If only the Czar knew: How long will Jacinda Ardern get benefit of the doubt over sex assault claims?

8:53 pm on 13 September 2019

By Liam Hehir*

Opinion - It is said that Russian peasants being victimised by local officials would wail "If only the Czar knew!" Because, the lament went, if the Emperor of All Russia understood what local officials were doing in his name, he would put an end to it. Of course he would.

Jacinda Ardern

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

The Czar was a servant of God, after all. Benevolent, wise and compassionate. There is just no way that he would countenance the injustices boyars inflicted on the common people. It could only be that nobody told him about it.

In the hearts of many New Zealanders, Jacinda Ardern occupies a similarly revered position. Her governing style often resembles that of a titular head of state more than that of a political leader. For a certain type of leafy suburb voter, she is a modern Zealandia - an embodiment of how they see this country at its best.

A problem for all this is that her Labour Party currently stands accused of mishandling sexual misconduct claims. And not for the first time, given the Young Labour summer camp scandal of last year. Then, as now, Ardern's defence to culpability in the botched response is a plea of ignorance. In this case, she claims to only have learned of the true nature of the accusations when she read about them in The Spinoff.

In the earlier scandal, the party claimed the hushing up was justified on the grounds that they were just looking out for the victims' own interests. And for all we really know that was the case. In the present fiasco, however, the victims seemed to have been treated so badly that, in their desperation, they have taken the extraordinary step of turning to an opposition MP for help.

Up until now, the adoration and general reluctance of many in media to find fault with her has afforded her some protection from scrutiny. If all this was known to have been going on in John Key's office, many of the people who have offered a wait-and-see approach here would be apoplectic. I don't think anybody seriously contests that view.

But the grace that buys is not unlimited. News outs. And for the Prime Minister to hide behind administrative constructs to disclaim knowledge of something that was allegedly happening in her very own office does not exactly scream leadership - especially given the unfortunate events of the last year.

The Labour Party seems to have a safeguarding issue. It's hardly the only organisation to struggle here. And since all political parties are secretive by nature, I doubt many of them would withstand the application of scrutiny on these matters.

As a bureaucracy-loving institution, however, it is perhaps not surprising that Labour's responsibility-dodging instincts have come to the fore again. Jacinda Ardern is the leader of the organisation. Even if she is not to blame, she is ultimately responsible.

The Prime Minister may well be able to ride this out. It's not a given but feels unlikely this will inflict any material damage to her still very popular leadership. Unless something else comes out, that is.

For a long time, the Czars cruised along on with the adoration of the people. But eventually the people worked out that, if the Czar did know, he didn't really care - or really show it if he did. In politics, that amounts to the same thing.

And there aren't any Czars around these days, of course.

This article first appeared on Pundit.co.nz.

* Liam Hehir is a Palmerston North lawyer and conservative political columnist and blogger for Pundit who has formerly volunteered for the National Party.

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