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Gaurav Sharma and Trevor Mallard at the parliamentary press gallery party in 2021. Photo: @gmsharmanz
Gaurav Sharma and Trevor Mallard at the parliamentary press gallery party in 2021. Photo: @gmsharmanz

PoliticsAugust 12, 2022

An MP blasts bullying, ghosting, gaslighting. And delivers a godsend to Christopher Luxon

Gaurav Sharma and Trevor Mallard at the parliamentary press gallery party in 2021. Photo: @gmsharmanz
Gaurav Sharma and Trevor Mallard at the parliamentary press gallery party in 2021. Photo: @gmsharmanz

A thundering, opaque opinion piece from a Labour backbencher shocked our politics and sharpened in focus through the night. But what it’s all about remains in large part a puzzle, writes Toby Manhire.

Reading Gaurav Sharma’s opinion piece for the NZ Herald late afternoon yesterday was like walking into a movie with half an hour to run. There was a lot going on – retribution, rejoinder and righteous anger. It just wasn’t clear quite what about. The targets were obvious: the first-term Labour MP for Hamilton West named them. The speaker of the house, Trevor Mallard. The Parliamentary Service, who administer the place. The office of the leader of the opposition. The whips. And the prime minister’s office. Untold stories of MPs bullying their colleagues without consequence while victims were left without support “would easily fill a book or two”, he alleged.

Sharma cast his net as far as the ninth floor. He didn’t name Jacinda Ardern directly, but who else would he have us thinking of in the thundering final paragraph? “Politicians especially at top [sic] of our current system and from parties across the political spectrum often talk about ‘changing the system’ and ‘kindness’,” he wrote. “But as the saying goes ‘charity must start at home’.”

Statements over the last couple of years from Mallard, who commissioned the Francis Review into the bullying culture at parliament amounted, Sharma wrote, to “a PR exercise to placate some of the backlash from the public”. MPs, he argued, faced harassment from within the walls of parliament and were left unsupported by Parliamentary Service, “without anyone specific taking legal or moral responsibility for addressing these concerns”. Indeed, “member-to-member and party-to-member bullying” was not just “rampant in Parliament” but, Sharma claimed, “promoted and facilitated by this very organisation by working behind the scenes with the whips office, the offices of the leaders of various parties, along with the Office of the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister’s Office.” 

He added: “If this was a ‘real-world’ organisation run like any publicly owned or privately operated company it would be, in my opinion, long defunct.” And he wasn’t finished yet. In his experience, he said, when serious issues were raised, Parliamentary Service “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”.

Some of the context began to fall into focus in the response from the chief executive of Parliamentary Service, Rafael Gonzalez-Montero, who rejected the allegations by saying his team “works alongside whips from all parties. This has included working closely with the Labour whip’s office over the past year to address employment matters with Dr Sharma.” And from the chief whip, Duncan Webb, who said: “We’ve been working with Parliamentary Services and Gaurav to address employment matters in his office. We had been working to provide support for Gaurav and find a solution. We’re committed to reaching an outcome everyone is happy with.”

As far as specifics go, the only other clue was provided in an exchange between former Labour MP and union organiser Darien Fenton and Sharma, which he posted last night. He should have gone to the PSA, she said: “I am appalled by your ill discipline in mouthing off in the media.” His response: “Mind your own business. I have made multiple complaints through proper channels including to the PMO over the last 1.5 years and nothing has been done. What’s appalling is that despite being a former MP and a union representative you want to victimise me instead of asking the party what they did about the bully.”

In the absence of anything more, the rest is conjecture. But Sharma clearly felt strongly enough not just to publish a commentary permeated by fury, including at his own party’s senior parliamentary leadership, but in the full knowledge it would swing the media spotlight away from an internal upheaval in the National Party. As if the timing didn’t already make that obvious, it was right there in the opening sentence. “Much has been said this week about bullying and the abysmal culture of our political parties which, in my opinion, continue to betray the trust of our voters,” he began. For Christopher Luxon and a National Party that has spent the last four days in fire-fighting mode, it was a godsend.

Sharma’s complaints should not of course be dismissed as some palace-political salvo – they need proper consideration and investigation. But you’d forgive the casual viewer glancing at recent political episodes and thinking, well, plague on all their houses. Or maybe not quite all. If you’d asked me at the start of the parliamentary term, which of the four biggest caucuses would make it two years in without being visited by infighting, insurrection or internal demons, I’d have got that very wrong. I wouldn’t have picked David Seymour and Act.

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