Bryce Edwards: Jacinda Ardern’s #MeTooLabour problem

Bryce Edwards: Jacinda Ardern’s #MeTooLabour problem

The integrity of Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party is currently under question, following revelations about how allegations of sexual assault in Labour have been handled by the party. Party president, Nigel Haworth, has now resigned over the matter, but this is unlikely to resolve unanswered questions.

Critics allege some sort of cover-up has taken place to protect one of Ardern’s staff members from some very serious allegations. Although the party president has resigned, pressure on the Prime Minister remains. She will continue to be asked to clarify her role in what has gone on, and justify not being more active in dealing with the allegations.

The allegations of harassment and sexual assault have been around for months, but they have only been covered in a minor way by the news media. This changed on Monday when online news site The Spinoff published an account of some of the allegations and the story turned into a full-blown scandal. You can read Alex Casey’s harrowing report here: A Labour volunteer alleged a violent sexual assault by a Labour staffer. This is her story.

This story followed on from one the day before by Andrea Vance and Alison Mau, which revealed that staff working for the Labour Party who had made complaints about the alleged offender working for Ardern, had been instructed to keep away from certain parts of the parliamentary workplace – see: Young Labour abuse victims barred from Parliament offices.

The article details more complaints about how they were treated at work, and how a number of key Labour Party staff and officials had been kept in the loop about some of the allegations: “senior Labour figures were already aware of the allegations. These included: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and her chief of staff Mike Munro, deputy chief of staff Raj Nahna, and chief press secretary Andrew Campbell. Finance Minister Grant Robertson and MPs Kiritapu Allen and Paul Eagle were also in the loop, as well as union official and party Council member Paul Tolich and Wellington city councillor Fleur Fitzsimons, also on the Council.”

Another complainant, a male, appeared on RNZ’s Checkpoint programme last night with a further account of how badly the whole situation has been handled by the Labour Party – see RNZ’s Labour assault investigation retraumatised victims – witness.

The complainant explained his experience of appearing before the party’s investigation into the allegations: “It was horrific. The whole thing felt like it was orchestrated to protect [the Labour staffer] and his image. And the power imbalance was huge. It was clear that the party had no idea what it was doing.”

Related to this, RNZ’s Craig McCulloch reports that “The complainant said he had previously confronted the Labour staffer about his behaviour and the man had tried to hit him” – see: Labour complainants say party president let them down.

This article also reports on a statement made by complainants to RNZ: “The statement was also critical of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and suggested she should have followed up with more questions when sexual assault claims were reported five weeks ago. The complainants said several of them got their start in the party volunteering for Ms Ardern’s campaign to win the Mount Albert electorate and it was time for her to return the help.”

For more detail on the whole scandal and how it has unfolded it’s worth reading Claire Trevett’s in-depth feature today: Jacinda Ardern and the Labour sex assault inquiry: Who knew what, when? (paywalled).

Amongst other revelations, Trevett says that various media outlets were informed of the allegations on 12 July, receiving an email from the complainants. This arose from anger at the outcome of an internal Labour Party investigation which recommended that no further action be taken.

Of course, the investigations have been going on for a while now, and also relate to the events at the Labour Youth summer camp, with the official review of that also unsatisfactory for the complainants – see Andrea Vance and Alison Mau’s Labour took six months to investigate serious sexual assault complaint.

For more on how the details came out, see Toby Manhire’s Timeline: Everything we know about the Labour staffer inquiry. He says that two main question arise out of the scandal: Is the party’s claim of ignorance about the allegations really tenable? And, is the party’s failed process defensible?

Leftwing blogger, No Right Turn has suggested that the whole episode points to either incompetence or a cover-up, and he calls for “the whole lot of them” to go – see: Disgust.

Here’s his main point: “Charitably, we’re expected to believe that the people Labour appointed to investigate a complaint of sexual assault are so incompetent that they had no idea that that was what the complaint was about, despite being told repeatedly and at length… Uncharitably, it just looks like an institution trying to protect itself and one of its insiders by the usual tactics of minimising the complaint and trying to shuffle the whole thing under the carpet.”

