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Chris Trotter: Parting Shots

GAURAV SHARMA has clearly had enough of parliamentary life. Equally clearly, he is not suited to it. Nevertheless, he has made an extremely useful contribution to the bullying debate.


His op-ed piece for the NZ Herald confirms what all political journalists should know: that Parliament is Ground Zero for institutionalised bullying. It would, however, be naïve to expect members of the Press Gallery to augment Sharma’s observations with their own. The Press Gallery is no less enmeshed in the system of punishments and rewards that pervades every corner of the parliamentary complex than the MPs themselves.


What emerges from the Gallery and the Labour Party itself over the next few days promises to be a master-class in the art of dismissing, diminishing and disparaging an individual who has had the temerity to breach the iron law of omerta which governs the practice of party politics.


Like Fight Club, the first rule of party politics is not to talk about party politics.


It is to be hoped that Sharma is a resilient person, because the amount of emotional violence heading his way will likely be personally devastating.


That hope may be a vain one, however, since Sharma appears to have entered Parliament without the necessary acculturation to the vicious political environment of the New Zealand Labour Party.


Purely from the perspective of an outsider, Sharma’s selection appears to have been a pro-forma affair. Very few Labour strategists would have anticipated success in the Hamilton seats – which, prior to 2020, had been in National’s column for four elections in a row. Sharma would likely have seen himself as nothing more than a booster of Labour’s Party Vote. A not unreasonable view, given his Number 63 position on Labour’s Party List. Just as it did for most Hamiltonians, Sharma’s victory in Hamilton West would have come as a mighty shock.


Nothing like as big a shock, however, as the political culture of the Labour Caucus. Those Labour politicians who spent years fighting their way into Parliament would have had an enormous advantage over a political naïf like Sharma. They would know what to expect. Whose way to keep out of. Whose prospects to block. And, whose hunting party to join when the Leader’s minions identified a member of caucus to be taken down a peg or two. All of them would have mastered the courtier’s art of sucking-up and punching-down. Putting it bluntly, a disturbingly high proportion of Sharma’s colleagues would be – as he has now charged – bullies.


Those who weren’t bullies would’ve been doormats. Selected as candidates for their placidity and biddability, they are the sort of people who can be relied upon to back their party right or wrong, and to support whoever occupies the top leadership roles with an equally undiscerning fervour. The traditional term for these types is “hack”. Sharma likely found these Labour lambs even more disturbing than Labour’s wolves.


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. If he was ever incautious enough to stand up in front of his colleagues and express views contrary to those of the Front Bench, then he would very soon have appreciated why those tasked with the responsibility for keeping the Back Bench under control are called “Whips”.


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, at least initially, refuse to be bullied, by those who long ago abandoned all resistance.


The good little bunnies of the Labour caucus will, of course, object that party politics cannot function without party discipline. They will remind their critics that politics has always been “the art of the possible”, and that nothing will ever get done if a government is mired in endless internal debates.


These objections will be backed-up energetically by the Press Gallery as basic common-sense. How could they not, when the members of the Press Gallery are just as much victims of the “Stockholm Syndrome” as the MPs they cover. Gallery journalists are expected by their editors to hunt as a pack – not on their own. They are also prone to being bullied by the darker variety of ministerial minion, who will threaten them with a denial of access to the key newsmakers if they step too far out of line.


How many of the current crop of Labour MPs and Gallery journalists are aware of the fact that the First Labour Government’s caucus was a hotbed of dissent and disputation, and not above over-ruling the demands of Cabinet Ministers? Strangely, given the dictates of “common sense”, that First Labour Government still managed to keep its promises to the electors – and transform a nation. Which is not to say that the 1930s party was lacking in bullies, merely that, back then, there was no shortage of Labour MPs willing to stand up to them.


Sharma, sadly, is not doing that. He has clearly had enough of Parliament and is more than ready to return to his life as a medical professional. What he has been willing to do, however, is draw aside the curtain, if only for a moment, and let the electors of New Zealand see how their representatives are treated. Those same electors owe him a vote of thanks: not only for the glimpse of the bullying culture that pervades their Parliament, but also for the demonstration that is bound to follow of how that same, sick, system responds to its critics.


Undoubtedly, there will be Labour supporters reading these words with mounting disbelief – and fury. It is fitting, then, to close with a vivid illustration of Labour’s long-standing culture of bullying.


At the Labour Conference of 2002, a tiny handful of mostly younger delegates attempted to protest the Labour-led Government’s decision to sent troops to Afghanistan. As Helen Clark began speaking, one young man rose to his feet and attempted to make his opposition known. As he did so, a number of party heavyweights (fortuitously seated next to him) also rose to their feet. The dissenter was grabbed – none too gently – and physically dragged from the auditorium. Two young women, positioned closer to the stage, who attempted to unfurl an anti-war banner, received very similar treatment.


When Willie Jackson boasts that Labour has a different definition of democracy – he’s not kidding.


Chris Trotter writes at Bowalley Road

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