Race or Gender No Excuse for Poor Behaviour of MPs, Says New Zealand Parliamentarian

MP Karen Chhour said women of colour should not be held to lower standards, after Green MP Golriz Gharaman was charged with shoplifting.

An ACT MP who grew up “interacting with the state care system” has criticised those making excuses for the poor behaviour of MPs—particularly women of colour—blaming the “culture of Parliament” for their actions.

“Yes, being a member of Parliament can be difficult and stressful. Being in the public eye, the long hours away from family. But other jobs are hard, too. Running a small business can be extremely difficult,” MP Karen Chhour wrote in an opinion piece in The Press newspaper.

Her comments come after media outlets devoted substantial coverage to the mental state of Green Party MP Golriz Gharaman after she was charged with shoplifting.

There have been several instances of MPs resigning or being sacked and citing mental health as a reason, adding that the pressure of being a parliamentarian made things worse.

In the 20 years since mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) was introduced in New Zealand, there have been 30 vacancies caused by list MPs resigning, in which case they were simply replaced by the next person on the party list.

There were also 15 vacancies created by the resignation of constituency MPs, most triggering a by-election.

Shoplifting and Resisting Arrest Among Alleged MPs’ Recent Behaviour

Green Party MP and former Iranian refugee Gharaman recently resigned from Parliament following allegations of shoplifting. Three charges have subsequently been laid.

Mid-2023, Labour Party Maori MP Kiri Allan resigned her ministerial portfolios—including justice and transport—after being charged with careless driving and resisting arrest. She also returned a breath test that was over the infringement offence level. Earlier, she had been at the centre of allegations concerning her treatment of staff.

At the time of her resignation, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said, “I’ve been advised she was experiencing extreme emotional distress at the time of the incident. Her recent personal struggles with mental health have been well documented and it appears some of those issues came to a head yesterday.”

Similarly, when Ms. Gharaman resigned she said, “It is clear to me that my mental health is being badly affected by the stresses relating to my work. This has led me to act in ways that are completely out of character. I am not trying to excuse my actions, but I do want to explain them.”

But—without specifically referencing either former MP—these excuses were something Ms. Chhour did not accept.

She also said claims of extra pressure on women of colour in Parliament were “offensive.”

Parliament Not to Blame

“Yes, female MPs get abuse online, but we can choose whether to consider ourselves victims. Parliament is a tough environment but we can’t blame our workplace for our behaviour,” she wrote.

“The idea that the pressures of Parliament drive people to bad behaviour, that mental health challenges are an explanation for that behaviour, or that we should hold women of colour to lower standards is offensive.

“We are not defined by our race, or our sex, or any other characteristic we were born with. And we certainly shouldn’t hold people to a different standard because of these arbitrary characteristics. New Zealand is a country where we should all have equal rights and responsibilities.”

She pointed out that being elected to Parliament is “an enormous privilege” and that MPs are all expected to be role models in their communities.

“When we come up against adversity in life, we can see ourselves as victims of outside forces, or we can take personal responsibility for how we react to them,” she said.

Combativeness Ends Outside the Debating Chamber

And despite what the public might think, the atmosphere at Parliament is not as toxic as brief excerpts from Question Time on television might suggest.

“Parliamentary debates can give the impression that aggression is a constant in this place,” she said, “But it’s more complex than that. I’ve found that combativeness is usually left at the debating chamber doors.”

Ms. Chhour said that when she first stood for Parliament, people told her: “That place will tear you apart and eat you alive,” “Why would you even want to try working in that cesspit?” and “People like us don’t get positions like that.”

But she “thought long and hard … and decided if I could help one family or one young person navigate the state care system, then it would be worth it.”

Citing past difficulties as an excuse for poor behaviour was unacceptable, Ms. Chhour said.

“Many MPs have had difficult upbringings. I grew up dealing with Child, Youth and Family [Department]. New Zealanders face these difficult realities every day and yet we don’t use them as excuses … My past helps guide me to create a better future for other New Zealanders. I’m determined to shut out all of the noise and get that job done.

“Parliament is a tough environment but we can’t blame our workplace for our behaviour. And despite our difficult backgrounds, we are always responsible for our actions. All of us face adversity, but it’s how we respond to that adversity that counts.

“We are defined not by our race or sex, but by our character.”

 

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