Political Roundup: Why is Meka Whaitiri fit to be an MP but not a Minister?

Author
Bryce Edwards, NZ Herald,
Section
National,
Publish Date
Sunday, 23 September 2018, 12:21p.m.

New Zealanders hate to hear stories of mistreatment by arrogant, rude, or demanding celebrities, politicians, or bosses. And to be accused of bullying or violence against your own staff is the ultimate low.

That's what makes the allegations against Labour MP Meka Whaitiri more than just a "beltway" issue for those obsessed with politics. With increasing public concerns about violence and bullying, there's a strong public interest in knowing whether our politicians are fit to be representatives in Parliament.

We still don't know to what extent the allegations against Whaitiri are true. But we do know that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has read the report about her alleged altercation with her press secretary and deemed it necessary that the minister be sacked. Ardern declared that "based on what I have seen, I do not have confidence in her retaining her role as minister."

But why does Ardern have enough confidence in Whaitiri for her to continue to be a Labour Party MP, and a leader within the caucus? This is a question being asked by a number of commentators.

For instance, Stuff's Andrea Vance asks: "When is zero tolerance not zero tolerance? Meka Whaitiri has lost her ministerial portfolios over bullying allegations. But she will stay on as co-chair of the Maori caucus and Ikaroa-Rawhiti MP" – see: After a hellish month, Jacinda Ardern has cleared the decks.

Obviously, a lot hangs on the report, which will be released in the next two weeks once it is cleaned up by officials for public consumption. Vance suggests that if evidence emerges from the report that violence was involved, Ardern's decision to protect Whaitiri from more punishment will be called into question. She says: "Was there an assault? Ardern wouldn't say, but it's fair to draw the conclusion that there was no evidence. Otherwise, she would not be considered fit to remain in Labour's caucus, let alone lead the Maori MPs."

Leftwing blogger No Right Turn is in no doubt that the former minister should also leave Parliament: "there should be no place for bullies in cabinet. But there shouldn't be any place for them in the House either. While the Prime Minister cannot sack an MP, the Labour Party can throw people out. And given that all witnesses agree that Whaitiri 'got physical' while yelling at her staff member, that's exactly what a party which purports to believe in workers' rights should do."

Labour politicians do purport to be in politics to stand up for employees. Supposedly that's the Labour Party's whole reason to exist – they're a "workers party". The problem happens when they get into power they have to have staff, and Labour politicians, like those from other parties, have a bad reputation for how parliamentary and ministerial staff are treated.

The Standard, a blog aligned with the Labour-led government, has published an account of an insider who says it's time for their party to take a stronger stand on MP bullying: "I would like to see Prime Minister Ardern make a disproportionate response against bullying to help change the toxic working environment of Parliament. Neither business nor workers will look up to them until they do" – see: Parliament and bullying.

In general, the blogger argues "It's time Ministers were actively managed by the Prime Minister and Chief of Staff to resign rather than be investigated for bullying. That is the first way to undo a bullying culture in Parliament: show that you represent higher ideals than the rest of society operates on." But they also have some other practical ideas about fixing the problem, such as: "have cash fines against the party for high turnover of staff."

On the question of Ardern firing Whaitiri, National Party blogger David Farrar is supportive, saying it was "the right decision and kudos to Ardern for making it" – see: Whaitiri sacked.

However, Farrar also questions whether the errant minister is getting off too lightly: "I note she is saying she can remain as an MP despite allegedly assaulting her press secretary and she may even become a Minister again. Compare that to Aaron Gilmore who was basically forced to resign over merely big noting at a restaurant."

It seems likely Ardern felt she couldn't punish Whaitiri any more than she has – particularly because of strong support from the Maori caucus for the Ikaroa-Rāwhiti MP: "They have also been demonstrative in their support for Whaitiri – by punishing her too harshly, Ardern risked their ire."

