Power Play: How has Jacinda Ardern ended up in middle of scandal?

4:07 pm on 11 September 2019

Power Play - How has the Prime Minister ended up in the middle of scandal involving allegations of bullying and intimidation, through to sexual assault, asks Jane Patterson.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 11 September 2019.

Jacinda Ardern speaking to media on Wednesday afternoon. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

Jacinda Ardern has been let down, once again, by the most senior party officials who are well-intentioned but appear to have mishandled a slew of complaints of the highest personal and political sensitivity.

And she has let herself down by accepting assurances from those officials none of the complaints were of a sexual or physical nature.

The sudden resignation of the party President Nigel Haworth will relieve some of the political pressure, but there are still questions for the Prime Minister.

A committee was set up by the party to hear the testimony of a group of people, connected to Labour in different ways, who claimed to have suffered abuse at the hands of a man who works at Parliament, ranging from aggressive and belittling behaviour, to serious sexual assault.

That process in itself was so flawed the party had to bring in a QC to review the way the internal investigation had been run, and prompted the complainants to go to the media.

This situation is all the more astounding given the fallout from the Labour youth camp sex assault allegations had barely cleared before the party had found itself back in a similar position: questions about the handling of sensitive complaints, an internal review, and a pledge from the Prime Minister and the party President Labour would do better in the future.

Labour Party President Nigel Haworth.

Former Labour Party President Nigel Haworth. He resigned on Wednesday afternoon. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Apparently not.

An email from a woman representing the group a few months ago described the whole experience as a "trauma" - "six of us outside of that are all still junior members of the party but we're all to scared to put our names out there ... we're so scared, incredibly tired and mentally exhausted".

Complainants say they have no confidence in the internal investigation - that concluded no disciplinary action was required - and their calls for Mr Haworth to resign have now been heeded.

There remain, however, pressing questions for the Prime Minister, and her most trusted political colleague Grant Robertson, about who knew what when, and who did what in response.

The repeated statements from Ms Ardern she had taken the word of the party that none of the complaints were sexual in nature just beg the question - how with all of the publicity that explicitly talked about sexual assault could she have accepted those assurances?

She was also briefed on the July email that details allegations of the most serious sexual assault.

The party insists sexual assault was never raised - but that has been directly and specifically contradicted by the complainants, one of whom says she gave evidence to the investigation panel both written and in person.

Ms Ardern has now seen for herself correspondence between complainants and the party she says show "the allegations made were extremely serious, that the process caused complainants additional distress, and that ultimately ... the party was never equipped to appropriately deal with the issue".

The man at the centre of the allegations has made no comment throughout but now the scrutiny is broadening to other Labour MPs, and potentially to senior staffers in the Prime Minister's office.

Cabinet minister Grant Robertson is shutting down any questions about what he knew, and at what point, by saying it would be unhelpful to comment before the QC review is finished.

Grant Robertson, Minister for Finance announces Budget 2018.

Grant Robertson. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Labour MP Kiri Allan says she's known about the allegations for some time as she knew many of the people involved.

Media reports this week of a serious sexual assault at the family home of the man were "news to her", and "disappointing" to read.

She was not previously aware of any allegations of sexual assault, Ms Allen told reporters, and had not been told "any of the nuanced details" about the allegations.

The political figures involved will be hoping the ordered review will give them cover to avoid answering specific questions and that it will take the heat out of a story that looks worse for Labour each passing day.

The victims and complainants will be hoping to eventually receive fair treatment at the hands of a party they had viewed as being like family.

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