Independent report examines harassment and bullying in Parliamentary workplace

Tue 28 May 2019

The Speaker of the House of Representatives of New Zealand, Trevor Mallard, has released the report of the independent review of bullying and ...

The Speaker of the House of Representatives of New Zealand, Trevor Mallard, has released the report of the independent review of bullying and harassment in the Parliamentary workplace.

The review and report were completed by external reviewer Debbie Francis. In her introductory summary, The Story in a Nutshell, Ms Francis writes "Bullying and harassment are systemic in the parliamentary workplace."

She states "The story is complex, involving harmful behaviour by and between staff, managers, Members, media and the public." Watch a brief video of Ms Francis presenting the report and The Story in a Nutshell.

The report, Independent External Review into Bullying and Harassment in the New Zealand Parliamentary Workplace - Final Report (2019), includes 85 recommendations. Ms Francis cautions:

"This Report traverses sensitive matters within one of the most complex and demanding workplaces in New Zealand. The story goes as much to the health of our democracy and New Zealanders’ pride in their Parliament as it does to matters of employment, health, safety and workplace culture. My findings need to be addressed with care and the solutions recommended here are complex and wide-ranging. For these reasons I encourage readers to take the time to read the Report in its entirety."

The review looked at Parliamentary Service, Department of Internal Affairs / Ministerial and Secretariat Services and the Office of the Clerk from 2014 - 2019. The review process included:

  • 102 written submissions
  • An online survey with more than 1000 responses
  • 146 self-nominated individual interviews
  • Feedback through phone calls
  • 55 interviews with Ministers, Members of Parliament and Party officials randomly selected across Party, tenure in Parliament, age, gender and ethnicity
  • 40 focus groups.

The report examines risk factors unique to the Parliamentary workplace, findings related to bullying and harassment, sexual harassment as specific topic, impacts to respondents and current systems in place. 

For the specific focus on sexual harassment, questions were asked in both the survey and interviews about offensive remarks, comments, jokes or gestures including allegations of bias or harassment against LGBTQI groups; unwanted touching; unwanted sexual advances; messages of a sexual nature sent to someone via email, direct messaging or social media; sexual coercion; and sexual assault.

14 people from the online survey and five from the interviews reported they had experienced sexual assault. Ms Francis intentionally kept her commentary brief in this area due to confidentiality and because some incidents may be involved in police investigations. Ms Francis wrote:

"Three of the alleged incidents disclosed to me in interviews were in my view extremely serious and some appeared to be part of a multi-year pattern of predatory behaviour. It was common for respondents to report that, in the event of sexual harassment or sexual violence, there was nowhere, other than directly to Police, that they could turn to for support or to report the harassment or violence. 'The power imbalances are so great round here, that why would you even bother?' said one. 'What are they going to do?', said another '…Chuck some EAP at me. Then what?'"

The report highlights that victims found that Parliamentary and human resource systems failed to adequately support, respond or manage their complaints. Ms Francis highlights one example:

"Another respondent alleging this told me that their formal written complaint regarding an alleged sexual assault matter did not result in the suspension of the accused, took several months to investigate and the respondent was never provided with written notification of the outcome of the investigation.

The respondent recalls being told that the accused was entitled to a letter about the outcome of the formal investigation, but as the complainant they were not. They told me that while access to EAP was encouraged by Parliamentary Service HR, they struggled to gain access to additional specialist support.

They also described feeling at risk of retaliation by the accused during and after the investigation. Though they requested some protective interventions, it is this respondent’s perception that none were put in play.

As a result, the respondent told me they felt they had to constantly devise informal support strategies to keep themself separate from the accused in the normal course of work and alleged that they continued to suffer ongoing trauma as a result."

The recommendations are wide ranging and many address sexual violence and assault within a broader approach to address harassment and bullying. There are two recommendations specifically related to sexual violence and assault:

"19. I recommend the services of accredited social workers or psychologists with experience in sexual harm be secured, on precinct, in regions and accessible via a confidential, dedicated helpline."

