Saturday, August 20, 2022

NZCPR Newsletter: The Biggest Bully

A week that started well for National with a good TVNZ poll result and positive coverage from their annual conference, quickly deteriorated, as the media spotlight descended onto their new Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell. 

The Labour Party, which had been alerted to his expulsion from school as a 16-year-old for bullying more than a week before the by-election, would no doubt have welcomed National’s difficulties. But any hope they might have harboured that Christopher Luxon would be exposed as knowingly supporting the election of a bully, quickly faded as the facts emerged.

It turned out that the Tauranga candidate had disclosed the details of his past to National’s selection panel. Given the incident occurred when he was a boy and that he’d turned his life around, they believed he should be given a second chance and the opportunity to make a real difference as an MP. But since the National Party’s rules obliged the selection panel members to sign a non-disclosure agreement about those seeking selection and the proceedings of the panel, the leader had not been informed.

The public, meanwhile, were quick to highlight the hypocrisy of crucifying a new MP over his actions as a teenager, when Parliament’s Speaker, Trevor Mallard, who has been described the “biggest schoolyard bully in the place”, not only suffered no consequences for harassing and bullying anti-mandate protestors on Parliament’s grounds, but was, in fact, rewarded by the Prime Minister with a cushy diplomatic post in Ireland.

In spite of Sam Uffindell being suspended from Caucus pending an investigation by Marie Dew QC, the media continued to hound the beleaguered MP – that is, until the Hamilton West MP, Dr Gaurav Sharma, dropped a bombshell by publishing an opinion piece in the Herald claiming he was the victim of on-going bullying by Labour!

His article, alleging “rampant” bullying and a culture of fear at Parliament, described how Labour’s Louisa Wall had revealed in her valedictory speech she’d been bullied by senior MPs, and claimed, if they could speak freely, other Labour MPs would admit to being the victims of bullying: “In my experience, when an MP raises serious concerns, the Parliamentary Service steps back, 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.”

He took aim at the Prime Minister: “Politicians especially at the top of our current system … often talk about ’changing the system’ and ‘kindness’, but as the saying goes ‘charity must start at home’.”

Having been bullied at high school and university, Dr Sharma had used his Maiden Speech in Parliament to highlight the importance of standing up to bullies.

He then used his Facebook page, to provide a window into the inner workings of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party – outlining an 18-month saga of bullying by Parliamentary Services, Labour’s former Chief Whip Kieran McAnulty, Junior Whip Duncan Webb, and the Prime Minister’s Office:

“I went the only place I felt I could to seek help in December 2021. The Prime Ministers’ Office. The advice was always clear – do not give anything in writing and do not expect anything in writing. Everything can be OIA’ed. So I met the Chief of Staff for over an hour. I took with me hundreds of pages of evidence – emails, timelines, issues to explain my case. I very clearly said that Kieran McAnulty was a bully. That I was being bullied. That other caucus members were being bullied by Kieran McAnulty. An investigation was never done. My bully still walks the halls of power with his head held up high.

“The kick in the guts however is that despite raising concerns about Kieran McAnulty, not only by me but as I understand by other members of the caucus too, he was promoted to being a Minister of the Crown. This is our justice.”

More allegations against Labour’s leadership and the culture of bullying followed. Statements from other MPs “who were also being bullied” were provided, including claims that MPs asked “how to fake a Covid test so they didn’t have to come to Parliament because of how much they were scared of being bullied.”

Dr Sharma claimed the promotion of their main perpetrator to Cabinet sent “a message to caucus members being bullied that their well-being and concerns didn’t matter…

“After 1.5 years of going through every manager, every office, knocking every door in Parliament I never got heard. Even after I wrote an op-Ed last week raising my concerns there was an attempt to deny that bullying existed… In addition to that the party machinery has been trying to deflect the situation by trying to dig my past and make accusations about me… but that should not stop me from getting a fair independent hearing re my concerns.

“I have been told since my op-Ed came out that I shouldn’t talk to the media and instead should raise things with the Whips or the Leader but that’s exactly what I have tried to do for last 1.5 years without being heard at all. And now I am being silenced again as the bullying continues.

“I have been driven to this point because even now the party and it’s leadership refuses to believe that there is a problem. It’s a sad day for our democracy.”

The Prime Minister, of course, denied Dr Sharma’s allegations that he’d been bullied: “My primary concern at the moment is Gaurav’s wellbeing. I’ve reached out to ensure him that we will provide him with the support he feels he needs”.

Yeah, right!

Josie Pagani, a political commentator and former Labour candidate, was highly critical of the PM’s response: “The Prime Minister’s press conference was full of soothing, reassuring words, concern about Doctor Sharma, which in retrospect looks a bit like being bullied by a wellness coach. I would say the Labour party machine is telling everyone to lie low and shut up… “

Political journalist Jack Tame was also disparaging of the Prime Minister’s treatment of Gaurav Sharma, saying, “Seeing a sitting Labour MP accuse the party-of-kindness of bullying is a remarkable turn… Even as the Prime Minister was addressing the issue, unnamed ‘Labour sources’ were commenting to media and slagging him off. Such kindness! And despite the compassionate veneer, the Prime Minister’s statement still carefully insinuated that everything Sharma was complaining about is actually his fault.”