Sensitivities about Māori politics had made the whole saga difficult for the Prime Minister to deal with, according to Barry Soper: "Firing the formidable Meka Whaitiri from her portfolios after some argy-bargy when she was in Gisborne with a new staff member can't have been easy.

"There were so many political considerations to be taken into account, not the least was the Māori caucus which Whaitiri is the co-leader with another firebrand Willie Jackson. With all seven Māori seats now being back in the Labour fold after more than a decade, the party has to nurture them – and sacking one of them is a political risk" – see: PM Jacinda Ardern shows some steel in sacking Meka Whaitiri.

During her press conference announcing the sacking, Jacinda Ardern was asked by media about whether she had been lobbied by Labour Maori MPs over Whaitiri's future, and she denied it. But RNZ's Jo Moir has challenged this: "RNZ has learned senior members of the Labour Party Māori caucus met with the Prime Minister while an investigation into Meka Whaitiri was underway to express support for their colleague" – see: Senior Māori caucus members met with PM during investigation.

This article also reports on other support for Whaitiri. Nanaia Mahuta responds to questions on lobbying the PM by saying "I'm not at liberty to disclose any private conversations that have occured in relation to this matter but what I can say is Meka will continue to work hard for her electorate". Fellow MP Paul Eagle says he supports Whaitiri continuing as Maori caucus co-leader: "She's certainly served her weight in gold over the last 11 months, and I'd hope to see her stay."

Most commentators have given Ardern credit for her handling of the Whaitiri controversy. Andrea Vance says that in firing her, the PM "clearly learned from the messy mistakes made with Clare Curran, who was left to bleed out for weeks." Vance says "Within hours of receiving the investigation report, Ardern announced her permanent removal. For that, she can avoid opposition criticism that she's weak. She's done firm-but-fair, protecting the privacy of the staffer in question."

In contrast, Herald political editor Audrey Young says Ardern could have done better: "the saga went on for far too long and that was because of Ardern's management of it. She could have reached the same conclusion within a couple of days. She did not need to rely on a report by a public servant" – see: Ardern's surprise decision clears the decks before trip to UN.

Young was also surprised that Ardern didn't decide to keep Whaitiri as a minister, and suggests that there might be more to come out: "Ardern's decision to fire Whaitiri was a surprise. In contested versions of what took place, and with no witnesses, it was widely assumed that the Prime Minister would take the word of her minister.

"That she didn't points to other factors having weighed heavily in the decision, despite Ardern's denials that is was about only the one incident. Ardern hinted at those factors when she indicated she had encouraged Whaitiri to get training in how to be a better boss."

Some have commented on the difficult position the departure of Whaitiri and Clare Curran leaves Ardern and the Government in for their goals of gender equality. David Farrar, for example, says: "Labour now has two fewer female Ministers than Bill English had. For some people, this would not be an issue. But Labour has said they think there should be equality of numbers and under 30% of the Ministry are female. And if you only include Labour Party Ministers they are at just 26% female. Now compare that to National. Bill English had 25 National Party Ministers and 10 were female, which is 40%. So 40% vs 26%."

Maori TV has also responded to reactions from Whaitiri's electorate, Ikaroa Rāwhiti, reporting one supporter, who says: "We stand by our own. Meka is a cousin of mine, and she is an iwi member of Ngāi Tāmanuhiri. Blood is impenetrable. We share whakapapa relationship, we are kin" – see Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes's A massive blow for the Ikaroa Rāwhiti region.

Finally, it's a very complicated employment situation for those employed by MPs and Ministers, especially when things turn sour. For the best explanation of these issues, see employment lawyer Susan Hornsby-Geluk's Whaitiri case shows difficulties of working for politicians.

On this particular case, she concludes: "If the reports of a 'revolving door' are accurate, regardless of the outcome of this investigation, Labour needs to look into why staff keep leaving. It will be difficult for Labour to continue to espouse the virtues of being a good faith employer if its own backyard is soiled."

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