Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Peter Dunne: Good mental health standards

In July 1962, following a slump in his government’s political fortunes, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan abruptly sacked one third of his Cabinet. Amongst the reactions to what became known as Britain’s “Night of the Long Knives” was the caustic comment of Liberal MP, Jeremy Thorpe, cleverly paraphrasing Dickens’ Sydney Carlton, that “greater love hath no man than he lay down his friends for his life.” Macmillan was following the dictum laid out by Britain’s four-time, dominant nineteenth century Prime Minister, William Gladstone that “the first essential for a Prime Minister is to be a good butcher.”

Subsequently, many political leaders, including Macmillan himself reflecting in the early 1980s on that 1962 reshuffle, President Richard Nixon and even Margaret Thatcher, all lamented that, when the time came, they had not been good butchers. Reflecting on the last few months of his own Prime Ministership, and his handling of the Ministerial crises that have beset it, Chris Hipkins might by now have a similar view.

It is clear, with the benefit of a few months’ hindsight, that Hipkins inherited a seriously dysfunctional Cabinet. Performance failings had been glossed over or ignored, and only passing attention had been paid to established guidelines and procedures like the Cabinet Manual. When compliance proved too awkward or inconvenient, the established rules had simply been ignored as not relevant. The Cabinet’s primary function seemed to be sustaining the personal standing of the former Prime Minister who had delivered them such a stunning election victory in 2020.

Hipkins’ “new broom” swept aside several Ministers to make way for new talent, mainly departing Ministers who had said they wanted to leave at the election anyway. Since then, Hipkins has faced five separate Ministerial crises, leading to three Ministers being forced to resign, one censured by Parliament following a Privileges Committee inquiry, and one simply walking out altogether to join another party.

Hipkins’ handling of the three cases leading to Ministerial resignations has been consistent – and has failed on each occasion. He has treated each initial revelation about Ministerial conduct failures as an aberration that the Minister would correct given time, and to which he should not overreact. In each case he dismissed suggestions that further damaging revelations might come to light. But each time he has been let down by those Ministers as further lapses have been revealed and he has had to ask for their resignations. Nash and Wood were able to thumb their noses at the Prime Minister for several weeks longer than any Prime Minister made of sterner stuff would have tolerated.

However, the situation involving Kiri Allan is a little different, even if Hipkins’ handling of it has been just as woeful as the other cases. Unlike Nash and Wood, who thought they could get away with ignoring the rules around Cabinet confidentiality or disclosure of personal interests by virtue of who they were, Allan’s downfall is far more tragic. It has been precipitated by some very personal crises that Hipkins and those around him have been very slow to respond to.

The warning signs first appeared with Allan’s now infamous remarks at the Radio New Zealand farewell for her former partner. Here was a case of a Minister struggling to understand the constraints being a Minister placed on her. Rather than dealing with the issue then, the official response was very casual, tossing aside the reaction to her remarks as exaggerated and unnecessary.

When the accusations about her treatment of staff and officials arose, the initial reaction was similar – these were “unsubstantiated” accusations and “no formal complaints have been laid”. Only belatedly, when more revelations seemed likely, did Hipkins suggest Allan take time off, to get over these accusations and the recent ending of her relationship. The problem was seen as primarily Allan’s, which time away from the job would help overcome.

Her demise came less than a week after she decided to resume her normal duties, prompting Hipkins’ response then that maybe she had returned to work too early, even though he understood she had had some counselling during her absence. Again, his response seemed far too casual.

Allan’s fall is an indictment of the lack of pastoral support the Parliamentary environment provides those within it. Too much is still left to chance. If the Prime Minister felt that Allan’s personal position was sufficiently fragile for her to take an extended period of leave to recover, the very least that he should have ensured was that before she returned to work, there was a standard medical certificate or similar confirming it was safe and that adequate support mechanisms were in place for her to take up her duties as a Minister once more. But no, all it took was Allan saying she was ready to return, and Hipkins accepting her assurance.

While it is easy and convenient for Hipkins to now say Allan’s behaviour earlier this week made her continuing to be a Minister “untenable”, he must accept a measure of real responsibility for what happened, and the consequent end of Allan’s political career. Although he undoubtedly and genuinely thought his softly, softly approach was both compassionate and in her best interests at the time, the awful truth is that downplaying her fragile state has led to the current, very sad situation.

But despite Hipkins’ lack of judgement in this instance, it is not altogether fair to blame him entirely for what has happened. Across society today there is an increasing general understanding and acceptance of the need to encourage good mental health standards in the workplace and to ensure people can get help when they need it. But that has not yet extended sufficiently to Parliament where there is still much to do to ensure good workplace standards and practices. Making Parliament the good and safe workplace that has been promised throughout this government’s term now needs to become a priority and not just a platitude.

Ensuring all future governments focus on this should be the enduring legacy from Kiri Allan’s short and troubled political career.

Peter Dunne, a retired Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister, who represented Labour and United Future for over 30 years, blogs here:

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