• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

Bill Ralston: Where Labour went wrong with the sexual abuse complaint

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is left looking out of touch over the party's handling of a complaint against a Beehive staffer.

What on Earth has gone wrong in New Zealand politics? A 19-year-old woman details to the media how a Labour Party staffer, employed by the Parliamentary Service in the Labour leader’s Office, sexually violated her, and when she took her complaint to the party hierarchy, she says her allegations were ignored.

The Labour Party line is that its internal inquiry into the man was about allegations he had bullied and harassed as many as a dozen of his fellow workers, it was not about claims of sexual assault, and the young woman should take her complaint of sexual assault to the police.

The party then allows the man to continue working in Parliament and, it is said by Jacinda Ardern, assures the Prime Minister that there were no allegations of a sexual nature against him. The party seems to believe it can say this because it refused to acknowledge those sexual complaints, which were not formally included in its investigation.

Wrong. This is an ostrich-like burying of its head in the sand. It should have offered the woman help and support so that she felt strong and confident enough to lodge a police complaint. Instead, it tried to sweep the matter under the carpet.

The Parliamentary Service is not much better in its response, saying it had received no complaint of sexual assault about him despite the fact that the situation is now public knowledge. The agency has a duty of care in the health and safety of its workers and the fact someone has alleged sexual assault by one of its staff surely means other women in the parliamentary precinct are potentially at risk from him should the complaint be true.

Meanwhile, Wellington police are investigating two separate complaints of indecent assault from parliamentary workers in another case and, also, a man has pleaded guilty to assault after complaints of sexual assault at a Labour Party youth camp.

The latest allegations from the young woman appear to have left Ardern nonplussed. She claims she found out that there were complaints of a sexual nature only when the news broke in the media. She had been assured by the party that there were none.

A queen’s counsel (QC) is now investigating what went on and will report directly to Ardern in a month or so. Labour’s attempts, so far, to shut the issue down have simply fuelled speculation and resulted in more allegations airing in the media. The several weeks to come before the QC reports back are also unlikely to quieten the matter and the possibility remains that more women will surface to either expand on their bullying and harassment claims or make worse allegations.

There is an old rule in politics that it is the cover-up that causes the worst reaction rather than the original offence. From what we already know, it seems the Labour Party did try to cover up allegations of a sexual nature against the man by simply ignoring them.

Worse, if the statement from Ardern is correct, it completely misled the Prime Minister when it told her there was nothing of a sexual nature in the complaints it received. She is left looking flummoxed and bewildered in the media, which is never a good look for a political leader.

Yes, the young woman should have laid a police complaint, but it’s easy to understand her embarrassment and fear that the process could let her down. What is impossible to understand is that the Labour Party ignored her and left her in such distress.  

This column was first published in the September 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.