Aotearoa New Zealand’s ruling Labour’s caucus has unanimously decided to suspend Hamilton West MP Dr Gaurav Sharma effective immediately in the wake of allegations of bullying of and by MPs.
This morning, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office confirmed the meeting to discuss allegations of bullying raised by Hamilton West MP Gaurav Sharma would take place this afternoon.
The meeting addressed Dr Sharma’s status within the party after he took his concerns to the media rather than usual party processes for dealing with disputes.
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Dr Sharma has complained, however, that using those mechanisms have got him nowhere, saying he had tried dealing with the concerns through the party whip’s office and Parliamentary Service for the past year and a half.
He was not at the caucus meeting this afternoon.
“I note that he did find the time to talk to media,” Ardern said.
“Caucus has determined suspension is the most appropriate response to the repeated breaches of trust from Gaurav over recent days.
No longer in caucus
“This means Gaurav will continue as the MP for Hamilton West and be expected to be present at Parliament. However, he will no longer participate in any caucus events or activities unless caucus’ permission is granted.”
Dr Sharma was emailed, phoned, and text messaged to try to get him to attend the meeting today, she said.
Watch the conference
Labour’s unanimous decision to suspend MP Dr Sharma. Video: RNZ News
Ardern said she called and tried to message him after the meeting this afternoon, as have others, and she hoped this was not the first he had heard of his suspension.
“We have made efforts to convey this information to him directly.”
The whips directly engaged with Dr Sharma on whether he would attend, she said.
“Originally a range of options were sent and they didn’t receive a response. They then proposed a time and they were told at that time that no, at that time Gaurav had a specific event.
“They then advised that we would set a meeting time at a time that suited Gaurav today, he advised that nearer to 3[pm] would suit so whips suggested 2.30, we then at that point didn’t receive any further engagement.”
All of Labour’s MPs were invited to attend today, she said.
Labour’s caucus has unanimously decided to suspend MP Gaurav Sharma effective immediately https://t.co/qogiWItoxG
— RNZ News (@rnz_news) August 16, 2022
She said the decision was unanimous, and the team was clear that to function as a political party in a place where open debate and dialogue was key, members needed to be able to trust their colleagues.
“You need to feel you can speak openly and freely. That sense of trust has been broken by repeated breaches of our caucus rules over the last five days and that made the decision very clear,” she said.
Ardern and party leadership have continued to refer to the allegations — which in particular accuse former whip Kieran McAnulty of bullying and gaslighting — as an employment concern between Dr Sharma and the staff in his office.
RNZ has sought comment from McAnulty repeatedly but he has not responded.
Ardern said, based on the documents she has reviewed, the Labour whip’s office and Parliamentary Service began working with Dr Sharma to address concerns raised about his staff management. He was then asked to work with a mentor, which he objected to.
“Finally agreement was reached at the end of last year. Further issues were later raised by additional staff members including those in his direct employment, This resulted in another pause on hirinig and again coaching, mentoring and temporary staff in the meantime.
“Gaurav again objected to this intervention and the need for his future hiring of staff or undertakings on his part. A protracted process ensued.”
No other concerns
Ardern said she still had heard no concerns raised by any other MPs about McAnulty.
She said she did not recall Dr Sharma ever raising his concerns with her and she had gone through records of events and text messages after hearing about his concerns last week.
“I have not gone through everything but from what I can see he is a member who I’ve had less engagement with than most, that is fair to say … he’s never raised the issue directly with me, and that is an expectation I would have because it’s set out in our rules.
“First if there’s an issue you go to the whips. If you’re unable to get resolution you go to either the Labour leader or to someone the Labour leader nominates. And if it’s still unresolved you go to caucus. That didn’t happen.
“He did raise them with my chief-of-staff at the end of last year. He told me about that and he also told me the resolution that was reached between them and I’ve seen the messages that demonstrate that. Neither of us heard anything after that until the events that led to this.”
After he published his column in The New Zealand Herald last Thursday, she called him and he did not pick up, she said. She then sent a text to ask about his welfare, rather than relitigating issues.
“I received one message in response, I won’t go into the details on that but it was essentially setting out his perspective on these issues.”
Bullying not widespread problem
She has consistently refused suggestions that bullying is a widespread problem within the party.
One of his allegations was found to have no basis, she said, but he has continued to make them.
“I am equally concerned that staff members have been implicated by the level of detail that’s been shared … we considered whether or not for transparency we should release some of the communications to demonstrate our perspective on what has occurred here but again that runs the risk of exposing staff.”
She said Dr Sharma’s status would be reviewed in December, to allow a chance for a return to caucus if trust with him was able to be restored.
“But in making the decision to suspend, caucus were clear that the team retains the right to revisit the decision at any time if the rules continue to be broken. To be clear, the caucus’ decision was squarely focused on actions over the last few days. What gave rise to those actions also deserves some reflection.”
Ardern said there were grounds for expulsion under the caucus rules, but the team wanted to send a message that while their trust had been lost and they considered the situation very egregious, they were a team that wanted to give second chances.
“If he does that there’s a pathway back, if he doesn’t then he will be expelled.”
She said the exact date in December for revisiting the decision had not been decided upon.
Options at that time could include continued suspension, a return to caucus, or expulsion. At this point, the possibility of sending a letter to the Speaker to request his removal from Parliament under the waka jumping law has not been discussed.
Informal caucus meeting last night
As the meeting started this afternoon, Dr Sharma contacted RNZ claiming an earlier meeting involving some Labour MPs was held last night, without his knowledge.
Ardern said the outcome today was not predetermined at a meeting last night. She said one of the issues of misconduct was that Sharma had been sharing the contents of meetings publicly, which meant people felt they were unable to raise questions or discuss issues.
The reason Sharma was not informed of the meeting last night was “because people did not feel they could have an open conversation with him”.
Sharma claimed he had an image sent to him, a screenshot of the meeting.
“You’d note that probably if someone were deliberately sharing that message it would be more likely a gallery view,” Ardern said.
“I also knew who took that screenshot, it was intended they were trying to capture something else on their phone, the meeting was occurring in the corner at the same time, they accidentally sent it to someone they shouldn’t.
“What they sent was a screenshot of the conversation trying to set a caucus meeting time, it just so happened that they were multitasking … they’re somewhat embarrassed over the situation.”
The meeting last night was not a formal caucus meeting, she said, and she was also clear there would not be a predetermined outcome.
“Natural justice is very important to our team.”
This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.