8 Aug 2019

Paula Bennett claims staffer approached her over harassment

7:46 pm on 8 August 2019

National deputy Paula Bennett claims a current Beehive staffer has taken the "extraordinary step" of personally approaching her to protest Labour's handling of her complaint about bullying and sexual harassment.

Paula Bennett

Paula Bennett Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

But a spokesperson for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has pushed back, saying no one who works in the Beehive has complained to the Labour Party about those allegations and no one at all has complained directly to her office.

"To the best of our knowledge, the issues raised by Ms Bennett have not been raised with us, Parliamentary or Ministerial Services," the spokesperson said.

RNZ understands seven people have laid formal complaints with the Labour Party about inappropriate behaviour by one of its members who works at Parliament.

Ms Ardern confirmed on Tuesday that Labour had carried out an internal investigation into the allegations and the process was now being reviewed independently.

On her way into the debating chamber on Thursday, Mrs Bennett told reporters she had been contacted by a woman who worked in the Beehive who had "absolutely no faith" in the complaint process.

"She had made formal complaints, as had a number of other people over many months, [and] has not been taken seriously," Mrs Bennett told reporters.

The complainants had approached "very senior people" in the Prime Minister's office, she said, but "a range of people" had told them to "keep quiet" and "leave it internally".

"They now feel like there's a witch-hunt on to try and find people that have spoken to the media," Mrs Bennett said.

"They feel that they are losing all options and actually losing hope. They talked about people... feeling extremely unsafe and actually fearful. She expressed to me that they're at the stage now where they're seeing people having panic attacks, crying, really serious anxiety."

A spokesperson for Ms Ardern said no complaints had been lodged with anyone in her office; all the complaints had been lodged directly with Labour.

"We've been advised that none of the people who made a complaint to the Labour Party about a Labour member currently work in any part of Parliament," a statement said.

"If a complaint were made about someone in the workplace that would be dealt with immediately as an employment issue. While to the best of our knowledge no such complaints have been raised, we have sought to proactively offer support to staff.

"We continue to urge anyone with concerns or anyone who might feel unsafe to raise that either with their line manager, Parliamentary Service or Ministerial Services."

Mrs Bennett declined to expand on the nature or extent of the allegations outlined by the Beehive staffer, but said she did not believe they crossed a criminal threshold.

"It would certainly cross an unacceptable-behaviour-within-the-workplace threshold."

Mrs Bennett said she had raised her concerns directly with Parliament's Speaker Trevor Mallard and stressed his responsibility to provide a safe work environment.

But she also singled out Ms Ardern, demanding she take immediate action rather than deferring questions to the wider Labour Party.

"She talks about leadership and actually providing a safe environment," Mrs Bennett said. "People have a right to come to work and feel safe."

Mrs Bennett rejected any suggestion the complainant might have a political agenda by approaching the Opposition.

"I think that they have genuinely tried to do what they can, because they're worried, not just about their own safety, but for other people's as well."

Labour came under fire last year over its handling of indecent assault complaints at a Young Labour summer camp. A subsequent inquiry by lawyer Maria Austen recommended major changes to the party's bullying and sexual harassment policies.

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