Rafael Gonzalez-Montero said all MPs would receive “healthy workplace training”.Photo/Mark Mitchell
The council may be known for toxic working conditions, but its top boss, Rafael Gonzalez-Monero, doesn’t think so.
Colombian-born chief executive reaches top in 16 years
He had worked in Parliament and he loved the place.
He is also optimistic about changes in the workplace.
“When I started working here, you understood that you were dealing with a member of Congress, and no matter how they were feeling, or how they wanted to talk to you, you were going to deal with it.”
But the MPs themselves have changed. They are more considerate, more respectful, and more concerned about the treatment of employees.
We sat in his office in Parliament and discussed whether his EA could take and collect our coffee orders – EA said she could.
Gonzalez-Montero will not talk about current or recent high-profile cases involving parliamentary service employees – Labour’s Gaurav Sharma; former National MP Nick Smith; former National MP Jami-lee Ross; De falsely accused staff of rape.
But he acknowledged the damage done to their publicity.
“One of the things that’s really difficult is when things break out and people actually think it’s a toxic workplace, and I don’t believe it is,” he said.
“People are always surprised when they come to work in council services because it’s actually a really good culture and they say people are supportive and nice.”
He started his career in New Zealand more than 30 years ago as a young staff member at the Colombian embassy. He is now living more time in New Zealand than in Colombia.
He worked for Air New Zealand and the Mexican embassy before taking a role in parliament’s inter-parliamentary relations unit, helping organise travel – which he never calls an “intermediary”.
Among other positions, he helps manage select committees, takes questions from the parties orally, facilitates engagement between parliament and the community, works in corporate governance and, prior to his current job, was deputy secretary of the House of Representatives.
This sometimes involves sitting in front of the speaker in the debate room and giving real-time advice on disputes as they arise. That’s what he’s been allowed to continue to do when parliament meets every Wednesday night.
As chief executive of Parliamentary Services, Gonzalez-Montero reports to the Speaker and occasionally appears in select committee hearings with Mallard.
Memorably, in March last year, Mallard was questioned over a defamation case that had been settled with staff falsely accused of rape.
Gonzalez-Montero was also questioned and said he would not resolve any employment cases brought by the former employee.
The staff member was suspended and then lost his job following the sexual assault highlighted in the 2019 Francis Commentary on Bullying and Harassment in Parliament.
“I’m not willing to reconcile with anyone who I believe has done something wrong,” Gonzalez-Monero told the special committee. “If we go to court and we lose, I’d rather lose because we did the right thing.”
Several months later, Mallard used parliamentary privilege to say the staff member had committed a sexual assault, which the man denies.
There have been many changes due to the Francis bullying review, and Gonzalez-Monero is overseeing it.
All MPs are undergoing anti-bullying training – despite it being called “healthy workplace training” – and all Labour MPs have completed their training.
On Friday, Mallard announced the appointment of one of the key outcomes of the review, the Independent Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards.
Lyn Provost, the former auditor general, will take office in January 2023. She will be able to hear confidential complaints from people in parliamentary workplaces who do not believe MPs meet a code of conduct.
The code, officially named “Council Workplace Statement of Conduct‘ was formulated by MPs on the Parliamentary Service Committee’s cross-party culture subcommittee – National’s Jacquie Dean, Labour’s Angie Warren-Clark, Greens’ Jan Logie and Act’s Karen Chhour.
Its headline clauses include requiring people in council workplaces to show that bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment, is unacceptable; act respectfully and professionally; and speak up if you witness unacceptable behaviour.
Recruitment has changed. Previously, a member of Congress could hire a political party activist to serve as his or her administrative assistant.
This doesn’t happen anymore. Members of Congress may recommend someone for the job, but all employees must go through a formal recruitment and interview process.
He said he rarely has time to deal with employment disputes when he manages his 700 or so employees — and would not say how many disputes are currently based on privacy.
But did the pendulum swing too far? Is it hard for current MPs to get rid of an incompetent staff member?
It’s harder, says Gonzalez-Montero.
Previously, there was a “break-up clause” in employment contracts that allowed the termination of someone’s employment on the grounds that a relationship with an MP had broken down.
They often lead to payments and nondisclosure agreements, and were vehemently condemned in the Debbie Francis scrutiny as a way to cover up misbehaving MPs.
Such terms no longer exist.
“We changed this with the unions before the end of the last parliament, so the break-up clause no longer exists,” he said.
“In order to address performance, you have to go through a performance management process like any other workplace in New Zealand.”
This may involve mediation or individual grievances from a range of options.
But he’s also aware that some managers are concerned about raising performance issues with employees for fear of being accused of bullying.
“It’s about striking a balance. We have to respect the people who work with us and work for us, but be able to have a conversation about how things are going.”