Is New Zealand Parliament an unsafe workplace?

From our Leader, September 15, 2022 Digital Edition

New Zealand’s Parliament is where the Constitution should be saved (File Photo)

Venkat Raman
Auckland, September 16, 2022

Over the past two weeks, we have been at the receiving end of bouquets and brickbats in equal measure, over the so-called ‘Dr Gaurav Sharma Episode.’

Some readers have been critical of Dr Sharma over his perceived intransigence and his continued barrage of attacks without providing any evidence, while some other readers have attacked us for what they called, ‘biased reporting.’ We owe a duty to respond to both.

Firstly, we do not keep the conscience of anyone, certainly not that of a Member of Parliament, for every MP has the onerous task of facing his or her constituent at least every three years. But we keep the pulse of the people, for we must function within their realm to remain relevant and trustworthy. This is why, we are responsible to the people, not those representing them.

Secondly, it is our duty to give vent to varied opinions, even if they belong to a small number of people. In a democracy, every voice, like every vote matters.

Thirdly, Members of Parliament are public servants and hence must be held to account. They should substantiate every argument, leave alone, allegation, for, without evidence, they run the risk of being rejected by the very people who elected them in the first place.

The onus of proof

Dr Gaurav Sharma stands on a precipice.

He has levelled a series of allegations against his Party hierarchy – the Prime Minister, her office, the Labour Party Whip, Parliamentary Service and his own staff – but thus far has not produced any proof of his accusations. It is often said that those who accuse have the onus of proof.

Dr Sharma has garnered sympathy from some quarters, mainly because he says that he is a victim of bullying – a word that evokes instant and immense sympathy.

That is understandable because we are often told that New Zealand has the worst record of bullying in the workplace and that thousands suffer in silence.

But it is untenable that a Member of Parliament should accuse his colleagues of bullying and staff of incompetence without providing any evidence.

Demand for Public Inquiry

Going beyond that, he has repeatedly called for a public inquiry.

More than anyone, Dr Sharma must know what a public inquiry entails. It warrants the involvement of someone such as a sitting or retired judge, a Queen’s (or now King’s) Counsel and staff to inquire into the complaint, call for witnesses, question them and then determine who the perpetrator is and who is the victim and report the findings to the Governor-General.

All these come at a cost and we are not sure if there has been a public inquiry into the personal allegations of a single Member of Parliament.

Instead, Dr Sharma could have insisted on a Parliamentary Inquiry and moved a resolution to that effect within the House. If he has any sympathisers within the Debating Chamber, by now, a decision would have been made.

On yet another note, Dr Sharma could have lodged a complaint with the Police who would have then examined the complaint and determined if there was a need to pursue it.

Although tabloid attention can help to raise standards, it can also occlude. The larky language of newspaper scandals, of romps and love rats and Lotharios, can make the reader forget that for many of those involved, such scandals are not amusing at all. When Matthew Parris, a writer and former Conservative MP in the United Kingdom, researched the history of parliamentary scandals he wrote that it had “proved less of a giggle than perhaps I hoped.” Each story, while often “richly comic,” was also a chronicle of lives ruined.

Improving Party Discipline

How can things be improved? Every Parliament is a blend of late nights, raging egos and multiple bars is one reason why misconduct persists. But other organisations have toxic cultures and predatory men. If Parliament were a company, there would be a cull, a new CEO and a revamped logo. But this organisation has features that make it easier for miscreants to hide.

We take you back to an editorial that appeared in The Guardian on the subject of Party discipline and the behaviour and otherwise of MPs.

“There are two traditional means by which MPs are held responsible for their actions. They face the judgment of voters in elections, and they are subject to discipline by party whips. Those are mostly political evaluations, and there is still a large realm where MPs are their own bosses, unchecked in the way that they use their power – able too often to abuse it.”

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