This affair has yet again, exposed the Prime Minister as a hypocrite.

She talked about fairness and empathy yet organised a secret caucus meeting – without inviting Dr Sharma – to decide his future. Then, she had the gall to not only claim it was not a caucus meeting – because not all members of the caucus had been invited – but when Dr Sharma didn’t show for her scheduled caucus ambush, she feigned concern!  

This week’s NZCPR Guest Contributor, veteran political commentator Chris Trotter, provides another revealing insight into the inner workings of the Labour Party – including the role of backbench MPs: 

“Judging from his op-ed piece, Sharma may even have been labouring under the misapprehension that he was in Parliament to represent the electors of Hamilton West. He may even have thought that they were the people to whom he was ultimately answerable. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! That is merely his constitutional role.

“His actual role is to shut up and do as the Whips command. Make a speech on a subject he knows nothing about. Sit on a Select Committee and vote exactly as the Labour Chair indicates – no matter how wrong or stupid. Most importantly, say nothing, write nothing, and do nothing that attracts unwanted attention.

“The poor man would soon have discovered that this ‘sit still and shut up’ rule applied with equal force in caucus…

“Think about it for a moment. Labour has a caucus of 65 MPs. Most of them, like Sharma himself, highly qualified professionals. How, then, is it possible that all but two of these intelligent and (presumably) principled men and women (the exceptions being Louisa Wall and, now, Sharma) have never even once spoken out of turn or (God forbid!) expressed a viewpoint on any major – or even minor – issue that was not in 100 percent conformity with the official party line? What does it take to inspire and maintain that sort of collective discipline? The answer, tragically, is fear. Fear of being written-off as a troublemaker; and fear of the emotional violence inevitably inflicted upon those who refuse to be bullied, by those who long ago abandoned all resistance.”

Fear, of course, is what bullies do: “do it or else”. And bullying those who do not dance to their tune is clearly deeply ingrained in Labour Party culture.

In late 2018, Speaker Trevor Murray commissioned public sector change agent Debbie Francis to undertake an investigation into the Parliamentary workplace. Her report found a toxic culture of systemic bullying and harassment, including claims that the media all too often acted as a “classic bully” and contributed to the problem.

Media bullying was certainly on display during what became an open season on National’s newest MP. Even journalist Jack Tame was critical of this behaviour: “Almost everything that can be said of the Sam Uffindell scandal has already been said… Nonetheless, I don’t think the best response is to mercilessly destroy his entire life.”

It seems the media too needs to ask questions of itself when it comes to bullying and harassment.

The Sharma battle is not over for Labour.  Some issues are beyond his control. Under Labour’s 2018 Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Act, if he is expelled from the Party – at the Prime Minister’s pleasure – the Speaker can be asked to declare the seat vacant. That would trigger a by-election – unless it is within six months of a General Election.

This draconian law essentially gives party leaders and caucuses the power to not just expel MPs from their own party, but from Parliament itself.

The problem for the Prime Minister, however, is that since Dr Sharma won a safe National seat in her 2020 election landslide, Labour’s recent fall in the polls signals a likely loss in a by-election. Although losing Hamilton West would not affect her majority, it would create a flashpoint – and a platform for opponents to air grievances that even a friendly media would find hard to ignore.  

The ball is now in Dr Sharma’s court. All he ever wanted was someone to properly examine his case and give him a fair hearing.

Instead, the Prime Minister ruled out an inquiry and suspended him from Caucus with a return to the fold only ‘possible’ if he kowtowed to the Party leadership and made no further public comment.

Given the choice of grovelling or remaining true to his moral stand against bullies, he has now broken his silence and is standing tall.

By continuing to speak out, he is forcing the Prime Minister’s hand – she will either have to expel him from Parliament and take her chances in a by-election or allow him to remain as an independent MP representing his constituents.

Dr Gaurav Sharma is not planning to go down without a fight: “If I ever have to choose between party and country my allegiance will always be with the country first.”

By accusing the PM of a cover-up over the ‘secret’ caucus meeting she held without him to pre-determine his fate, he’s now standing up to New Zealand’s biggest bully – Jacinda Ardern.

The dictatorial way she has governed our nation, destroying lives and livelihoods, undermining our democracy and crushing those who stand in her way, is testimony to a ruthlessness that her “be kind” mantra attempts to disguise.

In fact, the public owes Dr Sharma a debt of gratitude for once again revealing just how untrustworthy and dangerous our current prime minister really is.    

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Dr Muriel Newman established the New Zealand Centre for Political Research as a public policy think tank in 2005 after nine years as a Member of Parliament. The NZCPR website is HERE. We also run this Breaking Views Blog and our NZCPR Facebook Group HERE

1 comment:

David Lillis said...

Well done, Dr. Sharma, for standing up to bullying. Unfortunately, bullying is systemic within Government and within the Public Service.

Full marks to NZCPR for providing a forum to expose the horrible bullying culture that we have in New Zealand at present.

We must stand up to it but, of course, there are great risks in doing so and it takes great courage.

David Lillis