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Ombudsman sends PM ‘please explain’ over Dr Gaurav Sharma allegations; rogue MP’s suspension not predetermined, Labour ministers say

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Labour MP Dr Gaurav Sharma fronts Newstalk ZB’s Milke Hosking as the caucus considers a ‘motion to expel’. Video / Newstalk ZB


Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has written to the Prime Minister after Dr Gaurav Sharma made allegations that Labour MPs were trained on how to circumvent the Official Information Act.

Sharma made the allegations yesterday during a television interview, saying new MPs attended a workshop on how to communicate with ministers.

Sharma alleged part of the workshop included tips on how to not say “anything for which the Prime Minister has to stand up and do a media stand-up. But also, how not to get an OIA’d issue”.

Boshier confirmed he had written to Jacinda Ardern to “seek assurances” about Labour’s OIA obligations.

Dr Gaurav Sharma arrives at a Labour caucus meeting on November, 2020, in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Dr Gaurav Sharma arrives at a Labour caucus meeting on November, 2020, in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

“I am aware of the allegations made by Dr Sharma about the workshop advice and training given to Labour MPs on the Official Information Act,” Boshier said.

“I have written to the Prime Minister to seek her assurance that she, along with her ministers, MPs and staff understand their obligations under the OIA and apply the right processes when handling official information and responding to requests.”

The Prime Minister’s office said in a statement it “both understands and acts in accordance with the OIA”, in response to Boshier’s concerns.

“The Government … will continue to support MPs to understand their obligations under the Act,” the statement read.

“Since 2016, there has been an overall improvement in OIA requests being completed on time – despite a 110 per cent increase in the volume of requests during the same period.

“In June 2016, 91.1 per cent of OIAs were completed on time compared with 97.3 per cent today and just 0.15 per cent of all OIA responses result in a finding of deficiency by the Ombudsman.”

Meanwhile, minister Chris Hipkins said suspended MP Sharma has made things difficult for himself.

He and fellow Labour Cabinet ministers have pushed back against Sharma’s claims his suspension on Tuesday was predetermined at a secret meeting the previous night.

Sharma has turned up the heat on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, accusing her of lying and again calling for an independent investigation into his accusations of bullying by party whips – and into the complaints about his own office.

Senior Labour MP Chris Hipkins. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Senior Labour MP Chris Hipkins. Photo / Mark Mitchell

He broke his silence last night, saying he had secretly recorded a 55-minute phone call with a senior Labour MP on Monday night following a meeting the entire caucus – apart from him – had been invited to.

In that conversation, he claims, the MP told him several times the outcome was predetermined in that meeting. He told Newshub last night there was “something very big going on here and there is a cover-up”. Sharma says the senior MP was not aware he was recording their conversation, but now does not have an issue with it.

Tonight Newshub released more from Sharma’s taped conversation, including the suggestion from the other MP that Sharma resign before he is expelled and work against the party as an independent MP.

“‘Cause you could say, ‘F*** you guys, I’m going to resign as a Labour MP and I’ll just be an independent MP’,” the MP told him. “You could be a real thorn in their side.”

Sharma was suspended from Labour’s caucus on Tuesday, after an hours-long meeting he declined to attend which ostensibly was to decide his fate.

It had been framed by Ardern as a final warning for Sharma, an olive branch giving him a chance to remain in the party after he repeatedly breached caucus confidentiality and brought the party into disrepute.

She said the caucus felt he had broken their trust – the very reason for excluding him from the secret meeting on Monday, as MPs feared he would record the meeting being held via teleconferencing – and he had to earn it back.

His latest statements and the publicisation of the phone recording represent yet another breach, and arguably proof the caucus’ concerns about his confidentiality were justified. The caucus will meet again next Tuesday to vote on whether to expel him permanently.

Hipkins said the outcome was disappointing.

“I mean – never like to see these sorts of things happen, he’s clearly a bright and talented person who had a lot to offer, and I think it’s unlikely now that he will have the opportunity to offer that because of the actions that he himself has taken.

“I think that’s quite sad … I think he’s made it very difficult for himself.”

In Dunedin today, fellow Cabinet Minister David Clark denied the outcome was predetermined, and said the reason Sharma was excluded had been made clear.

“I think it’s been publicly pretty clear that a lot of people didn’t feel safe asking questions about his conduct,” Clark said.

“We’re unified as a caucus, and we stand behind our leader on this. I don’t think there’s really anything more to say.”

Tourism, Forestry, Small Business and Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash – also in Dunedin – stridently rejected Sharma’s claims.

“No, not in any way, shape or form. Not a caucus meeting, it wasn’t predetermined at all.”

Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty – a minister outside Cabinet and previously the chief whip – has been the main subject of Sharma’s complaints of bullying but today has been busy dealing with natural, rather than political, disasters.

He also denied the claims Sharma’s suspension had been predetermined.

“The mood of the room was very clear, but it certainly wasn’t predetermined.”

What does seem predetermined now is Sharma’s expulsion from the party next week. He could remain as an independent for his Hamilton West electorate in the same way Jami-Lee Ross did after his exit from National, but Labour could also choose to make use of the waka-jumping legislation.

Under that law, a letter sent to the Speaker of the House would guarantee Sharma’s removal from Parliament entirely.

– additional reporting RNZ

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