Women MPs discuss bullying, harassment and other misconduct during a public panel discussion to mark 125 years of suffrage 

Labour’s Ruth Dyson spoke about receiving death threats, as did the Greens’ Golriz Ghahraman, who remembered someone saying: “It’s time to load our shotguns.” New Zealand First’s Jenny Marcroft was at a politicians’ dinner where she was told to take her top off.

Women MPs spoke about bullying, harassment and other misconduct during a public panel discussion on ‘125 Years of Suffrage: Reflections on Women in New Zealand Politics – Past, Present and Future’ as part of the 2018 New Zealand Political Studies Association Conference at Victoria University of Wellington.

An external review of bullying and harassment of MPs and staff at Parliament, ordered by Speaker Trevor Mallard, is currently under way, as is an internal review by the National Party in the wake of allegations against its former MP Jami-Lee Ross.

During the panel discussion, National MP Jo Hayes, co-chair of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians New Zealand group, talked about “the issues that have been going on”.

“I tell you, now, within the [National] caucus, women have come in behind each other. We have become tight … And the men in our caucus, they sit there and look at us and they know that every single one of them is under our watch. Because they can’t do that to us. We won’t let it happen.”

Dyson is now her party’s senior whip but in previous governments “had a few portfolios where engagement with the public wasn’t always the most favourable”.

As well as death threats, she experienced “quite a lot of physical harassment”.

“It doesn’t only happen to women,” she said, but “women are more likely to be the target; men are less likely to attack other men”.

It’s not an easy thing to change, she said, but women “cannot allow this to be another barrier. We just can’t. Stand up, call it out, stick together”.

Ghahraman, Iranian-born and a former child asylum seeker, received support not only from Kiwis but from all around the world when in 2017 she was the first refugee to be elected to the New Zealand Parliament.

With the support, though, “came an outpouring of threats – anything from ‘What right do you have to criticise our government, you should be grateful?’ to ‘You should have been left to die’ to ‘It’s time to load our shotguns’. And the threats have continued”.

Threats and verbal attacks come both from people “fearing I might be a terrorist cell very ineffectively trying to bring down Western civilisation through the back benches of the Green Party” and from “Iranians and Muslims and people who feel I’m letting that team down”.

The “overwhelming majority”, said Ghahraman, don’t relate to policies, but occur “when I appear to be confident – it gets taken as being smug”.

She said: “Some of our messages have to change when we talk to women about political participation. We tell them often to ‘lean in’, to just put themselves forward, to smash that glass ceiling, and I don’t think it’s safe in a lot of circumstances to keep telling women as individuals to do that.

“I think it’s almost gaslighting. It’s almost telling women they are not where they need to be at that decision-making table because they haven’t put themselves forward. But I can’t in good conscience tell some of the young women that come up to me in tears because they are so tearful to see someone like them from a refugee background or from a migrant background in [Parliament], I can’t tell them to put themselves on the line to receive the kind of threats I get.

“We have to change the system and we have to change the culture that is the barrier to women putting themselves forward. Of course, we have to encourage each other and we have to stand with each other as we do more and more put ourselves forward, but that can’t be the only thing. Because it isn’t safe. And we know that.”

Marcroft had recently been at the annual general meeting of the global Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), where attendees had received the results of a study based on interviews with 81 women MPs and 42 women members of parliamentary staff from 45 European countries.

She said “85.2 percent of female MPs who took part in the survey said they had suffered psychological violence in the course of their term in office – 85.2 percent. Do our statistics in New Zealand match that? … 46.9 percent had received death threats, threats of rape or beating; 58.2 percent had been the target of online sexist attacks on various social networks; 67.9 percent had been the target of comments relating to their physical appearance or based on gender stereotypes; 24.7 percent had suffered sexual violence; and 14.8 percent had suffered physical violence.

“If more women knew this is what parliamentarian women faced, working in this role, that would be a huge barrier. So we need to do something about it. We need to look and see what is going on in New Zealand, what is happening in our Parliament, what is happening to our women parliamentarians”.

Marcroft said: “I recently had a situation where I was told to take my top off. It was at a casual dinner with other politicians and at one end of the table somebody told me, ‘Take your top off!’ I was like, ‘Did I hear that wrong?’ The next time it was said to me across the table, I was, ‘I’m pretty sure I heard that.’

“A male member of Parliament sitting next to me looked at me and because I didn’t react he didn’t react. He didn’t jump in there and say ‘Oi!’ and call out that behaviour. But what he did do was we talked about it the next day and he had written down in his notebook what the incident was, who made the comment, time, date, all of that. So he’s got that information should I ever choose to proceed with it.”

Hayes said she had read the IPU survey. “And is it different here in New Zealand? No, it’s not. It’s not different.”

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