Bryce Edwards: Labour’s victim-led approach under scrutiny

Bryce Edwards: Labour’s victim-led approach under scrutiny

Labour has justified its handling of the youth summer camp sexual misconduct controversy as the party taking a “victim-led” approach. It has received support for its stance from a number of quarters, including Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP. But there has also been strong criticism of the party’s approach. Some believe it has required that those in the know keep other interested parties “in the dark”. And there have been questions about whether it’s even a genuine stance, or just a self-interested justification for inaction and an attempted cover up.

Labour’s victim-led approach to sexual misconduct

Labour’s response to the youth camp controversy involved keeping the matter from at least three, arguably, interested parties: parents, the police, and the prime minister. General Secretary Andrew Kirton and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have explained that this decision to keep information around the alleged sexual misconduct at the Waihi summer camp private was based on the contemporary best-practice of a victim-led approach. This philosophy means that the victims are given the control over what information is passed on, when and to whom.

For more on why a victim-lead approach is taken in these situations, see Laura Walters and Jo Moir’s Sexual abuse support organisation says Labour right not to tell parents. This article explains: “It was up to the survivors whether to tell anyone about an incident, or report it to police. This gave them autonomy and control over the situation. Telling other parties on their behalf risked re-traumatising the victims.”

It’s a polarising approach. According to Audrey Young, social liberal voters will be applauding this method. She says: “Despite Ardern’s small-town credentials and Christian upbringing, she is a trendy urban liberal and they are the people who will be most impressed with her performance this week” – see: A week Jacinda Ardern will want to forget.

Young points out that although Ardern has been contrite on many aspects of the Labour camp issue, she has stood her ground on the party’s victim-led argument: “Ardern has criticised the party for being tardy in offering the victims support but she has never said the parents should have been told or that she should have told earlier.”

According to Young, Ardern “has been out of touch with the mainstream on this issue.” She says a very different approach would be taken National and New Zealand First, and even Helen Clark would have been more conservative: “Over nine years in Government she developed a way of handling sensitive issues with a potentially criminal component. She would refer the matter to the police or for investigation and then decline all comment on the basis that the police were considering it… Helen Clark had no compunction about criticising colleagues or the party when it fell short of what the mainstream public would expect.”

To illustrate National’s approach to this issue, see Newshub’s report, ‘I’d rip their throats out’ – Judith Collins tears into Labour’s handling of Waihi camp incident. The senior National MP claims: “I’d actually rip their throats out for doing that, if it was my kid, I really would. Obviously not physically, but you might as well. That’s what I’d want to do”. And on Labour’s victim-led approach: “I cannot believe they’d sit there saying, ‘Let’s not widen the circle.’ Why not? This is the culture of secrecy that actually breeds this sort of behaviour.”

With Labour “adopting this impeccably ‘progressive’ stance”, Chris Trotter says party leaders “have forced Labour back into the same perilous political position it took up to defend the so-called ‘anti-smacking’ legislation. Morally-speaking, that was unquestionably the right thing to do. Politically-speaking, it was the height of folly” – see: School for scandal.

Trotter suggests this decision to keep so many interested parties “in the dark” will be at strong variance with the views of “the ordinary Kiwi parent of a teenage daughter or son”, and a backlash is likely.

One newspaper editorial is scathing of Labour’s progressive approach, suggesting it is out of sync with the current climate of openness about sexual misconduct, and parents, police, and the PM should have been informed – see the Dominion Post’s Labour should have fronted on sexual misconduct.

Here’s the newspaper’s argument: “it’s worth remembering one thing: 16-year-olds are, in the eyes of many, still children. Even if the teenagers objected to it being taken any further, the adults in the room should have stepped up, acknowledged their duty of care, and informed the parents. That would have been a more reasonable basis on which all parties could have made a decision around taking it further. Society sometimes struggles with this concept, but parents still have a role to play in their children’s life. Possibly a right. Instead, Labour has left itself isolated and at least one victim feeling like they’ve not had enough support. The party usurped the role of the law enforcers in deciding what may or may not be criminal activity.”

In contrast, the Herald’s editorial on the topic endorses the victim-led approach: “Social workers say they are guided by the wishes of victims of this age when it comes to informing their parents. While that might not be a popular policy it seems a reasonable one. Not all parents would handle the information well and even if they did, young people have a right to keep personal experiences private even from their parents. Professionals can do no more than encourage them to confide in those who care for them” – see: Labour should not lose faith in its youth.

Newstalk ZB’s political editor, Barry Soper, has disagreed with keeping the matter from parents, saying he has “personal experience of being molested by a close family friend as a teenager” – see: Labour scandals big issues raised. He explains that his own “lack of trauma is as a result of talking to and being counselled by my mum which is what these youngsters would be well advised to do”.

