What the sexual harassment allegations mean for the Labour Partyby Bill Ralston
The response to the weekend camp fiasco suggests the honeymoon for the new Government is over.
If you were the Prime Minister of New Zealand and your political party held a weekend camp, at which four 16-year-olds were sexually assaulted or harassed, would you want your party functionaries to tell you? Damn right you would.
Jacinda Ardern could be forgiven for feeling peeved that one of her Cabinet ministers, Megan Woods, knew of the alleged attacks at a Young Labour camp near Waihi last month but didn’t tell her. As a result, Ardern walked into a press conference to be blindsided by a reporter’s questions about the incident.
The Prime Minister’s office is staffed by some highly experienced and skilled advisers, who might have been of some assistance in the matter had their boss been told about it. The so-called “no surprises” principle requires public servants to keep ministers apprised of potentially damaging or politically embarrassing revelations. The Labour Party should adopt a similar approach – party organisers blundered by trying to wrap the PM in the cotton wool of obliviousness and deniability while naively claiming its handling of the situation was “victim-led”.
Their mistakes included not informing the children’s parents of the matter and failing to take the matter to the police, which allows the suspicion that they were trying to cover the whole thing up.
It is hard to avoid the feeling that some men in the Labour organisation and in the Government work to protect Ardern from bad news. They should not: she is perfectly capable of looking after herself.
Parents should have been informed of the assaults on their children, because it is hard to adequately parent a 16-year-old if you do not know what is affecting them and their behaviour. The police should have been told, because somewhere out there is a 20-year-old man who needs to be held to account. Labour did that young man no favours: he needs to learn to control his behaviour if he is to avoid a worse fate at a later date.
Another lesson for Labour organisers is that if you are going to host a function where minors have access to alcohol and people get plastered, it is not wise for the adult in charge to go to bed at 9pm. The Government has now suspended all Young Labour events.
Ardern acknowledged that there was an unacceptable lag between when the incident occurred and when support was offered to the victims, but she said the party’s general secretary, Andrew Kirton, who had handled the issue, would not lose his job. Some of the posts on social media pointed out that, by contrast, National MP Todd Barclay stood down from Parliament after it was revealed he had simply taped an electorate worker’s conversation.
People, especially those involved in politics, need to take responsibility for their actions or, in this case, their inaction. The ferocious response to the issue online and in the media makes it clear that the honeymoon for the new Government is over. Mistakes, as they should, will be severely punished by the media.
This is a relatively new Government and it is clear its internal communications need to be seriously tightened up. The performance of its party organisation needs to be at least the equal of the parliamentary party’s, and the behaviour of its party members needs to be as irreproachable as that of the leadership.
Labour can no longer count on Jacindamania or quiescent journalists to shield it from harm.
This article was first published in the March 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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