Labor Member for Shellharbour Anna Watson has used the floor of the NSW Parliament to take aim at her political foe, Kiama MP Gareth Ward – alleging he “verbally abused” an anti-West Dapto jail campaigner.
The claim, made just days after federal Liberal Member for Gilmore Ann Sudmalis accused Mr Ward of “bullying, betrayal, and backstabbing”, was aired during question time in the lower house on Wednesday afternoon.
“Can you confirm that a member of the Residents Against Dapto Jail community group wrote to you after being verbally abused by the Member for Kiama, advising that he has anger management issues, no concept of appropriate behaviour and appears to have an issue with women,” Ms Watson asked Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
In reply, Ms Berejiklian said: “Those opposite are embarking on a very, very slippery slope.”
“I say to all members of this place; if there are serious allegations, you know where to take them,” she said.
“I’ve not cited that correspondence. If I’ve received it, I’ll obviously cite it in due course. But I expect all members of Parliament to conduct themselves appropriately.
“I have no reason to suspect that the member for Kiama acted inappropriately on that occasion.”
The correspondence, seen by the Mercury, was sent on June 29 via an online form on the Premier’s website.
Mr Ward used the floor of the Parliament to offer a personal explanation and deny Ms Watson’s claims.
“There were allegations made by members of the Opposition in relation to my actions, and in fact I think the member for Shellharbour cited a letter from a member of the No Dapto Jail group,” the Kiama MP said.
“I deny emphatically the claim that I yelled or bullied anybody at that meeting; that is simply not true, I wouldn’t do that.”
Earlier on Wednesday – just prior to question time – Ms Watson used a notice of motion to call for the house to condemn bullying “in all its forms and wherever it takes place”.
The motion also asked the house to note Ms Sudmalis’ comments “that bullying, betrayal and backstabbing have been the hallmarks for the conduct of the Member for Kiama”.
Ms Watson told the chamber “this is not an isolated incident”.
“The conduct of the member for Kiama and his bullying treatment of women have been the focus of widespread community concern,” she said in her motion.
‘I know how Ms Sudmalis feels’: Watson
Ms Watson also levelled bullying allegations at Mr Ward as she moved to reorder the Parliament’s general business on Wednesday afternoon.
In doing so, she said: “I know how Mrs Sudmalis feels.”
“Because for the seven-and-a-half years I have been a member of the NSW Parliament, I have been subjected to character assassinations and personal attacks by the Member for Kiama,” Ms Watson said.
“I have had my intelligence questioned. I have been called names, I have been called a ‘hopeless, ineffective and useless Member of Parliament’ by the Member for Kiama. These are the classic hallmarks of a bully.”
Ms Watson said she had been “inundated with emails and phone calls from constituents passing on their experiences” with Mr Ward since Ms Sudmalis made her statement in the federal Parliament.
Read more: Premier backs Ward amid bullying claims
“They recount being shouted over at meetings, being talked down to, being threatened when they disagreed with him,” she said, before reading a number of comments from the Residents Against Dapto Jail Facebook page.
“I know politics is a rough and tumble business. Members in this place have seen me robustly debate on policy issues with the Member for Kiama, but this behaviour goes way beyond that.”
Ms Watson went as far as accusing Mr Ward – who lives with albinism and is legally blind – of using his own experiences of being bullied as a child “to deflect from his behaviour [and] to gain sympathy”.
“Well I say to the member, it’s time to grow up. You can’t spend your life making excuses. You need to take a good hard look at yourself and stop bullying women in this place and stop bullying members of the community – because it is unacceptable and we won’t cop it,” she said.
Ms Watson’s attempt to reorder the Parliament’s general business was voted down.
Scully questions Ward’s role in school anti-bullying strategies
Meanwhile, Wollongong MP Paul Scully has linked the bullying accusation and Mr Ward’s role as parliamentary secretary for education.
“Given the serious allegations of bullying made by Ann Sudmlais against the Member for Kiama, why do you believe it is appropriate for him to continue his role in developing the government’s anti-bullying strategies for schools,” Mr Scully asked the Premier, also during question time.
Ms Berejiklian acknowledged the question and emphasised that it was “very similar to the three or four other questions I have received on this issue”.
“As I said yesterday, the Prime Minister has set up this process for dealing with allegations at that level,” she said.
“I say to the member for Wollongong, refer to my previous responses.
“I also say the Member for Kiama has already demonstrated why he is the perfect spokesperson for dealing with experiencing childhood bullying, given his background.”
Following Mr Scully’s question and the Premier’s answer to it, the Speaker – South Coast Liberal MP Shelley Hancock – could be heard saying the words “shocking” and “disgusting”.