'Power imbalance': Sexual assault, bullying claims revealed in Parliament

The toxicity of Parliament has been laid bare, including instances of sexual harassment and assault, abusive texts, frequent shouting at staff, character assassination, and overall disrespectful conduct.

An inquiry has found widespread sexual harassment or violent behaviours, ranging from unwanted touching to sexual assault - both for males and females.

"You can't do anything about it. You feel completely helpless," one respondent said. "You've got a job you enjoy; you don't want to raise it in case no one takes your side. I feel that the whole time. I just want to get out."

Another respondent said: "My [MP] would just scream at me, asking for something one minute and then turning around and demanding it five minutes later, when it was clearly a two-hour job."

The review, launched in November 2018 and carried out by independent external reviewer Debbie Francis, came back on Tuesday with 85 recommendations.

"This review was commissioned to establish if the parliamentary workplace is a place where harmful behaviour occurs, and in some cases is supported by the system," House Speaker Trevor Mallard said.

"The report confirms this harmful behaviour occurs and recommends changes that can be made to ensure the system does not enable or support this behaviour."

The review found:

  • A high-intensity environment at Parliament
  • Lack of investment in leadership development
  • Unusual and complex employment relationships
  • Operational rather than strategic workforce management
  • Inadequate health, safety and wellbeing policies
  • Barriers to making complaints
  • Inadequate pastoral care

In a nutshell, the review found that unacceptable conduct in Parliament is "too often tolerated or normalised" and that the identities of many accused "are an open secret, and there are alleged serial offenders".

It found that the core problem in Parliament is "accountability", particularly for MPs, who "face few sanctions for harmful behaviour".

Seventy-eight percent of people surveyed said they experienced unreasonable or aggressive behaviour that threatened or intimidated them.

One person described sleeping with their phone under their pillow in case of a midnight text from the caller yelling abuse.

Respondents described a variety of behaviours from MPs, including frequent shouting, abusive texts, and character assassination.

Mallard thanked those who shared their experiences and suggestions, saying: "Your contributions will help us make meaningful systemic change."

The review provides MPs, ministers and chief executives a range of ways they can be better role models by holding colleagues and staff to account, but also investing further in the development of leaders and managers.

The employment model should be reformed, the review adds, by "professionalising the workforce and further investing in strategic human resource management".

New independent bodies and processes for complaints and investigations have been recommended, as well as extending the provision of pastoral care.

The review noted how a November 2018 Colmar Brunton Poll showed that citizen respect for Parliament has been decreasing, with only 7 percent of people saying they would speak highly of the 120 MPs.

Some staff said they were concerned about the perceived power imbalance between the Parliamentary Service for employers and for MPs.

"MPs don't like to be told what to do about staff," one person said. "MPs don't even read those emails about employment things from the Parliamentary Service."

Staff members have spoken out about alleged power abuse. Labour MP Meka Whaitiri was stripped of her ministerial portfolios last year after a staff member accused her of physically assaulting her - but Whaitiri denied it.

But some MPs expressed concern about their own wellbeing, pointing to how hard they're expected to work, with many complaining about the long work hours.

One MP said: "Don't get me wrong, I am so honoured to be here and I'm passionate about this work. But sometimes, the relentlessness of it and the lack of time at home with family means you're not your best self."

And while MPs are employed to work a 40-hour week, the review found that many of them work much longer hours than that, particularly during the weeks when Parliament sits.

The National Party has welcomed the report and agreed upon the need to "lift conduct in general given the issues this report identified in the parliamentary workplace".

National MP Judith Collins said: "I am surprised we haven't had massive self-harm and suicide in this place," adding that women with opinions are often singled out.

Leaders of the Parliamentary Service, the Office of the Clerk and the Department of Internal Affairs have welcomed the report.

Parliamentary Service general manager Rafael Gonzalez-Montero said the findings are deeply disappointing and the issues raised will be addressed.

All three agencies are considering the recommendations.