"82. I recommend the new parliamentary HR shared services group develops the following new and revised stand alone policies for the parliamentary workplace:

    • Anti-bullying and harassment
    • Sexual harassment and sexual assault
    • Protected disclosures
    • Alcohol use within the parliamentary precinct
    • Conflicts of interest in Parliament
    • Racist, homophobic, sexist and transphobic comments
    • Balancing parliamentary and political work; and
    • Behavioural protocols for interactions between Members of Parliament and Members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery."

In releasing the report, Speaker Trevor Mallard said:

"Together with the agencies and all political parties, I am committed to making changes to ensure the parliamentary workplace is free from harmful behaviour. We will now consider the report’s recommendations. The issues in the report will not be a quick fix and any solutions will need to have input from those affected and address the systemic issues.”

Trevor Mallard asked Deputy Speaker Anne Tolley to lead a group to develop a Code of Conduct for New Zealand Parliament. Anne Tolley confirmed she is chairing the working group, which is still being set up but includes representatives from the political parties, the press gallery and unions (PSA and E Tū).

In response to the review, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said:

“The findings of this report are rightly being taken very seriously. Parliament, like any other workplace, should be free from bullying and harassment and we need to make improvements. In response to the report, I have asked to receive regular reports from the Department of Internal Affairs and Parliamentary Services on how offices are working generally as well as any exceptional reports where an issue needs to be raised with me promptly."

Following media coverage and a complaint, a Parliamentary staff member was stood down pending an investigation.

Update: Parliamentary Services has published Behavioural Statements for the parliamentary workplace, released publicly in October 2020.

Update: In June 2022 the Parliamentary Service Commission adopted a recommendation to establish a Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards as an independent role to consider the conduct of MPs.

Update: In July 2023 RNZ reported that Debbie Francis has re-examined if there was less bullying and harassment in Parliament since her inquiry, and she has repoted back that the environment has improved.

Update: Research published in 2024 found that 98% of surveyed MPs reported harassment and threats, with increases in online threats and misogyny. The article, Stalking, harassment, gendered abuse, and violence towards politicians in the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery era (2024), also reported that "Women [parliamentarians] were at significantly higher risk of certain types of social media harassment including gendered abuse, sexualised comments, threat of sexual violence, and threats toward their family." See related media below for more information.

Background information

In November 2018, Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard announced an independent external review into bullying and harassment of staff at Parliament. Terms of reference and frequently asked questions are on the Parliamentary website.

For support

Current and former employees can call 0800 PP ASSIST (0800 772 774).

To talk to a trained specialist in sexual violence, contact Safe to Talk | Kōrero mai ka ora on 0800 044334 or txt 4334.

Related news

Prior to the release of the report, Stuff reported that a number of Parliamentary Services staff have reported experiences with bullying and harassment.

The National Party completed a separate review of its culture. The party waited to release the results until the report from the Parliamentary inquiry was released. The National Party has now released a draft Code of Conduct and recommendations from their health and safety review which looked at "... ensuring our current Party policies continued to reflect best practice and provide advice on any improvements that could be made."

National Party President Peter Goodfellow said "While our review confirms we have a comprehensive Health and Safety Policy in place, there are a few small helpful changes we can make to ensure alignment with best practice, and our Board of Directors have accepted all of the recommendations made." National Party Leader Simon Bridges launched the independent review following allegations of bullying, intimidation and sexual harassment.

The New Zealand chapter of the cross-party Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians surveyed female MPs about their experiences of sexism and sexual harassment. One News reported findings from the survey that 44% of women who responded had experienced psychological violence and that 86% didn't report the abuse because they did not know where to go for help, did not want to relive the event or decided to put up with the abuse. 

Media outlet Stuff also reported that women's experiences included inappropriate touching at public meetings, death and rape threats from constituents, and sexist and humiliating comments in work environments including from other Members of Parliament. In response to the survey findings, Former MP and Human Rights Commissioner Dr Jackie Blue called for a code of conduct to address the culture of sexism and bullying in Parliament.

