The National Party doesn’t have a bullying problem, its deputy leader says, after it emerged a staffer had complained that veteran MP Nick Smith had bullied him.
It comes as Smith announced yesterday afternoon he would be resigning from Parliament. He cited personal and professional reasons for the resignation, including a Parliamentary Services inquiry into an employment issue.
"Parliamentary Services have been conducting a confidential inquiry into a verbal altercation in my Wellington office last July that has not concluded," Smith said in a statement.
1 NEWS understands that Smith had a complaint from a male staffer saying he was being bullied by the veteran MP.
However, the situation caught most of Smith's colleagues by surprise.
Shane Reti, National's deputy leader, was asked this morning when he was first made aware of the allegations.
"The media announcement yesterday afternoon was actually the first time I was made aware," he answered. He said he didn't know Smith planned to retire, either.
When reporters asked whether it was concerning that the party's leadership found out about the situation through Smith's media statement, Reti said it was an active case between Smith and Parliamentary Services.
"We are at arm's length from this," he said.
It's understood the alleged incident had happened before the election. When asked why Smith was allowed to run in the 2020 election, Reti said he wouldn't make further comments on the case.
He also refused to comment about whether the staffer still worked for the party.
Reti said he didn't believe National had a problem with bullying.
Former leader Simon Bridges also said he wasn't aware of the investigation about Smith, and had also only found out through Smith's media statement.
Only senior whip Matt Doocey was aware Smith was “going through an issue with Parliamentary Services”. He said he'd known for a “period of time”, but wouldn't elaborate on this. Whips are responsible for MPs’ pastoral care, professional development, discipline, and for managing the caucus.
Doocey said the party expected working relationships between MPs and staff to be highly “professional, respectful, healthy and productive”.
“If you were to talk to MPs and staff, they would support that.”
Doocey said the situation with Smith was an “individual employment issue”, and he was “100 per cent” confident there weren’t wider culture issues within the National Party. He said he wasn’t aware of any other investigations by Parliamentary Services into any other MPs.
He acknowledged Smith’s more than 30 years of service as an MP. He also acknowledged Smith had owned up to his behaviour.
Smith said in his statement yesterday he "regretted" the incident.
"I will put on the record that I regret the incident, I apologised at the time and I apologise again today. I have decided the best course of action for the parties involved, the National Party, my family and myself is to retire now," he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said Smith’s resignation was a matter for the National Party.
When asked if there was enough accountability for MPs’ conduct, Robertson, a former Labour staffer himself, said steps had been taken to improve the work environment in Parliament after the Francis review.
This included a cross-party group developing a Code of Conduct during the last Parliament, he said.
“We know we need to do better. I’m not going to comment specifically on Dr Smith’s case, but what the Francis review told us was we needed to improve workplace culture.
"That’s never going to happen overnight. Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Whips also had a responsibility to hold its caucus to account, Robertson added.
A 2019 review by Debbie Francis found bullying and harassment were "systemic" in the Parliamentary workplace.
“Unacceptable behaviour" was often tolerated or normalised, and a perceived problem was low accountability, particularly for MPs, "who face few sanctions for harmful behaviour”, Francis said in her review.