Clare Curran - Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

The Clare Curran story reveals a political culture that makes NZ meaner, smaller

Bullying behaviour is embedded in institutions across our country, and parliament is no exception. But it can be different, writes Jess Berentson-Shaw.

Every now and then I find myself imagining what it would look like if our political system was built around the sorts of ideals most of us deeply aspire to. If we had a system that encouraged people in politics to consistently meet across their differences and work together on the big stuff that matters. Like restoring the climate, building a more equal society, or meeting the needs of the many not the few. What if we had a formal political system that at its heart upheld the mana of every person, and every living system? Boy, would we fly. Then I read things like the Clare Curran interview published on the weekend and I hit the ground with a hard bump.

On the first read of the interview I felt a strange tingle up my spine. It made my skin crawl. Here was a woman in a public role who was subjected to sustained bullying and ridicule from multiple people. Who experienced a mental health injury as a result. No mistakes Clare Curran made could make the treatment of her acceptable. Ever. For all of us who have screwed up in our work, in our personal lives, this can never be the right way for people to respond. But systemic bullying is a reality we are having to do the hard yards on. People who bully, and bullying behaviour, is embedded in institutions across our country.

On second reading of the interview with Clare Curran, I thought about all the people who leave politics quickly, bruised and battered, and those who will never enter it because of where that treatment of Clare flows from – the worldviews, values, and behaviours regularly surfaced in politics in New Zealand. A political culture that makes our country a meaner, smaller, and less dynamic place.

There’s an interesting piece of research out of the UK that speaks to these problems in our political culture (PDF). Researchers asked people in the public what they aspired to most in life. Most people (over three quarters) prioritised things like taking care of the people they love, and of the environment, being responsible, broadminded and accepting of others, and being creative. They were then asked whether they thought people in government institutions, including political institutions prioritise these same values. If these two were on Tinder, The People would have made a hard swipe left on politics.

People do not think those in our political institutions reflect what matters most. Rather they are seen to privilege power for power’s sake, money, and preserving their public image, while people in outgroups are consistently shunned. They are values that encourage the poor treatment of others. Clare Curran’s experience is the latest of many personal stories that highlight what the data shows.

The invisible rules of political institutions

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is one of those things people say during tedious powerpoint presentations at conferences on organisational change. It’s lost its meaning because nobody makes visible what and whose culture is doing all the eating. Politics has a culture, a set of worldviews and assumptions about who it is for, who gets to contribute and how people should act and respond under pressure to prove their worth. These are mostly unwritten and barely visible rules. They are rules nonetheless, and you get in line or you get out. It is not hard to figure out whose worldviews and values get enacted, given our Westminster style of politics is based in Eurochristian and Victorian worldviews.

Politics is often talked about like a competitive sport, or worse a battle. By those in politics itself, political commentators, media, and all of us who love the thrill of the chase. Language is incredibly powerful in framing our thoughts and behaviours. Study after study has shown how metaphors for example influence how people think about issues from crime through to poverty, and the sort of policies and actions people are willing to support as a result. The narratives, values, metaphors that are used in politics define a political culture that excludes many people and damages others.

Ask most people if bullying is ever acceptable, and they will say no, no matter what a person’s position, level of competence or perceived lack of it. In practice, bullying that is embedded into a culture through worldviews and values is incredibly hard to stand up to. Those who call it out become subject to the same behaviours. Systems are self protecting, and so the bullying and despicable behaviour becomes justified within the system through comments like “well they were rubbish at their job” or “they were a bad fit, a complainer, a troublemaker, not up to it”. Systemic change needs collective action.

Curran (and many others) have found politics is made harder for women, but it doesn’t stop there. Pansy Wong talked about the challenges of being an ethnic minority. Mojo Mathers about being the sole MP with a disability in a parliament (and political system) that is exclusionary of disabled people. Holly Walker and Chlöe Swarbrick have written about the impact of parliamentary politics on their mental health. Parliamentary staff have made a number of formal complaints of bullying, while harassment of volunteers and staffers in political parties is familiar territory.

It would be remiss to stop at individual experiences. Entire ways of thinking and knowing are excluded in these institutions. New Zealand’s Westminster system of politics and policy making is a source of ongoing harm for many Māori and doesn’t reflect what was agreed to by Māori in Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

It can be different

To develop more innovative and transformative economic, social, environmental policies, policies that work for people with lives and needs that don’t fit the mould of our current political culture, that mould needs to change. Inclusive policies flow from inclusive and responsive political systems and institutions that all people can engage with. Research shows when people feel political and other public institutions don’t reflect their values they disengage as citizens, stop voting, don’t participate in civic action and retreat from democracy altogether. The challenge for people inside and outside of politics is to keep working at our political institutions to reflect what we most aspire to, rather than reflecting back the worst of us.

What gives me hope is the recent round of local body politics. In Wellington where I live, younger people (under 40 is considered young in politics), people with disabilities, Māori people, ran for council and were voted in. A small revolution that occurred across the country. Changing the people around the table does not miraculously lead to a new table, but it’s a start. With continued support from the outside for new people, with different ways of thinking, change to the inside is possible.

One big change needed on the inside is a political culture where people who come with a variety of lived experience, ways of thinking and knowing, skills and personalities can learn and contribute, where robust conversations about what matters, process, policy, and outcomes for people happens while upholding the humanity and dignity of everyone, regardless. In 2020 with all the challenges we face we are in need of a system that can support all that work we will need to do together.



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