Formerly New Zealand's High Commissioner to the Cook Islands and MP for the Northland Electorate of New Zealand.


Moving forward together

Thursday 11 September 2014

Serving our community

The recent deaths of Work and Income staff in Ashburton and the escalation of threats against staff at other branches since is a reminder of how vulnerable public service workers are. These are genuine people who are trying to help others and do difficult jobs that involve administering policies set down in legislation. Unfortunately, there are those in our communities who are prepared to resort to threats and violence to get their own way. We can rationalise it anyway we like, blaming tough economic times and failures in health and education. But the reality is, there are some people in every community who simply cannot be reasoned with and who are willing to resort to violence to achieve an end.

Unfortunately, intimidation, verbal abuse and violence aren't just directed at Work and Income staff. They are also occupational hazards in local government. Field staff are the most likely to encounter abuse, but front office staff are not far behind. In most cases, the abuse is only verbal but it does occur almost daily. I find it extraordinary that such incidents even occur in our libraries. I know of at least one case where police intervention was needed. As recently as a week ago a member of our field staff was physically assaulted in the course of his duties and I'm told that field staff encounter face-to-face threats of physical violence about once a month on average. The level of verbal abuse through less direct medians such as the telephone is substantially higher. We have protocols in place to deal with abuse and threats but there really is very little we can do to protect against the possibility that somebody will overstep the mark and resort to physical violence at any given moment.

While we intend to review our workplace safety, it is physically and financially impossible to cover off every potential contingency with high numbers of staff in the field and numerous workplaces across the district. What we can do as a community is to remember the Ashburton tragedy, be aware of the dangers and be prepared to act quickly and call for external assistance should a situation arise in which others are being threatened or may be in danger. Looking out for each other is very important in areas such as the Far North where isolation is an issue.

If you happen to see staff as an easy target for abuse, please think again. As a Council, we will not hesitate to report your behaviour to higher authorities. Employees are entitled to the best possible level of protection and should not have to suffer for perceived injustices or for simply carrying out duties which, at the end of the day, are about serving our community.


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