A review is underway into how Parliamentary Service and party whips deal with MPs who have staffing issues. It comes as Jacinda Ardern criticises how long it took to deal with the problems in Gaurav Sharma’s office, ending in his expulsion today.
The Labour caucus expelled rogue backbench MP Gaurav Sharma when it met on Tuesday morning and unanimously voted to refer the matter to the Labour Party for it to consider any further disciplinary action.
Leader Jacinda Ardern told media there are “definitely things to be learned from this episode, but none of it justifies the recent behaviour of Gaurav”.
It’s been 12 days since the Hamilton West MP penned an opinion piece for the New Zealand Herald claiming bullying by chief whips and a failure to deal with staffing issues in his office.
One week ago, the caucus met and suspended Sharma for bringing the party into disrepute, but after repeated allegations and claims over the weekend MPs made the decision on Tuesday morning to expel him from the caucus, effective immediately.
Sharma told media he’d spoken twice at the meeting and explained why he joined the party and the principles he believed in, and stepped through some of the allegations. He also apologised to those in the caucus who felt he had broken their trust.
Following the meeting, Ardern told Newsroom she had reflected on the process the Parliamentary Service and whips’ office had been using for more than a year to deal with complaints both from Sharma and those within his office.
“My view is that … it was a process that took too long and that will have caused frustration for all those involved.”
The triangular relationship that exists between MPs, Parliamentary Service, who employ staff in MPs’ offices, and the whips, who manage party MPs, is an unusual employment relationship.
“It just seems to take a very long time and I don’t think we ever contemplated someone not engaging either.’’ – Speaker Trevor Mallard
The Debbie Francis review into Parliament’s workplace and culture identified problems with that triangular relationship, resulting in employment consultant Michael Quigg being hired some months ago by the Parliamentary Service to look at how it could be improved.
Ardern told Newsroom on Tuesday she wanted to “go back and check if it’s working as anticipated’’ and she planned to do so while Parliament was still in the early stages of responding to the Francis review.
Speaker Trevor Mallard launched the Francis review into bullying and harassment at Parliament in November 2018 – the final report was made public six months later.
Mallard told Newsroom on Tuesday that Quigg had already done a lot of interviews with MPs and staff on how the employment process and triangular relationship’s working.
“I think most people want it to be refined and improved but no one quite has the answer to the how.
“It’s not a perfect situation because you’ve got the double relationship with the member and the Parliamentary Service, but nobody can think of a better one,” Mallard said.
“It just seems to take a very long time and I don’t think we ever contemplated someone not engaging either.’’
A number of interventions had been used to address complaints made by staff in Sharma’s office, which Sharma had seen as bullying by the whips’ office.
Sharma also claims he raised his own issues with staff not meeting expectations before any complaints were made about him.
Over time Sharma stopped engaging with the whips’ office and Parliamentary Service and a hiring freeze was put on his office, making it difficult for him to carry out his constituency work.
Mallard accepts it is an issue when electorate MPs don’t have staff and “that’s why it’s important to get it sorted as quickly as possible’’.
“But the other bit of that is that you can’t put someone into an unsafe situation, so that’s why getting stuff sorted is important.
“That’s why the supervision or advice or training or getting another MP to work with someone closely…getting that in place as quickly as possible and then doing checks to make sure it’s working is important,’’ Mallard said.
Sharma is now an independent MP and while he no longer has Labour Party resources at his disposal, he will continue to have staff to help with his Hamilton West electorate.
Ardern says she will make sure a Labour MP is available in the electorate for those who would prefer to deal with someone from the party now that Sharma has been expelled.
Quigg’s report to Parliamentary Service with proposed improvements to employment processes isn’t expected to land until later this year.