Golriz Ghahraman, the first person from a refugee background to be elected to the New Zealand Parliament, spoke at a public panel about her experiences of threats and harassment including racism. She called for structural change saying:

"Some of our messages have to change when we talk to women about political participation. We tell them often to ‘lean in’, to just put themselves forward, to smash that glass ceiling, and I don’t think it’s safe in a lot of circumstances to keep telling women as individuals to do that.

... We have to change the system and we have to change the culture that is the barrier to women putting themselves forward. Of course, we have to encourage each other and we have to stand with each other as we do more and more put ourselves forward, but that can’t be the only thing."

Stuff reported the State Services Commission has been working to establish a new set of standards to address workplace bullying in government agencies. 

Media has continued to highlight ongoing reports of sexual harassment and assault in workplaces including other government agencies as well as universities and sporting organisations around the country. 

Related media 

Access to Parliament to be cut down in wake of growing MP abuse, Stuff, 18.04.2024

Female MPs at higher risk of abuse: study, Otago Daily Times, 18.04.2024

Abuse of MPs increased to 98% in 2022 - study, RNZ, 17.04.2024

MPs turn to private security companies as ‘disturbing’ abuse ramps up, Stuff, 17.04.2024

Abuse against MPs: Nearly all report harassment, 27 per cent receive death threats, University of Otago study shows, NZ Herald, 17.04.2024

Harassment experienced by nearly 100 percent of New Zealand politicians - report, Newshub, 17.04.2024

Parliament culture report ignores Māori issues, Waatea News, 04.08.2023

Parliament culture report fails Te Tiriti o Waitangi test, Waatea News, 01.08.2023

Urgent progress needed to ensure a sustained improvement in workplace culture at Parliament, PSA media release, 21.07.2023

Parties promise cooperation as Speaker orders review of Parliament's workplace culture, RNZ, 14.10.2022

Debbie Francis called back to Parliament to look at culture, RNZ, 14.10.2022

Bullying and harassment in Parliament - one year on, Newsroom, 07.07.2020

$130k paid out to ministerial staff after relationship 'breakdown', RNZ, 07.08.2019

Details of employment disputes between MPs and staffers released, Radio NZ, 10.06.2019

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urges caution over Mallard and 'tantamount to rape' comment, NZ Herald, 28.05.2019

Teuila Fuatai: Racism an ugly side of parliamentary culture, NZ Herald, 28.05.2019

Alison Mau: Parliament's bullying review lets us bust workplace sex violence myths, Stuff, 26.05.2019

Chaos as Parliament staffer stood down, Newsroom, 23.05.2019

Sex predator storm: Turbulent day in parliamentary workplace, NZ Herald, 23.05.2019

Parliament staffer accused colleague of rape last year, Stuff, 22.05.2019

Parliamentary staffer stood down after historical assault allegation, NZ Herald, 22.05.2019

Parliament bullying: Mallard urges rape victims to seek support, Radio NZ, 22.05.2019

Serious bullying rife at Parliament - report, Radio NZ, 21.05.2019

'Power imbalance': Sexual assault, bullying claims revealed in Parliament, Newshub, 21.05.2019

Statement on behalf of E tū members employed at Parliament, Press Release: E tu, Scoop, 21.05.2019

Security escort for Green MP Golriz Ghahraman after death threats, Stuff, 21.05.2019

'Shocking' Parliament bullying review to be released, Stuff, 17.05.2019

Parliamentary Service engages top PR firm, Newsroom, 13.05.2019

Ex-Parliament staffer accused of breaching NDA, Speaker Trevor Mallard says they shouldn't exist, Stuff, 05.05.2019

Parliamentary staffer says she 'cried all the way home' after bullying, Stuff, 28.04.2019

Parliamentary staff allege rampant bullying at the Beehive, Stuff, 21.04.2019

Nearly 30 back office workers have quit Parliament in three months, Stuff, 24.03.2019

Women MPs reveal death threats, bullying and harassment, Newsroom, 12.12.2018

Image: iStock

More news articles about Government