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Why political biffo is necessary in NZ Parliament

'Athletics', 1869, Artist: George Du Maurier/Getty.

Despite overdue efforts to improve Parliament's culture, political biffo will always be with us.

This year, for once, the dull certainties of Budget week were overturned.

Usually, the Government holds all the cards, drip-feeding select details for weeks ahead of the big reveal, then indulging in jolly-hockey-sticks photo opportunities as the hallowed document rolls off the presses a couple of days out, and “traditional” snacks are consumed on Budget Day morning.

But the cheese rolls favoured by Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern must have stuck in the craw this year, the aroma of toasted cheese and onion no match for the gigantic stink unleashed by Treasury’s inability to keep the Budget secret from National’s prying eyes.

First, Opposition Leader Simon Bridges stole the Government’s thunder by releasing early details of what was to be announced. Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf called in the police, claiming information had been systematically hacked, though it turned out using the “search” bar on Treasury’s own site had been enough to breach the cyber ramparts.

That meant Bridges could claim his party was the victim of a Government and Treasury “smear” job, declare the hacking suggestion a “democratic outrage” and, most importantly, command precious air time even as the cheese rolls were warming.

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Eventually, the full details of the first “Wellbeing Budget” took over at the top of the news sites and broadcast bulletins, but the hack-that-wasn’t showed how even the well-worn set pieces of politics can be disrupted by a hungry and pugnacious Opposition.

That intrinsic unpredictability and constant threat of attack is meant to help keep governments – and government departments – on their toes. Presumably, all our civil-service mandarins will have been nervously double-checking since then to see whether their organisations are more capable than Treasury was of keeping a secret.

Some find the argie-bargie a turn-off. They dislike the theatrics, the points- scoring and the baying and braying in the House. But having an Opposition ready to pounce at any opportunity is one of the ways our system works.

The one-upmanship and combativeness displayed on the front benches inevitably also play a part in the lower reaches of parliamentary politics, whether in internal caucus rivalries or within MPs’ offices, where staffers are sometimes ambitious wannabe MPs themselves. And yes, though most journalists are paragons of behavioural virtue, some will add their own sharp-elbowed intensity to proceedings.

But it was still surprising when, the week before the Budget, independent external reviewer Debbie Francis released her report into the bullying and harassment of staff in Parliament, revealing just how toxic the culture can get.

Francis described systemic bullying and harassment, and found that unacceptable conduct was too often tolerated or normalised. Her report included 14 allegations of sexual assault.

Bullying was reported by and between MPs, as well as between office staff, by managers and by the public and media. A whopping 29% of those who responded in submissions, interviews and focus groups had experienced some form of bullying from an MP or manager. More than half had experienced destructive gossip, and 41% aggressive behaviour.

The revelation of sexual assault allegations rightly caused a stir, especially when Speaker Trevor Mallard characterised three of the assaults as “rape”.   

There’s no excuse for bullying or victimisation, either. But anyone familiar with large, competitive workplaces – newsrooms, say – might wonder if in other examples, some respondents are a little unrealistic in where they want to set the behavioural bar. Mention of gossip, for example, for some reason brings to mind the old line: “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anyone, come and sit next to me.”

And there was another phrase that used to be rolled out when people felt the pressure in certain workplaces, involving heat and kitchens. It’s the world of politics, after all, not tiddlywinks.

Blame former All Black captain Tana Umaga for the tiddlywinks reference. He coined it in a complaint to a referee way back in 2003 after being pinged for a tackle off the ball in a Super 12 semi-final.

Umaga’s plea was lauded by those who believed their beloved game was becoming over-sanitised, but 16 years later, with more recognition of player welfare and the dangers of concussion, it feels like a throwback to another age.

This is not to say fans can’t still enjoy rugby’s collisions and the bone-jarring thwack of a well-timed tackle, though. Similarly, in politics, it’s possible to develop a taste for the insults that have always been part of public life, without condoning a descent into bully-boy populism. Name-calling can be revealing of the attacker, who has lost their rag or thinks they’re getting off a zinger, and in the response of the target, who can fire back, duck for cover or rise above the fray. Panache, swagger and comic timing can all play a part.

And the denigration of politicians, whether among themselves or by observers looking in, plays a role in deflating the egos of those we allow to govern us, who might otherwise float on a cloud of their own high opinions of themselves.

To learn recently, for example, that some of the local Chinese media habitually refer to Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters as “old naughty” was both interesting and entertaining.

Historical examples of name-calling in the House itself and recorded in Hansard include the likes of “financial Frankenstein” (1933), “retardate worm” (1943), “hypnotised rabbits” (1949) and Robert Muldoon’s 1970s description of Bill Rowling as a “shiver looking for a spine to run down”. Later, Labour’s Michael Cullen revealed his true colours for better or worse when he called National’s Don McKinnon a “born-to-rule prick” and, in the non-verbal realm, New Zealand First’s Ron Mark once had to apologise when he was caught “flipping the bird” at National’s Tau Henare.

Does the name-calling tip over into the MPs’ offices? Certainly, in reference to third parties, judging by recordings that last year seemed to feature National’s Maggie Barry calling one local board member “barking”, another a “waste of space”, and a third “a duplicitous piece of shite”.

Though mightn’t that also be characterised as merely a concise critique? You have to admit, the last of those descriptions does rather roll off the tongue.

The recordings emerged after Barry was twice investigated over bullying claims by two staff in her office. Barry denied any wrongdoing and said issues raised by former staff were resolved mutually, with no finding that bullying or harassment had occurred.

As one staffer who backed Barry noted to the NZ Herald, people have different definitions of bullying. “On different days, people have different sensitivities, and people have different lines of what they can and can’t tolerate.”

Much of the worst friction in the open forum of Parliament this term can be attributed to a soured relationship between the Opposition and Speaker Mallard, who recently threw both Bridges and veteran MP Nick Smith out of the House.

The phrase that stuck in the first case wasn’t the “unprofessional” jibe at Mallard that got Bridges booted out, but the “barnyard noise” the Speaker attributed to him.

Ouch. Bridges’ voice does have a hint of nanny goat to it. But from beyond the Beehive’s walls, it’s hard to see how it deserved singling out amid the usual cacophony of the parliamentary zoo.

In any discussion of politicians’ behaviour, Mallard alone is a lengthy poacher-turned-gamekeeper case study. The very man who sat beside Francis to release her report was long regarded as one of the place’s “bovver boys” and in 2007 disgraced himself by punching Henare outside the chamber, later pleading guilty to fighting in a public place. 

It should be obvious this kind of actual biffo has no place in politics. And though the deployment of eggs, milkshakes, mud and the occasional dildo or lamington against politicians can be amusing, we should be wary of the risk of public debate descending into physical confrontation.

That said, is there any chance that in the world of a “Wellbeing” budget and a new generation of less combative politicians, the Francis report will lead us into a new age of lavender-scented caring and sharing? Insert your own barnyard noise here. 

This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of North & South.

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