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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

How many inquiries will it take to resolve Parliament’s abuse allegations?

In any other workplace, complaints of sexual assault would probably have resulted in a transparent process, but this is Parliament we're talking about, writes Bill Ralston.

Allegations of bullying, sexual assault and rape are demanding of full investigation in any workplace. When they are repeatedly made about conditions within Parliament, they merit a lot more transparency than we have seen over the past year.

After the Francis review earlier this year into bullying and harassment in Parliament, Speaker Trevor Mallard claimed it revealed at least three cases of “serious sexual assault” that amounted to rape. The review detailed 50 complaints of unwanted touching, 54 of unwanted sexual advances and 14 reports of sexual assault – 11 of these from current staff members. Legally, nothing much appeared to happen despite the serious nature of the allegations.

Then there was a separate internal review by the Labour Party into complaints by, it is reported, 12 women about a parliamentary staffer, alleging sexual assault, rape and offers to pay for sex. No disciplinary action was taken.

At least four of the women then resigned from the party and seven made further complaints about the process, claiming they were ignored. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern then announced an independent investigation of the previous review, which apparently is still under way.

Opposition Deputy Leader Paula Bennett claims at least one of the women came to her, alleging the complaints had not been taken seriously. The complainants, some of whom were said to work in the Beehive and some in the Prime Minister’s office, were reported to be distressed, crying, having panic attacks and suffering serious anxiety.

The Speaker is not involved in this investigation because the “parliamentary staffer” at the centre of the allegations is paid directly by the Labour Party, not Parliament. That is odd because, regardless of where the alleged harasser’s pay cheque comes from, his behaviour affects employees in the parliamentary workplace. The Speaker is responsible for the health and safety of all parliamentary workers.

In politics, setting up reviews and investigations is a common ploy for keeping the media at bay, and it is hard not to be cynical about the latest “no comment” from the Prime Minister in relation to this “independent” inquiry.

I hope it is truly independent and that the findings, presumably with the names of the complainants and the accused redacted for privacy reasons, are made public. However, as it is a review commissioned by the Labour Party and not Parliament, I somehow doubt that will happen.

In any other workplace, I suspect, this many complaints would have resulted in a transparent process, the complainants would not have felt ignored and definite action would have resulted. The problem here is that we are talking about a political environment in which there is plenty of experience in obfuscation, evasion and the clouding of issues with a smokescreen.

In case it looks like I am just attacking Labour, I should remind readers of the scrutiny National came under last year with allegations of bullying and sexual impropriety against MP Jami-Lee Ross.

Parliament is obviously a toxic place and it’s lucky it’s not running the country … Oh.

This article was first published in the August 24, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.