Jacqui Van Der Kaay: Green Party grapples with persistent scandals

Jacqui Van Der Kaay: Green Party grapples with persistent scandals

Parliament’s speaker had no option but to refer Green MP Julie Anne Genter to the Privileges Committee for her behaviour in the House last Wednesday evening.

The incident, in which she crossed the floor to wave a book and yell at National Minister Matt Doocey, reflects poorly on Genter and Parliament as a whole. Parliament’s speaker, Gerry Brownlee, received complaints from both the National and Act parties about her behaviour. MPs from across the political spectrum are right to be alarmed at her outburst.

Genter has been an MP for 13 years, including time as Minister, and quite simply, she should have known better. Her apology after her outburst was never going to be enough. Some commentators have downplayed Genter’s behaviour in the House, but can you imagine if the tables were turned? The Greens would indeed be calling for fast and robust repercussions.

The referral to the Privileges Committee, made up of MPs from across the political spectrum, means her colleagues will decide the consequences of her actions. However, their remit is limited to what happened in Parliament; it does not have the authority to examine two further allegations of bullying behaviour that have since come to light.

The first came from a florist in Genter’s Rongotai electorate, which included allegations of Genter filming their interaction. The second came from a retailer in Wellington Central, who accused Genter of grabbing her.

Green Party’s response
The Green Party is, so far, standing by Genter. While the party has started a disciplinary process, it has chosen not to remove her from her portfolios. The co-leaders have told Genter that her behaviour in the House didn’t meet the party’s code of conduct and was unacceptable, but there has been no mention of an investigation into the allegations of bullying by the two retailers.

It’s a surprising decision given the co-leaders Marama Davidson and Chloe Swarbrick stood down fellow MP Darleen Tana for allegations of employment issues at her husband’s bike business. That investigation, which began nearly two months ago, is still underway.

Davidson’s defence of Genter’s long-standing experience is weak, given that it can be argued that Genter’s tenure makes the behaviour even less acceptable. The defence of the MP being passionate about her work also doesn’t justify the behaviour. The fact that Genter’s outburst in the House has been referred to the Privileges Committee only makes the party’s lack of an investigation into the allegations made by the retailers even more stark.

The saying Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, will be cold comfort to Davidson and Swarbrick, particularly as Genter is an electorate MP in the capital.

Genter’s decision to continue her long-planned visit to the Chatham Islands rather than be in Parliament this week also doesn’t help matters. Being out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind, especially when you’re a public figure.

One News managed to talk to Genter at Wellington airport as she left for the Chatham Islands. While she wouldn’t comment on her behaviour in the House as it’s now been referred to the Privileges Committee, she did apologise for her behaviour with the two retailers and said, “I always want to hold myself to the highest standard of behaviour, and I accept that I need some support to get better at de-escalation.”

If she could have this conversation with One News, it seems unusual that she couldn’t hold a press conference or, at the very least, issue a statement before heading away for a week.

Continuing scandals
To say that co-leaders Marama Davidson and Chloe Swarbrick will be disappointed to have to deal with Genter’s behaviour in the House and subsequent public allegations, hot on the heels of accusations against list MP Darleen Tana, would be an understatement. This latest incident follows high-profile MP Golriz Ghahraman resigning from Parliament and then pleading guilty to shoplifting and allegations of bullying within the party from former MP Elizabeth Kerekere.

The Greens have managed to avoid political scandals that have plagued other political parties in recent years, most notably the string of Ministerial scandals that contributed to Labour’s demise in last year’s general election. But there can be absolutely no doubt that that run is now clearly over.

It would be easy to blame the increasing numbers of newer MPs in the Greens caucus, but this cannot be used to explain Ghahraman and now Genter’s behaviour, as both had been in Parliament for multiple terms. For some, it could be a lack of support for serving MPs. The adjustment from being in government to being in opposition. Or something else? It isn’t easy to know, but whatever it is, it’s put Davidson and Swarbrick in a challenging position – even more so with former co-leader and long-term MP James Shaw leaving Parliament last week.

How MPs behave matters
Of course, this latest scandal is bad news for any political party, but for the Greens, it is particularly problematic. The Greens pride themselves on holding the moral high ground.

The public elects members of Parliament to represent them and improve people’s lives. Fellow MPs and members of the public certainly don’t expect to be intimidated or bullied by them. The fact that the accusations involve members of the public, one of whom is a retailer in Genter’s Rongotai electorate, makes them even more serious, if for no other reason than the fact that Genter holds a position of power.

Scandals such as these contribute further to the public’s declining trust in elected officials and Parliament.

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Jacqui Van Der Kaay is a former journalist, holds a Masters degree in Political Science from Victoria University of Wellington and has a specialist interest in political leadership, voter behaviour, immigration and how social media affects democracy.