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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

Bill Ralston: It's only going to get worse for Labour

There’s no end in sight to the series of inquiries into alleged misconduct in the Labour Party.

It’s a mess and it’s only going to get worse. Labour’s handling of the sex abuse, bullying and intimidation allegations against a former staff member is abysmal and will ensure there are continuing damaging detonations from the internal inquiries now under way.

There is the initial inquiry into the abuse and bullying accusations that absolved the staffer and subsequently resulted in the resignation of party president Nigel Haworth for his handling of the affair.

There is the second inquiry into the allegations, by QC Maria Dew. Its terms of reference are being kept secret, which is unfortunate as it appears as if Labour is trying to hush things up.

A third inquiry, by lawyers Kensington Swan, will go over an already largely drafted report looking at Labour’s response to the complaints. This report will then be passed to yet another lawyer to peruse and seek written evidence on the facts. Labour says to save the complainants from multiple interviews, the exchanges between them and the last lawyer will be written, not verbal. This is a very cumbersome way of holding an inquiry and will, inevitably, result in at least one of the parties complaining that their views were not fully heard. You have only to see the arguments going on between the young woman who alleges sexual assault bordering on rape and Labour officials over whether her written and verbal evidence to the first inquiry referred to the sexual attack. She says it did; they say it didn’t.

Meanwhile, Government minister Poto Williams, who has worked in the sexual and family violence sector, is to oversee a review of Labour Party culture based on the outcome of the two inquiries being run. How this will proceed is vague in the extreme.

There is no guarantee that either of the reports will be made public, which may provoke media accusations of a cover-up or speculation about the contents. One would expect, with the relatively wide circulation of the reports, that one or both will eventually leak, resulting in yet another blaze of adverse publicity.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is making a forlorn plea to get the issue out of the public gaze, saying: “My view is that continuing to contest this in the public domain serves nobody.” I can understand her desire to shut down the public arguments, but the complainants went public because Labour seems to have repeatedly tried to brush the affair under the carpet.

Ardern’s wish would appear to have fallen on deaf ears, with the lawyer who led the first Labour inquiry that seemed to ignore the abuse and bullying accusations challenging the version of events given by the woman who says she was sexually assaulted. That almost certainly invites a further public response from the complainant and others.

At the heart of the matter is the unnamed ex-staffer and his lawyer, who deny all the allegations. The media, wary of defamation, will not out him or elaborate on his apparently strong connections to people at the top of the Beehive, which some complainants point to as the reason for what they believe was the first inquiry’s attempts to conceal their evidence and absolve the accused.

I would urge the woman who made the complaint of sexual assault to take the allegation to the police. They are the proper people to get to the bottom of what happened, rather than this rolling circus of internal Labour inquiries.

This column was first published in the September 28, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.