Doubts about Labour’s motivations in claiming a victim-led approach

Some commentators have challenged the authenticity of Labour’s justification for keeping the sexual misconduct allegations from parents, police, and the PM. For example, the Dominion Post editorial (above) claims that Labour’s reference to a victim-led approach is “possibly just a little convenient”, in that it clearly benefited the party “when it largely kept the issue ‘in-house’.” The newspaper says while Labour has appealed to high principles in explaining itself, “the hierarchy’s considered, ‘victim-led’ approach carried an element of political calibration. We’ll leave readers to draw their own conclusions on that.”

The biggest problem with Labour’s claim to be victim-led is the fact that their help for the victims appears to have been extraordinarily little and far too late. For this reason, Tim Murphy – the co-editor of Newsroom, which originally broke the Labour camp story – has expressed incredulity at Labour’s claim to be taking a victim-led approach – see: How bad is bad enough?

Murphy’s main point is worth quoting at length, beginning with the issue of Andrew Kirton not contacting relevant parties when the story was about to break: “Before the issue became public on Monday, he had a number of hours to contact the Prime Minister and/or the victims, before the story was published. He did not do so. He claimed on John Campbell’s Checkpoint programme that evening that Labour had offered for the victims to go to the police. By Wednesday he was retracting, saying the party had not been clear on that to the victims. He claimed the victims had been talked to about raising it with parents. That too is in dispute. He claimed professional advice was sought, implying that was soon after the assaults. The advice was sought weeks later. Offers of counselling were made only last Saturday night. The unravelling of the initial defence does not suggest the general secretary, President or party apparatus was as supportive of the victims as it claims. There were weeks without contact. What came was too little, too late.”

So, was Labour largely putting its own political interests ahead of the victims? That’s how veteran political journalist John Armstrong reads it, saying “Keeping everyone in the dark also suited Labour’s best interests” – see: Jacinda Ardern looked like she was no longer in control during Labour’s week from hell.

Armstrong says: “In its inept handling of this dreadful episode, Labour justifiably stands accused of putting self-interest and political convenience ahead of the welfare of the victims of the alleged assaults.”

Stuff’s political editor Tracy Watkins also has doubts that Labour took a truly victim-led approach, saying “only now has one of the alleged victims laid a complaint with the police. Clearly if there had been appropriate support from the start that young person would have felt their treatment was serious enough to warrant a police investigation” – see: Jacinda Ardern has political capital to burn but Labour shouldn’t squander it.

She suggests the initial reaction of the Labour hierarchy to the controversy appears far from being victim-led: “the initial attitude of the senior rank and file appears to have been that it was a just boozy party that got out of hand. That was borne out by Kirton’s comments about the embarrassment of the alleged perpetrator seemingly once he had sobered up. That attitude explains the weeks of inaction that followed, which have only fed the perception of a cover-up and given the story time to brew in social media and among the ranks of Young Labour activists.”

One Labour Youth camp attendee has spoken out about the lack of help from the party, and labelled them “hypocritical” – see Derek Cheng’s Witness: People were vomiting in the toilets and bushes from too much boozing at Young Labour summer camp.

According to this account, “People at the camp were told about a helpline they could call, but he said mobile coverage was so limited that the helpline was practically pointless.” The activist is quoted, saying, “They told us on the morning of day three to send a text, because it was more likely to get through.”

Furthermore, the article says that “An email from Young Labour to the victims in the days that followed was not good enough”, with the Labour camp participant saying, “There was no offer to talk to parents or support in making a police report. There was no phone call follow-up.”

The impression that has emerged is that party officials left Labour Youth to sort it out themselves. Barry Soper comments: “The biggest failure of the Labour Party’s general secretary Andrew Kirton it seems was to leave the youngsters to sort it out themselves – and to only take it seriously when Cabinet Minister Megan Woods was written to by one if the four” – see: Gulping PM Jacinda Ardern learns political lesson the hard way.

This account of Labour Party inaction is backed up RNZ political editor, Jane Patterson, who says “Kirton initially left it up to the youth wing of the party to deal with. The upshot of that was a delay in communicating properly with the victims and bringing in professional support, just one of the failings in the way this has been dealt with” – see: Mishandling of sex assault complaints a political mess.

Patterson adds: “Kirton’s first approach to the sexual abuse support agency HELP was also only made the day after someone involved in the incident contacted Cabinet minister Megan Woods – in other words once the circle was starting to widen.”

On the question of whether the PM should have been informed, Audrey Young is incredulous that Andrew Kirton has suggested doing so “would have been for “political management” reasons, not helping the victims” – see: Ardern missed an opportunity to call out bungled response to assaults. Young says that the opposite is actually the case – that it was precisely out of the needs of “political management” the PM was kept out of the loop: “Her lack of knowledge now means she does not carry the blame for the initial clumsy handling of it. Ardern is also free from any claims of a cover-up.”

Essentially, this meant that the prime minister was able to escape – to some extent – being embroiled in the whole damaging controversy – see Chris Trotter’s The theory and practice of plausible deniability.

Finally, cartoonists have been treading very carefully on this issue – mostly by not drawing on the matter – here’s my blog post aggregating what currently exists – see: Cartoons about the Labour Party camp controversy.