Two years on from a damning review, politicians lack independent accountability for their conduct towards Parliament’s workers.

A two-year-old proposal to establish an independent commission to oversee MPs’ conduct has been quietly delayed, with unions frustrated by a continuing lack of accountability for politicians who behave badly towards their staff.

Following a number of high-profile bullying and harassment claims levelled against MPs and ministers in the last term of Parliament, Speaker Trevor Mallard commissioned Debbie Francis to carry out a review of bullying and harassment on the precinct.

Among Francis’ recommendations in her May 2019 report was the creation of “a new, independent body that can both receive and investigate serious complaints” relating to parliamentary conduct and breaches of the code or relevant policies by MPs.

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The establishment of an independent commission was one of the key recommendations made by Francis, who described the proposal as “a critical component” in addressing the perceived lack of accountability for conduct by MPs.

MPs did not wish to be judged by the peers and subjected to political-point scoring. And staff did not trust mechanisms under the control of MPs or parties.

However, in a post-Budget questionnaire form published this month, the Parliamentary Service said the independent commission recommendation had “been deferred at this stage”, with no further detail on when it would be picked back up.

“The biggest frustration for us is that while some high-level progress has been made … the biggest issue identified by the Francis review, which is the inability of those employers to hold MPs to account for the behaviour in the employment relationship, remains completely unaddressed.”
– Lauren Hourigan, Public Service Association

Public Service Association organiser Lauren Hourigan told Newsroom the union was disappointed that work on the independent commission proposal did not appear to have been picked up in this term of Parliament, after a code of conduct* had been agreed shortly before the 2020 election.

“The biggest frustration for us is that while some high-level progress has been made … the biggest issue identified by the Francis review, which is the inability of those employers to hold MPs to account for the behaviour in the employment relationship, remains completely unaddressed.”

While unions had succeeded in removing the “breakdown in relationship” clause from the Parliamentary Service collective agreement, meaning MPs could no longer fire their staff at will, that meant there was a need for greater ability within traditional employment processes to address politicians’ behaviour.

Hourigan said there was greater visibility and awareness of culture issues as a result of the review, but the independent commission proposal was the single-most important issue which still had to be dealt with.

Paul Tolich, a senior national industrial officer for the E tū union, told Newsroom he supported the proposal, which should be one step removed from Parliament as in other countries so it was “without fear or favour”.

Tolich said there was much greater emphasis and awareness of management to look after parliamentary staff following the release of the Francis review, while changes to the collective agreement had also been valuable. However, there were still concerns about how some MPs treated their staff.

“There are unfortunately always members of Parliament on all sides that… just do not understand the fact that the parliamentary staffers working in their offices should be treated decently,” he said.

“Even though Parliament is a very tense at times and high pressure environment, people should be properly treated, spoken to and dealt with in all cases in a civil manner.”

Parties non-committal on proposal

The Greens were the only party to explicitly support the establishment of an independent commissioner when asked by Newsroom, with Labour, National and ACT all non-committal (Te Paati Māori did not respond).

Green MP Jan Logie said the Francis Review had “clearly indicated staff and MPs did not universally have confidence that their concerns would be taken seriously through political processes” and other countries’ parliaments had benefited from external watchdogs.

The Greens were disappointed with the lack of movement on the Francis review recommendations beyond the code of conduct, but had not given up hope of the culture change which was needed.

“Stories of abuse, mistreatment of staff, or MPs feeling unsafe, all undermine the functioning of and confidence in our democracy.”

Labour MP and parliamentary culture committee representative Angie Warren-Clark said the party’s priority last term had been to get the code of behaviour in place. Some of the work had been delayed by Covid-19, but the party was “happy to have a further look at the proposal if the committee wants to progress it”.

National chief whip Matt Doocey said the caucus needed to discuss the proposal in more detail before it could form a position, while it was “broadly comfortable” with how some of the other recommendations from the Francis review had been implemented so far.

ACT leader David Seymour says his party’s MPs have pooled their individualised funding for staff to set up a ‘caucus support centre’. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

ACT leader David Seymour said whether his party could support an independent commissioner would come down to its design, with a significant amount of transparency critical.

An unelected commissioner with no real power would make little difference from the status quo, while one with too much power could undermine the democratic relationship between MPs and voters.

Seymour said there was “no question there’s been enormous problems with the way elected MPs have been treating staff”.

With ACT’s caucus growing beyond Seymour alone to 10 MPs, the party had undertaken a number of measures to ensure a healthy culture.

It had pooled individual MP funding for staff to create a ‘caucus support centre’ working in an open-plan environment and overseen by the party’s chief of staff.

Seymour believed the joint model was more professional than one-on-one relationships between MPs and staff, while an open office reduced the chance of inappropriate behaviour from a politician towards a staffer, as had been rumoured to occur in previous parliaments.

“It’s the way to win, we’re going to get more voters and more power if we make it attractive for people to come here.”

A Parliamentary Service spokesperson said chief executive Rafael Gonzalez-Montero was on annual leave and unable to comment in time for publication.

* In his previous capacity as Press Gallery chair, the author of this article was among the members of a cross-parliamentary Code of Conduct steering group which last term agreed a code of conduct for those on the precinct.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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