A challenge to the integrity of Jacinda Ardern

Given that the alleged offender works in the Labour Leader’s Office in Parliament, Jacinda Ardern has been questioned this week about how much she knew about the allegations and her role in dealing with them. She has given some contradictory answers. On the one hand, she has suggested that she went to the Labour Party organisation some weeks ago to tell them that they were not well equipped to deal with allegations of sexual assault, but on the other hand she has said that she wasn’t aware of the allegations of sexual assault until she read the story on Monday in the Spinoff.

Some of the contradictions in Ardern’s account are exposed by Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan in her column last night: We must question PM’s honesty over Labour sexual assault allegations. She provides examples of the media reporting on the sexual assault allegations in the past, and even an example of when Ardern has discussed it in the media herself.

Du Plessis-Allan suggests that Ardern’s claim of ignorance is therefore not credible: “That is very hard to believe. This has been reported in the media for the last five weeks. If you believe that yesterday was the first the Prime Minister heard of this, then you must believe that the Prime Minister of this country does not watch, read or listen to the news reported in this country. That she for the last five weeks has missed every bulletin, newspaper and programme that mentioned the fact this guy is alleged to have committed a sexual crime.”

The issue of whether there has been an attempted coverup is also raised: “Did she fail in her duty of care to staffers and volunteers?  Was this supposed to be covered up? But mostly it’s important because this is now about her integrity. It’s becoming increasingly hard to believe her version of events, and possibly this is the first time that we’ve had reason to question Jacinda Ardern’s honesty.”

Similarly, Barry Soper is disbelieving: “It beggars belief that the leadership of the Labour Party didn’t know something about the allegations of sexual abuse levelled at a Labour staffer. This man was after all sent packing from Parliament five weeks ago and is apparently now working from home” – see: Labour Party’s handling of sex attack claims beggars belief.

Soper even raises the question of whether Ardern might be willing to resign if found to have mishandled the situation: “If Haworth’s found wanting, Ardern says she expects him to do the decent thing and resign. But what if she’s found wanting? I can’t see her doing the same thing.”

Another Newstalk ZB broadcaster – Mike Hosking – outlines what he sees as a lack of leadership on Ardern’s part, which has contributed to the mess: “One, she didn’t own it. Two, she let it drag. Three, she didn’t seem to want to know. Four, she showed no real direct concern for the alleged victims. Five, she seemed to think she and the Labour Party are two different things. Six, her strength is empathy – and that’s been found wanting. Seven, when she finally got to it she hired someone to sort it, the QC” – see: Labour sex abuse scandal – where’s Jacinda Ardern’s famous empathy now?

For Hosking, this scandal is “a major blow to her credibility”, as well as her reputation for empathy: “The image she has increasingly earned, and is looking like she is now stuck with, is a hands-off operator, a person for the press release and photo shoot, not for the detail. There isn’t an issue that a report, working group, chinwag, or minister can’t deal with. And what makes this egregious, is this is her area of so-called expertise: empathy. Having won attention, and praise post-March 15, on a matter of a deeply personal and emotive nature within her own party, she seems to have completely missed the memo.”

Today’s Dominion Post editorial makes some similar arguments, suggesting that Ardern’s empathetic reputation is at risk: “Ardern’s empathy and sensitivity are her strongest political assets. The public responds to her warmth and personal sincerity. But further allegations of sexual assault, this time by a Labour staffer, are starting to test even the most loyal supporters” – see: A second Labour scandal looks like carelessness.

The newspaper foresaw the resignation of party president Nigel Haworth, and suggests that one sacrificial lamb shouldn’t be enough to satisfy the complainants. And to underline the point, they quote Ardern herself, from 2016, making this same point about another scandal: “These conversations stop the moment there’s a resignation… It’s the PR quick fix – usher the source of the controversy away. But that solves nothing. After all, apologies followed by silence changes nothing, and change is what we need.”

Finally, although there are few people coming out in defence of the Labour Party’s handling of the matter, one blogger has given it a go – see Martyn Bradbury’s In defence of Jacinda Ardern’s handling of the sex scandal & the danger of trials by media.