After two weeks of extraordinary infighting, the Hamilton West MP has now been expelled from the Labour caucus, and sent to the margins of political life as an Independent in Parliament. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has declared the matter “concluded and resolved”. And there’s a general sense from most media coverage and commentary that Sharma is a hapless primadonna with little to show for his rebellion.
Because Sharma doesn’t appear to have any strong political differences with his colleagues, the conflict hasn’t helped increase the contest of ideas in society or fuelled any big debates on how to fix society’s problems.
Yet, the Sharma scandal hasn’t entirely been a beltway scandal devoid of substance. Regardless of the motives various commentators might attribute to Sharma, he has raised important issues about how Government and Parliament operate.
It’s worth reading his original opinion piece in the Herald, especially after the hundreds of subsequent news items about the drama have overshadowed the key issues raised.
In his piece, Sharma suggests Parliament operates in some very unhealthy ways, and there is a rottenness in its official procedures and institutions. For example, he says claims by outgoing Speaker Trevor Mallard that he has been cleaning up the bullying culture are “a PR exercise to placate some of the backlash from the public”. And Sharma correctly highlights that the anti-bullying agenda has failed to focus on bullying between politicians themselves.
Sharma paints the Parliamentary Service, the main organisation that runs all of the resources and staff, as rotten and corrupt. He’s not the first to point this out, especially in arguing that politicians are being allowed to misuse taxpayer resources, but it reiterates that this is something politicians continue to be reluctant to reform or allow outside investigation of.
It seems we need to be constantly reminded that the political parties have voted to exempt the Parliamentary Service and Parliament from the Official Information Act. This means that the public, the media and watchdogs continue to have great difficulty being able to scrutinise what goes on behind the walls of power in Wellington.
Sharma has since raised even more alarming claims about how the current Government attempts to evade transparency rules. None of these revelations should be surprising, but they still do need investigation. This week he claimed that the Beehive held workshops for new MPs to teach them how to evade the Official Information Act (OIA) in their dealings with ministers. Sharma has even claimed that a corporate lobbyist was brought into these meetings as part of coaching the new politicians.
Some evidence has been provided by Sharma, in the form of a screenshot of a minister reminding MPs to be careful in their written communications to ministers involving lobbying over any issues. Again, this isn’t terribly surprising, but does add to the growing suspicions about the abuse of the OIA by the Government.
Although the Government has attempted to swot away such claims, they haven’t been terrible convincing. Sharma’s allegation that some employees in the Beehive have two contracts – one with Ministerial Services (which is subject to the OIA) and one with the Parliamentary Service (which isn’t subject to the OIA) should be investigated. If true, this would be a devious and contemptuous way for Governments to play the “game of hats” in which personnel simply swap hats for different sensitive political issues so that they can avoid open government.
There really are no winners from the Sharma scandal. Certainly not the Labour Party or Sharma himself, who by setting off political grenades has damaged himself and his colleagues. But democracy and the cause of open and transparent government could still be the winner from the bizarre episode. Amidst the claims, counter-claims, and drama, there have actually been some core issues raised that still need investigation.
The Labour Party will hope the whole episode can be filed away as being all about the personality and shortcomings of Gaurav Sharma. But it would now be a shame if it’s all just swept under the carpet. The now-Independent MP may not have convincingly argued his particular case, but he’s raised serious concerns about the way that Parliament operates.
It’s now time to move beyond personalities. The rogue MP hasn’t provided enough evidence, or gone about things in the right way to get an independent inquiry into issues around his own situation in Parliament. But what he has done, inadvertently or not, is raised enough difficult questions and suspicions that some sort of independent inquiry into open government and parliamentary secrecy is warranted.
Sunlight is still the best disinfectant in politics.
Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society. This article was first published HERE