17 Dec 2018

A look back on NZ’s 2018 MeToo movement

From Checkpoint, 5:48 pm on 17 December 2018

Parliament, youth wings of political parties and the Human Rights Commission - they've all had their #MeToo moment this year.


Photo: Creative Commons

Almost as soon as the explosive revelations about the behaviour of some lawyers hit the headlines, other areas of working and political life were exposed too.

Less than a month after revelations that interns at the law firm Russell McVeagh were sexually assaulted by lawyers, harassment claims hit the Labour Party's youth wing.  

Amid intense public scrutiny, Labour's handling of the complaints was reviewed. 

It recommended a more effective relationship between Young Labour and the Labour Party, a review of the party's code of conduct and its policies on alcohol, sexual harassment, bullying and complaints.

Then, nine months later, news broke that police were investigating a complaint of inappropriate behaviour following a Young National event. 

The police are investigating.

Young Labour, National, Greens and Act declined RNZ's request for an interview about their members' behaviour and whether they made any changes following the incidents. 

But Young NZ First's Louie Encabo said the youth wing had made no changes to its regulations. 

"We feel that they're already ample as it is, but we were told to keep those incidents in mind and to make sure that none of those happen. 

"We've been incident free and there's really no indicator that we need to change something in constitution or in our regulations," Mr Encabo said. 

But it is not just the youth wings of political parties in the spotlight. 

Last month, Speaker Trevor Mallard launched an external review to get to the bottom of whether bullying and harassment is rife at Parliament.

The review, led by Debbie Francis, will also consider sexual harassment. 

"When I was first here there were a number of MPs who were Second World War veterans and had a set of attitudes which were firmly of those people who grew up in the 1920s. 

"Now clearly attitudes have changed massively in New Zealand in that time and attitudes within Parliament have changed," said Mr Mallard.

The Speaker said the idea of a review had been around for a while, but events this year brought it to the fore.

"It's gone from being something which is ...a relatively low level internal review to be at this level as a result of the law firm's experiences," Mr Mallard said.

Late last year there were questions about the investigation and management of a sexual harassment complaint laid by an intern against a senior staff member at the Human Rights Commission.

An inquiry, ordered by Justice Minister Andrew Little, later found there was sexual harassment at the commission but it was not "endemic".

The Commission did not respond to RNZ's request for an interview. 
But at the Commission's annual review hearing last month acting Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero said it had "undoubtedly been a year of change."

They had implemented a third of the report's 31 recommendations, Ms Tesoriero said.

But the senior staff member at the centre of the allegations still works for the Commission. 

"Our chief financial officer, at the heart of the sexual harassment claim continues to work for the commission, his role as chief financial officer has been disestablished," Ms Tesoriero said. 

Ms Tesoriero told the review hearing that the senior staff member would leave the Commission at the end of the month. 

University of Auckland politics professor Jennifer Curtin said Parliament, political youth wings and the Human Rights Commission weren't necessarily more prone to sexual harassment - the incidents were just more visible. 

"The thing about public organisations like political parties, like Parliament and like government agencies is that their subject to much more public oversight than perhaps some in the private and corporate sector where if these things occur they might be able to remedy them with less public scrutiny," Professor Curtin said. 

There is often more onus put on public organisations to sort that behaviour out, Ms Curtin said.