Labour bullying allegations: What we know

While National has spent the last few days dealing with serious allegations against its newest MP, it's Labour ending the week fielding questions over claims of bullying coming from one of its own backbenchers. 

Hamilton West MP Dr Gaurav Sharma on Thursday afternoon wrote a column for the NZ Herald claiming bullying is rife within the halls of powers, with gaslighting and victimising enabled by Parliamentary Service, parties' Whips offices, as well as the Prime Minister's Office.

However, it's also emerged that since last year Parliamentary Service and the Labour Whip's office have been involved in trying to resolve issues between Dr Sharma and staff in his office. Hiring for the MP's office has been paused while he receives coaching and mentoring. 

Who is Dr Gaurav Sharma?

A first-term MP, Dr Sharma entered Parliament in 2020 after winning the electorate of Hamilton West away from National during Labour's landslide victory at that year's election. 

According to a biography on the Labour Party website, Dr Sharma worked as a General Practitioner in Hamilton before his political career. 

He previously studied medicine at the University of Auckland and was also a Fullbright Scholar at George Washington University in Washington DC, where he received a Master in Business Administration.

Dr Sharma is a member of the Health Select Committee in Parliament.

Dr Gaurav Sharma
Dr Gaurav Sharma Photo credit: Getty Images.

What has he said so far?

In his Herald column, Dr Sharma said efforts within Parliament, including by Speaker Trevor Mallard, to improve the workplace culture in Parliament were "a PR exercise to placate" voters angry about bullying.

He claimed bullying and gaslighting, including "member-to-member and party-to-member bullying" is "rampant in Parliament".

Dr Sharma alleged Parliamentary Service "promoted and facilitated" this "by working behind the scenes" with party Whips offices, leaders' offices and the Prime Minister's Office. 

The piece ends with Dr Sharma highlighting that "in my experience" when an MP raises concerns with Parliamentary Service, it "stonewalls the conversation, ghosts the MP and throws them to the Whip's office to be gaslighted and victimised further so that the party can use the information to threaten you about your long-term career prospects". 

"Politicians especially at top of our current system and from parties across the political spectrum often talk about 'changing the system' and 'kindness', but as the saying goes 'charity must start at home'," he wrote.

Dr Sharma is yet to comment further to the media, but on Facebook shared screenshots of messages he received from former Labour MP Darien Fenton. Fenton told him she was "appalled by you (sic) ill discipline in mouthing off in the media" and that he should have gone to the Public Service Association, which she is a member, for help. 

Dr Sharma replied questioning whether Fenton is "still on the party payroll" and said that she should "mind your own business".

"I have made multiple complaints through proper channels, including to the PMO [Prime Minister's Office] over the last 1.5 years and nothing has been done," he said.

Dr Sharma said it was "appalling" that Fenton, as a former MP and a union representative, was wanting "to victimise me instead of asking the party what they did about the bully".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has disputed Dr Sharma's allegations.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has disputed Dr Sharma's allegations. Photo credit: Getty Images.

What is Labour and Parliamentary Service saying?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the Labour leader, is disputing the allegations, saying she has seen "no evidence of what has been framed as bullying".

Instead, Ardern said Dr Sharma has been receiving support from Parliamentary Service and the Labour Whip's office after issues emerged between him and his staff last year. She wouldn't say what the issues were for privacy reasons. 

Ardern said the parties have been trying to resolve the issues through a "number of interventions", but these had clearly "given rise to some issues from Gaurav's perspective". But Ardern said she believed the situation was being handled appropriately. 

Ardern suggested that attempts by Parliamentary Service and the Labour Whip's office to resolve the issue between Dr Sharma and his staff hadn't been "necessarily welcomed".

"Even when you engage in what you believe is a constructive way, others may interpret that differently. That is for us to resolve. But I do believe that can be resolved."

She believed issues were isolated to Dr Sharma's office. 

"While no one can claim perfection, I'm confident that these concerns relate only to Gaurav's situation and don't reflect a wider issue and that we will continue to do what we can to help Gaurav with these issues in a supportive way and to ensure that they are resolved to the best of our ability," Ardern said.

Labour's Chief Whip released a statement on Friday morning.
Labour's Chief Whip released a statement on Friday morning. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Labour Chief Whip Duncan Webb made similar points in a statement on Friday morning. He said his office became aware of the issues between Dr Sharma and his staff a year ago. 

"At all times the Whip's office has acted in good faith and sought to work constructively with Gaurav and the Parliamentary Service to ensure he has good support available to address issues between him and his staff," Webb said.

Webb and Parliamentary Service met with Dr Sharma "in good faith to progress these issues as recently as yesterday, he was fully represented at that meeting".

"We are mindful these are ongoing relationships, so we must respect individual's privacy, but we will continue to seek a resolution with Gaurav in the coming weeks."

Webb said hiring staff for Dr Sharma's office had been staffed to provide him with more assistance first.

Parliamentary Service chief executive Rafael Gonzalez-Montero on Thursday night said it had worked closely with Webb's office to "address employment matters with Dr Sharma". 

"We do what we can to support all our MPs, and we acknowledge the triangular employment relationship at Parliament is complex," he said.

"It is also important to make it clear that the Service cannot direct MPs what to do and how to act. MPs are elected representatives of New Zealand's citizens and that would impinge on New Zealand's democracy, and the free right of MPs as elected representatives of New Zealand's citizens."

Gonzalez-Montero said Parliamentary Service had a responsibility "to promote a healthy and secure culture within our workplace, and we have made significant progress on this following the 2019 External Independent Review into Bullying and Harassment in the New Zealand Parliamentary Workplace".

Ardern on Friday said she had exchanged messages with Dr Sharma since his opinion piece was published. 

"Gaurav is a valued member of our team. We wouldn't be working so hard to resolve these issues if he wasn't. I've reached out to him but I think from here, the best thing we can do is continue to work together to resolve the issues that have been raised."

Ardern wouldn't rule out punishment for the MP for going to the media over the issue.

"As you can imagine, we do have expectations in our team around the way issues, particularly where they relate to the privacy of others, including the people that we hire, and that we are lucky enough to have worked for us, and so clearly there are a number of issues here at play."

She said there "are things we need to work through", but her primary focus was seeing the staffing issues resolved and "down the track we can deal with the way in which it's been raised".

National's Sam Uffindell was only elected to Parliament a month ago, but is already in the spotlight for a scandal.
National's Sam Uffindell was only elected to Parliament a month ago, but is already in the spotlight for a scandal. Photo credit: Newshub.

What else has happened at Parliament this week?

Dr Sharma's accusations come after the National Party spent most of its week fronting over claims about new Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell.

Stuff reported on Monday that Uffindell had been asked to leave King's College more than 20 years ago after violently bashing a younger student. Uffindell owned up when the story broke, saying he was a changed man and had disclosed the incident to the National selection panel when running to be the party's Tauranga candidate.

National leader Christopher Luxon stood by Uffindell, but said he wished he had been told by the party. Luxon didn't learn about the incident until Monday.

On Tuesday night, however, the story took a new turn when a RNZ report revealed a former flatmate of Uffindell's had felt intimidated and threatened by him during their second year at University. While the new MP rejected acting this way, he was stood down from caucus while National launched an independent investigation.

Dr Sharma's opinion piece appears to have been prompted by the discussion of bullying "and the abysmal culture of our political parties" that the Uffindell scandal led to.