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Parliament's failure to lead

5 June 2019

Parliament has been shaken by the finding that it is a toxic workplace with systematic bullying and harassment.

People management consultant Debbie Francis undertook an independent review of bullying and harassment in Parliament. She spoke with people and created an online survey which was completed by 1000 people.

Numerous incidents of sexual harassment and violence were reported. Fourteen people reported sexual assault, and 104 people reported unwanted touching or sexual advances.

Messages of a sexual nature by 20 people, and two experienced sexual coercion. One employee has been removed from Parliament pending an investigation into conduct the Speaker, the Right Honourable Trevor Mallard, has called rape.

The survey revealed reports of unreasonably aggressive behaviour, frequent shouting, abusive calls or texts, and character assassinations. Creepy sexist behaviour was reported. Staff were also required to do personal errands like buying and ironing clothing, buying wine to stock an MP's home, and buying an MP's lunch with their own money.

One worker described how an MP would scream at them, asking for tasks to be performed in five minutes when it was clearly a two-hour job. Another told of sleeping with their cell phone under their pillow in case a midnight text or call came. Often the call came with yelling and abuse.

Recently, the Employment Relations Authority heard a case involving an employee of Canterbury Relocations Limited whose manager would call her up to 10 times a day on weekends, and expect her to be available at night, on the weekend, and while on leave.

This, along with some other bullying behaviours, meant the employer failed to provide a safe workplace and act in good faith. The employee was awarded over $45,000.

Some in Parliament appear to believe hostile or unprofessional behaviour comes with the role.

One MP is quoted as saying the review was "a waste of everyone's time. It's naive to think that Parliament isn't a tough place".

Another said "it's like time is the thief of compassion. We're so smashed for time we often don't take that critical moment to relate to someone's pain or help them. I hate that … but it happens."

Despite this, there cannot be one rule for Parliament and another for all other employers.

The report makes for very grim reading. It is all the more sobering due to the fact that it is about our nation's leaders who certainly know better. The bullying and harassment revealed in Francis' report is not an area where political views can differ. It is a matter of basic respect and human dignity.

How have things got to this point? People are scared to complain, afraid of losing their jobs. A number of respondents to the survey said: "What can anyone do?"

Or: "How, exactly, is the service supposed to chastise an MP?"

This comes back to the employer's failure to have safeguards in place to deal with these issues.

Parliament ought to be a model employer. After all, it is Parliament that legislates high standards for employers generally. Debbie Francis' report is extraordinary in that so many staff in Parliament have been treated so badly. There are several groups at fault.

Firstly there are MPs and ministers. Parliament is a small community with few secrets. Certainly those who treat staff badly would be well known. The fact that staff are expected to live with the idiosyncrasies of MPs and that Parliament is a tough workplace is no excuse.

Readers may have heard that some of the key leaders in Parliament are calling for regular reports on how these problems are being resolved. The reports will be useful, but it's disappointing we have arrived at a situation where they are needed.

Then there are the technical employers, Parliamentary Service or Ministerial Services. They must know what is going on and have received many complaints over the years. According to Debbie Francis a workplace code of conduct must be put in place as a "basic requirement".

Then there is WorkSafe, the Government's agency for ensuring safe workplaces. To our knowledge WorkSafe has not carried out any prosecutions regarding bullying. One might have expected them to be drawn into Parliament given the seriousness of the problems.

The public will be disappointed with Parliament's failure to protect staff. All sides of the House are somewhat culpable, meaning nobody is prepared to throw the first stone or lead systemic change.

Debbie Francis deserves our gratitude for shining a light on the present reality. Parliamentary employees deserve a safe workplace. Let's hope protections for staff are enshrined within the important institution of Parliament.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm and Women's Refuge are partnering to bring your business an understanding of the effects of domestic violence and the new laws assisting victims of domestic violence at work. Contact us to discuss your needs.

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