Nick Smith’s resignation exemplifies the difficulties – and opportunities – of holding MPs accountable for poor treatment of staff, Marc Daalder writes

ANALYSIS: The surprise retirement of National Party MP Nick Smith amidst an employment investigation and allegations of bullying has brought an old, thorny issue back to the fore: How can MPs be held accountable for bullying and other misbehaviour towards staff?

While the details of Smith’s case remain unclear, it’s no secret that Parliament more broadly has an issue with bullying. One respondent to the Debbie Francis review of the culture in Parliament said, “Bullying infests every aspect of Parliament and everyone knows it.”

Another described dealing with their MP as “like battered wife syndrome”.

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On Tuesday, Newsroom spoke to a number of former Parliamentary staffers, from a range of political parties, on condition of anonymity. They told Newsroom that bullying isn’t common, but is nonetheless too prevalent. Staff members who do face bullying often feel isolated and have few options for resolution, these former staffers said, but increasing accountability for MPs isn’t straightforward either.

“You can’t go around saying, ‘my MP has a temper’ or whatever. That would be seen as disloyal,” a former staffer said.

In many ways, the little information available around Smith’s case typifies the problems – and potential solutions – for MP accountability in this area.

While bullying isn’t unique to Parliament, former staffers suggested that the high pressure environment was more likely to foster poor behaviour than other workplaces.

Another former staffer, who worked for the National Party in Parliament, said staffers and MPs hold immense power over one another.

“While you might think there is a huge power imbalance from MP to staffer (and no doubt in many ways MPs exert huge power over their staff that doesn’t exist in a normal employer-employee relationship), it does go both ways. Staff, especially aggrieved staff, can hold the careers of MPs in their hands,” this staffer said.

“This means that the relationship needs to be one of extremely high trust. An MP needs to have almost faultless confidence in their staff. That builds tension, and even the smallest errors (rightly or wrongly) can set some MPs off and ruin the relationship.”

Smith didn’t retire because of a verbal altercation, nor because of an employment investigation, but because the altercation and investigation were about to be made public.

Plus, a poor manager who was exposed as such in the private sector could face real accountability – up to and including being fired. That isn’t exactly an option when you’re dealing with elected representatives.

“I don’t know whether stronger accountability is necessarily the answer, because then that has some real democratic implications of leaders being able to oust people,” one former ministerial staffer told Newsroom.

“The nature of being an MP and being directly accountable for everything that happens in your office, whether it’s your doing or not, means managing staffing issues through the Parliamentary Service will likely never work,” the former National staffer said.

“You aren’t going to have an external party being able to adequately manage MP staffing issues, when so much is riding on it for the MP. MPs will likely end up just hiring party insiders where the risk of relationship breakdowns is lower. Again, rightly or wrongly.”

How, then, can MPs be held accountable? Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson suggested internal party politics has a role to play.

“Within our caucuses, each caucus has a whip or whips and their job is to work on that. There are levels of accountability,” he said.

“Within individual parties, the way in which MPs act, behave and so on, often has an influence on where they might end up on a party list. But I do think … that the implementation of the Francis review – and not just the specific recommendations but the broader cultural issues – are things we still have to work on.”

Another former staffer went further, suggesting that broader political risk was key to holding MPs accountable.

“No matter what you do internally, the only thing that matters in that building is political risk. It’s the only thing that ever changes behaviour,” they said.

“The only thing that’s ever going to change the treatment of staff is if it is seen as a political risk to mistreat staff. That means an MP knows that, if they’ve got a staffing issue, they’ve got to deal with it absolutely by the book. Otherwise they’re at risk of public disgrace or resignation or having their future career prospects dimmed. And that party leaderships know that if they have MPs who behave like this, and they’re promoted, and they’re aware of it, and they don’t deal with it, then they’re at risk as well.”

Take a look at the case of Nick Smith. The “verbal altercation” which spawned an employment investigation occurred in July of last year. Not only did Smith not resign then, he campaigned for the National Party at the election and stayed on even after he lost his seat.

The immediate prompt for his retirement decision? The spectre of public knowledge of the incident.

“I had decided to retire earlier this year and the only question was when,” Smith said in his statement on Monday.

“I was advised on Friday that the inquiry and its details have been leaked to the media for release tomorrow. … I have decided the best course of action for the parties involved, the National Party, my family and myself is to retire now.”

Smith didn’t retire because of a verbal altercation, nor because of an employment investigation, but because the altercation and investigation were about to be made public.

Now, not every verbal altercation needs to result in an MP quitting, but it appears little was done within the National Party to hold Smith to account. At least part of the leadership team has plausible deniability, with deputy leader Shane Reti saying he knew nothing of the incident, the investigation or Smith’s retirement before the media release was sent out Monday.

Party whip Matt Doocey, meanwhile, said he was aware there was an issue between Smith and the Parliamentary Service, but didn’t say when he learned. And leader Judith Collins has yet to speak to the media about the allegations.

If, as a matter of course, leadership teams were notified about employment investigations, that could foster greater accountability. It would mean they wouldn’t be able to dodge questions about what they had done to respond to an incident, like Reti now can.

In other words, if that political risk from mistreatment affected not just the MP who misbehaved but the entire party leadership as well, then leaders would be more willing to rein in their MPs. That could include a greater focus on management courses for MPs and addressing staff concerns before issues spiral out of control.

Some MPs and leaders have a reputation for taking care of their staff.

“National had a powerful advocate for staff in Paula Bennett, but she was furloughed during the period in 2020 when everybody lost their goddamn minds,” the former National staffer said.

But staff shouldn’t be dependent on having the right person in the right position to feel safe and able to do their jobs without abuse.

“Nobody should have to put up with bullying,” the same staffer said.

“There should be absolutely no tolerance for sexual harassment or sexual abuse at all. And there should be effective mechanisms within a caucus to handle this.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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