NZ election 2020: Parliament's culture back under scrutiny, but Jacinda Ardern, Judith Collins handled scandals well - expert

A professor of politics says recent political scandals could hurt voter turnout as parliament's culture again comes under scrutiny. 

This week has seen Rangitata National MP Andrew Falloon quit politics after being accused of sending inappropriate images to young women and not being upfront about it, while Labour's Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has been sacked after having an affair with a staffer. 

Back in May 2019, a report was released from Debbie Francis into bullying and harassment in Parliament. It highlighted systemic issues, with unacceptable conduct "too often tolerated or normalised". Among a set of 85 recommendations made in the comprehensive report was for a code of conduct for members to sign, but Stuff reports a code devised by a cross-party group won't be voted in Parliament before the election. 

Jennifer Curtin, a political commentator and professor at the University of Auckland, says measures are needed to support such a code.

"The big thing about a code of conduct working is that there has to be a whole bunch of other stuff wrapped around it. So, training, really good role models, mentors and an independent body that would actually police it," she said.

"The Francis report, which was delivered last year, showed that bullying and harassment and broader, perhaps, inappropriate relations are systemic. It is a high-intensity culture that's seen as a risk factor. Some elements of it are normalised. There are barriers to people coming forward and making complaints. There are really limited accountability processes in place. There is some onus on leaders here."

She said the response to Wednesday's sacking of Lees-Galloway by some may make people less confident to come forward. 

"I think what was disappointing, a little bit, about yesterday is that a couple of commentators and one minister came out at the end of the day and was saying well you can't believe everything you hear either and a lot of it is lies and gossip," Curtin said.

"We know that there are barriers and that there are people who are in vulnerable situations and that kind of narrative also doesn't help them feel confident about coming forward in the future."

These cultural issues aren't exclusive to Parliament, she says.

"This isn't just about parliamentary culture, this is about party culture as well. These things are going on inside political parties and how are they being policed in there and what kinds of rules and norms exist there.

"Are we doing sensible job descriptions, interviews, checking that people are up for this job considering that there are real potentials for promotion and leadership?"

The political commentator echoed Ardern in that the issue with Lees-Galloway was about him having a position of leadership as the Workplace Relations minister. 

"Perhaps it's not the extramarital affair, but having the extramarital affair with someone who works under you."

Jennifer Curtin.
Jennifer Curtin. Photo credit: The AM Show.

Lees-Galloway was sacked by the Prime Minister on Tuesday night. That came after Ardern was provided a "tip-off" by National's Judith Collins, which the Leader of the Opposition says she received from a third-party.

While Ardern didn't announce she was dismissing Lees-Galloway until 11am on Wednesday, Collins revealed earlier that morning on The AM Show that she had been given information about a minister which she passed on to Ardern. 

Collins didn't provide The AM Show with any details of the tip-off and said she didn't want to use the allegations to attack Labour. She has since been criticised for mentioning it on television before giving the Prime Minister a chance to act publicly. The National leader's defence is that she was asked directly on The AM Show if she had heard anything about any Labour MP. 

Collins' revelation came after the scandal around Falloon. She came to know of issues with the National MP after the Prime Minister's Office on Friday sent her office information it had received about him earlier in the week. On Monday, Collins confronted Falloon and he announced his retirement. 

Asked for her thoughts about how the scandals have played out and each leaders' way of handling the issues, Curtin said there could be an impact on voter turnout at the election. 

"Both [National's Judith Collins and Labour's Jacinda Ardern] handled it quickly and they did demonstrate leadership on this, so let's draw a line under that part. But I think there are real risks for the voting public here that they are going to turn off politics," she told The AM Show on Wednesday.

"We have 65 percent from our survey, shows that people trust Parliament, politics and so on. We don't want to see that decline, especially in the time of COVID-19 and post-pandemic kinds of politics. There are real risks that voter turnout might decline this election."

But Newshub's Political Editor Tova O'Brien says she thinks the leaders "failed in their handling of both of these cases". 

"On Andrew Falloon, I think the Prime Minister's Office sat on it for too long. Yes, when the PM got it, she moved pretty swiftly, but her Chief of Staff sat on it for 24 hours longer than he needed to be, and a male MP, 37 years old, who had drunkenly sent indecent text messages to a teenager was allowed to be an MP for longer than he should have been, basically.

"The fact that Judith Collins outed it all on The AM Show before the Prime Minister had a chance to publicly deal with it, I think, was also on the nose completely.

"I think that both of these leaders could have handled these two respective situations better and the scrap that is now ensuing from both of them about 'I did it better than she did it', 'I did it better than she did it'.[It] is turning out to be the almighty scrap between Judith Collins and Jacinda Ardern to date, in the one short week that they have been opponents."

To read a timeline of the Andrew Falloon saga, click here.

NZ election 2020: Parliament's culture back under scrutiny, but Jacinda Ardern, Judith Collins handled scandals well - expert
Photo credit: Getty / Newshub.

O'Brien also noted that Lees-Galloway's role as Workplace Relations and Safety minister came into play when Ardern made her decision to sack him.

"It is not, as she says, because of the affair, it is because of his role, the fact that he was the minister responsible for workplace relations, so the person responsible for setting the culture and standards within a workplace and also she says if there was a bad judgement call there, then it was protracted over that 12 months," she said.

"She knows all the details, we don't thankfully. We don't need to or want to. She has made this judgement call based on his role and the fact that it could be seen as the improper use of a ministerial office, improper use of his role."

The Political Editor said people she has been speaking to around Parliament, who have long worked on the premises, believe "this has opened the floodgates in terms of what was once out of bounds is now in bounds". 

"People might start talking about things that perhaps weren't discussed in the Parliament or weren't part of the public discourse before. This has changed all of that."