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The bullying allegations show that Parliament needs transparency

Allegations of bullying are flying around Parliament. Photo/Getty Images

As a review stalks bullies in the corridors of power, Bill Ralston writes that abuse thrives in the darkness.

Bullying. It seems to be the political theme of the year, with allegations flying against sacked minister Meka Whaitiri, Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross, National MP Maggie Barry and stood-down Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell. So much so that Parliament’s Speaker, Trevor Mallard, has launched an inquiry into politicians’ bullying, and other misbehaviour, by independent reviewer Debbie Francis.

Long-time political reporter Duncan Garner (whom I regard as a friend) recently said about Parliament, in a description that could have come out of the mouth of gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, “It was the worst of the worst. It’s a place where good people go to die and survivors must become feral to win.”

Bullying, however, is in the eye of the beholder. I recall an old press gallery journalist complaining to me a few years ago about what he regarded as bullying of himself by Garner and another journalist.

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The allegations against Maggie Barry were that she swore and yelled at staff, called an employee “stupid”, was derogatory about other MPs, used offensive terms such as “nutter”, discussed an employee’s sexuality and wrongly got staff to do National Party work. One of two complainants produced a recording of her apparently swearing and calling a local board member “barking”, another a “waste of space” and yet another a “duplicitous piece of shite”.

A transcript of the sorts of things I might say about politicians wouldn’t be that different, although I wouldn’t have put an “e” on the end of that final word in the last sentence.

The fact that a review by the Parliamentary Service of the complaint, supported by the statement of another Barry staffer, concluded there was no bullying by the MP reinforces my “eye-of-the-beholder” theory.

Barry may be silly, bumptious, arrogant and unduly negative about people she disagrees with, but I’m with the Parliamentary Service in believing that, on the basis of the complaint, she was not a bully.

The Mallard-ordered review will no doubt bring more ugly incidents to light. His office reportedly received more than 100 bullying-related phone calls on the day the review was announced. However salacious the allegations may be, the names of the accused and their accusers won’t be published. However, Francis’ report will be.  

I anticipate one recommendation of the report will be that the vast, anonymous beast that is the Parliamentary Service becomes subject to the Official Information Act. Abuse thrives in darkness and Parliament needs the lid ripped off.

Of course, Parliament is no different from other workplaces when it comes to bad behaviour, except that politicians tend to strut more than most and, in the rarefied air of the House, have an inflated view of themselves and their worth.

Speaking from the experience of my 15 years in the parliamentary press gallery (admittedly, a decade or two ago), it is a place where MPs and staff alike eat and drink together, have illicit sex together, conspire together and relentlessly plot to advance their own careers at the expense of others’.

News of the hundred or more present or former parliamentary staff who want to spill the beans to Francis should send a shiver down the spine of many in the building.

To refer again to Hunter S Thompson, this quote about television from his book Generation of Swine could equally well apply to Parliament: “Mainly we are dealing with a profoundly degenerate world, a living web of foulness, greed and treachery … The hog is in the tunnel.”

Parliament, watch out, here comes the hog.

This article was first published in the December 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.