The once-proud NZ Labour Party was in a sorry shape this week. Its president Nigel Haworth handed in his resignation, the PM Jacinda Ardern was looking rather bedraggled, and several of her senior staff stood accused of a cover-up, in the wake of the scandal involving allegations of sexual assault against a Labour staffer said to be working in the Beehive.
Stuff reported earlier this week that a 19-year-old woman was allegedly assaulted on two occasions by a staffer with “strong influence” in the party. It took a year after the second alleged assault before the party eventually launched an investigation into multiple complaints. But in spite of the young woman meeting with Labour Party officials including Haworth to seek help, the party contended the allegations did not include sexual violence.
As the Dominion-Post noted, the situation is complicated by the nature of the employment of the man at the centre of the allegations. He works for the Labour Leader’s office but is technically a public servant employed by Parliamentary Service, which has been unable to investigate as no complaint was made to it. There are questions why Ardern was repeatedly assured the allegations were not sexual, just as there are questions about what she knew, when she knew it, and why she did not get more involved earlier on.
Certainly the deputy leader of the Opposition Paula Bennett did not waste any time, opening the general debate in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon not long after the news of Haworth’s resignation, in putting the boot in.
“The Prime Minister says she did not know there were sexual assault allegations against one of her staff members until Monday. I could go through the various media reports since 5 August and my own representation since being contacted by victims, to show the inconsistencies in this, but they have already been well traversed in the last 24 hours. The resignation today of Nigel Haworth cannot be, in the Prime Minister’s words, ‘the PR quick-fix’. Haworth needed to go, and it should have happened weeks ago, but what is also known is that the Prime Minister’s own senior staff and a senior Minister have known the seriousness of the allegations, but have not acted”.
Bennett noted the complainants were members of the Labour Party. They genuinely believed the party would listen to their complaints and deal with the alleged offender appropriately, but nothing happened.
“It clearly has taken an incredible sense of frustration, disappointment, and disillusion for these people to come to me, a National Party MP, to try and see their complaints addressed. These are serious allegations. The Prime Minister cannot keep her head in the sand and pretend like it is happening somewhere far, far away. It is happening in her own office, in her own organisation. She is the leader of the Labour Party. The alleged perpetrator works in her leader’s office – he works for her”.
Bennett claimed she had been told by the complainants that Jacinda Ardern’s former chief of staff Mike Munro knew about the allegations, her chief press secretary, Andrew Campbell, knew about the allegations, and the director of her leader’s office, Rob Salmond, knew about the allegations.
“I have been told by two victims who work in Parliament that they went to Rob Salmond around Christmas time and made a complaint about the alleged perpetrator. The Prime Minister has constantly said her office did not receive complaints and, in fact, encouraged the victims to speak to their line managers. They did. They have told me they went to Rob Salmond and nothing was done, and we are expected to believe that none of these men in her own office told the Prime Minister about the allegations – all of this in the aftermath of the Labour summer camp scandal, when the Prime Minister made it very clear she expected to have been told. And are we really expected to believe that she didn’t know that her chief press secretary, Andrew Campbell, embarked on a witch-hunt to try and find out who in the Beehive was talking to the media about the allegations? The complainants certainly felt hunted and scared that he was trying to shut them up and stop them from talking to the media – classic bullying of victims, and hardly a victim-led response”.
Bennett went on to assert a victim had told her that the alleged perpetrator had deep alliances to Grant Robertson, that he was involved in his campaign for the Labour Party leadership, and that Grant Robertson has known the seriousness of these allegations.
“It is unbelievable that he hasn’t discussed this with his close friend and his leader. This all smacks of a cover-up. This goes straight to the top: to the Prime Minister, and to senior Cabinet Ministers”.
Another Opposition front-bencher Mark Mitchell rubbed salt into Labour’s wounds in the same debate: “ Someone from the Labour Party – the Prime Minister, especially – should be in this House standing and explaining to the country why under her watch, why under her leadership she has allowed a culture to fester and get to the point where we have a Labour camp with indecent assaults, where we have young women that have been indecently assaulted who haven’t been looked after. They haven’t been protected. They’ve ended up coming to us. They’ve ended up coming to the deputy leader of the National Party for support”.
What is still not clear is why the alleged offending Labour staffer appears to carry so much influence both within the Beehive and the Labour Party.
An open letter to Ardern from party members which called on Haworth to resign also proposed a ban on the alleged attacker attending party events. The authors say they have looked up to Ardern as a “champion of women, survivors and other marginalised people”.
As the Dominion-Post commented: “The open letter makes it clear much of Labour’s political capital is embodied by Ardern. The downside of having so much invested in a leader is that disappointment is also highly personalised”.