facts in the report is actually found in the introduction and does not arise directly out of the review – but instead comes from a recent Colmar Brunton poll of the public about Parliament.

The survey, from November last year, says that only 13 per cent of New Zealanders ‘would speak highly of Parliament’ and only 7 per cent ‘would speak highly of MPs’. Furthermore, only 27 per cent of the public say they trust Parliament. For plenty of other statistics about how poorly the country thinks of our foremost democratic institution, see: Survey of the New Zealand public.

The point is that the public generally has a very negative attitude to Parliament, being aware of the toxicity of how politics operates in this country. And today’s bullying report, authored by Debbie Francis, is only going to reinforce the belief that there is a major problem, particularly with MP behaviour.

The report emphasises this bad behaviour is a serious problem for democracy. It points out: “Many of those who contributed to this Review drew a direct link between the culture and behaviours within the parliamentary workplace and the healthy and productive functioning of New Zealand’s democracy during a time of great challenge.”

One parliamentary staff member is quoted about the lack of political leadership: “Never has there been a moment in history when we most needed our leaders to engage constructively on the existential and profoundly complex issues that threaten the planet – climate change, nativism and economic inequality being just a few.” You can read the whole report here: Bullying and Harassment in the New Zealand Parliamentary Workplace.

Overall, a particularly ugly picture is painted, and this is best reported on by Andrea Vance – the journalist who has followed this topic more closely than any other – see: Parliament a toxic workplace with systematic bullying problem – Francis Review. She reports, “Parliament is a toxic workplace with a systematic bullying and harassment problem, a sweeping new review has confirmed.”

MPs come out of the report very badly. For example, the review reports the view of staff that MPs are “treated like gods” with a “master servant relationship”. Debbie Francis “described hearing about unreasonably aggressive behaviour, language or gestures, that staff found intimidating and threatening. There was frequent shouting, abusive calls or texts, character assassination – like one staffer who was ‘constantly’ told they were stupid.”

Lucy Bennett has also summed up some of the statistics from the report describing the life of parliamentary staff: “Of the more than 1000 respondents, 29 per cent had experienced some form of bullying or harassment from either an MP or a manager, 30 per cent from peers and 24 per cent from a member of the public. Some 56 per cent had experienced destructive gossip, 47 per cent demeaning language, 53 per cent a lack of co-operation and support and 41 per cent aggressive behaviour” – see: Francis review into harmful behaviour in Parliament released.

There was a particularly gendered nature to a lot of the harassment. Bennett reports: “Sexist behaviour was prevalent, Francis found, with 60 per cent of those interviewed saying they had experienced offensive remarks, comments, jokes and gestures that were sexist. Some 35 per cent had experienced the same but of a sexual nature. The report also said that sexual harassment and sexual violence were likely to be under-reported.”

There are plenty of examples in the report of bad behaviour by politicians. For example, Anna Whyte reports the view of one staffer: “This workplace is so ridiculously demanding that only 24-year-olds and older people can survive in here and then only with self-medication. Anyone sane or with a family just gets out” – see: Bullying and harassment widespread in Parliament, report finds.

Of course, it’s hard to know how representative such examples are. But Whyte also quotes Debbie Francis saying she was not “cherry picking stories about a bad day or an off-coloured joke.” Instead, there was a clear picture “of a small number of Members whose behaviours fall well outside the normal range to be expected in a workplace”.

A number of MPs are apparently identified – but not named – in the report as being particularly toxic to work with. These MPs are apparently well-known within Parliament, with one staffer saying: “Everyone will give you the same list. It’s well known but there’s a conspiracy of silence about these few.” Likewise, another staffer said: “The few who are various shades of shits… and everybody knows who they are, and no-one every challenges them… at least obviously or effectively.”

All political parties and all MPs will now be looked at with suspicion. “How well do you treat your staff?” might very well be asked of all MPs. This report certainly doesn’t give clearance to any MPs, but instead says that some of them are very bad. Which ones will now be speculated on.

The staff involved have also been given anonymity in the report. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to see any current or former parliamentary staff standing up publicly to condemn behaviours or even particular politicians or parties.

On Twitter, a number of former staffers have posted to give their support for the report – for example, two former Green Party workers. Jack McDonald (@tautokai) has tweeted: “As a former parliamentary staffer for four years and my team’s staff rep on our management committee, this absolutely aligns with my experiences. Parliament is a toxic place for staffers to work and I’m so glad to no longer be there.”

And Asher Wilson-Goldman (@AsherGoldman): “As a former parliamentary staffer and union delegate for parliamentary staff (though I left just before the scope of this review began) I’m really glad this stuff is out in the open now. Looking forward to reading the recommendations.”

Finally, one of the most interesting commentaries on the report comes from blogger No Right Turn, who is particularly unimpressed that the badly-behaving MPs are not being outed: “The report of course refuses to name those MPs, meaning that the independent reviewer is effectively part of this conspiracy of silence as well. Which is not acceptable. Naming names is the first step towards accountability, and that needs to happen if anything is to change” – see: A toxic workplace.

And he has a theory about what might be contributing to the toxic nature of parliamentary working conditions: “it’s worth noting that both of the publicly-identified parliamentary bullies (Jami-Lee Ross and Meka Whaitiri) previously served as member-support staff, meaning their bullying behaviour may have been institutionalised into them. Its rather like intergenerational child-abuse: today’s abusive MP’s were normalised to abusive habits by their past exposure to a toxic, abusive institution.”