Its increasingly looking as if the Beehive has been involved in some sort of “cover-up” of sexual assault allegations in the Labour Party. For that reason, it’s almost inevitable that further heads will roll – it’s just a question of whose.
The Prime Minister herself is under immense pressure and scrutiny over any role she might have played in an attempted cover-up. The consensus amongst political journalists and commentators seems to be that her statements about what happened are no longer credible, and her honesty and “MeToo credentials” are now being openly questioned.
The matter is now attracting international attention, with global media reporting on the scandal. For an aggregation of some of these, see Newshub’s ‘Embarrassment’: International media reacts to Labour sexual assault scandal.
One international news outlet says this is “the most serious scandal Ardern has faced” since taking office. According to the above article, “International media are describing Labour's sexual assault scandal as an ‘embarrassment’ and a black mark on Jacinda Ardern's shining reputation.”
Locally, Ardern’s reputation appears to be swiftly eroding. As leftwing political commentator Chris Trotter put it today: “After the Christchurch shootings, credibility – nine. Today, five – and falling” – see: Jacinda Ardern's credibility called into question over handling of assault allegations.
Ardern’s problem is that no one seems to believe her when she continues to claim she wasn’t aware that allegations of sexual assault had been made. For the best list of why Ardern’s statements don’t add up, see David Farrar’s What you need to believe to accept the PM only heard of the sexual assault complaints this week.
Former MP and minister Peter Dunne discusses these issues in a blog post, in which he tries to understand how how such cover-up could have occurred, and concludes that it’s going to end badly for Ardern – see: This is the end of Ardern's Golden Weather as Prime Minister.
He’s unsure whether it’s Ardern or her staffers who have been less than open about what has happened: “Either the Prime Minister has known the full picture for some time but, out of a weird sense of misguided loyalty to her staff member, has attempted to keep the matter within the Party rather than have it referred to the Police, where the whole story might come out. Or, everyone around her has deliberately conspired to keep her out of the loop so that the less she knows the better, which betrays a shocking lack of trust and confidence in her by those closest to her that all of us should be concerned about.”
Andrea Vance has probably covered the story more than anyone else, and she takes a hard-hitting stance on Ardern’s role in the scandal today, complaining that the PM is not yet fronting up properly on the serious situation – see her must-read piece, Labour Party president Nigel Haworth has resigned – but it's not over.
Vance calls on the PM and Labour to step up and be more transparent, “so that the public can be sure that senior figures did not shield this staffer.” And she outlines how a culture of secrecy in Labour has enabled abuse to occur.
Vance also suggests hypocrisy on the PM’s part: “Just under a year ago Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stood in front of the UN General Assembly and declared the #MeToo movement must become We Too. It won her glowing international commentary. ‘We are all in this together,’ was the message she took to New York, but it was not the words her young flock heard back in New Zealand when they reached out for help. They got brushed off with ‘see you’, not We too. As the party's figurehead, Ardern bears ultimate responsibility for their betrayed faith.”
Ardern is about to head back to the UN General Assembly, but according to Barry Soper, although she might expect some relief in New York and “an adoring international media who clamour for an interview”, “There'll certainly be no repeat of her slogan from the UN podium a year ago of how Me Too must become We Too” – see: If political capital was cash, Labour would be bankrupt.
Soper also raised the prospect yesterday of Ardern having to resign over the scandal. And today Mike Hosking says “If it is proven she knew before Monday, and her startling revelation that she allegedly didn't, she has to resign. She would've misled us” – see: Labour sex scandal far from over.
Hosking points out that he actually put the sexual assault allegations to Ardern in an interview a month ago and says “She is donkey deep in this, her stories are wildly inconsistent”. He also questions the sincerity of her apology yesterday, saying “her deep concern now looks superficial, and that's putting it mildly.” If Ardern survives, Hosking believes her reputation amongst her own supporters is badly damaged: “a good number of supporters, people who believed the EQ part of her personality, are now deeply suspicious, if not disappointed, if not feeling duped.”
Broadcaster Duncan Garner doesn’t believe this one scandal is going to sink Ardern, but concedes “boy - this one is starting to more than bite” – see: Jacinda Ardern not knowing about sexual assault allegations is massive stretch.
Garner also doesn’t think Ardern’s statements are credible: “I find it a massive stretch and I am struggling to believe she didn't know. To believe she didn't know means we have to think she walked around with earmuffs on and never read any emails and didn't talk to any of her staff and ignored Robertson at all times.” He also points to political parties having a “no-surprises policy” in which the leader must always know about any potential bad news story coming up for the party, and suggests if Ardern didn’t know about the allegations then “everyone at every level” must have ignored the policy.
And it’s not only the usual government critics expressing disbelief at Ardern’s claims. Today leftwing journalist Gordon Campbell says that, he too, has trouble believing the PM on this: “The gossip about this scandal had been around the parliamentary precinct for months. The PM cannot credibly claim to have only realised that an alleged sexual assault – and not bullying – was at stake when she read about it on the Spinoff site. She’s a busy person – but someone surely, should have told her about it long beforehand. After all, the alleged perpetrator was not toiling away in some far-flung electorate office. He’d been in and out of the PM’s office for months beforehand” – see: On Labour’s mishandling of the alleged sexual assault.
This is a real problem for the Government, Campbell says: “As things stand, the scandal is doing damage to the government’s prize political asset – Jacinda Ardern’s reputation and popularity – on the Me Too grounds that should constitute one of her strongest and safest areas of operation.”
Others in Labour under pressure.
Ardern is not the only one in Labour under harsh scrutiny. Yesterday in Parliament, National deputy leader Paula Bennett gave a speech naming other senior figures in the Beehive who she claimed knew about the allegations of sexual assault – see Collette Devlin’s Paula Bennett claims Grant Robertson and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's senior staff knew about alleged sexual assault.
According to this, “Bennett claimed in Parliament on Wednesday that three of Ardern's senior staff and Finance Minister Grant Robertson had known the seriousness of the allegations. She claimed that the complainants told her Ardern's former chief of staff Mike Munro, chief press secretary Andrew Campbell and director of her leader's office, Rob Salmond, knew about the allegations. Bennett said she had been told by two alleged victims who worked in Parliament that they went to Salmond around ‘Christmas time’ and made the complaint about the alleged perpetrator.”
Furthermore, “Bennett said the alleged perpetrator had deep alliances to Central Wellington MP Grant Robertson and was involved in his campaign for the Labour Party leadership”, and that press secretary “Campbell had embarked on a ‘witch hunt’ to find out who in the Beehive was talking to the media”.
According to RNZ, Grant Robertson is refusing to answer questions about the issue, saying: “I'm going to respect the privacy of the young people who are involved in this situation. There is a process to go through with the QC, it's important the voices of these people are heard and I'm not going to say anything more about that” – see: Labour assault complaints: Paula Bennett says alleged victims ‘wanted the truth out there’.
In her article, Andrea Vance deals with the various alliances at play: “There are other connections – which cannot be detailed for legal reasons – but mean he held more sway than an average volunteer or apparatchik. It is one of the reasons why the complainants were so reluctant to come forward with their stories in the first place. One of them told Stuff: ‘Abuse only happens in a vacuum, it thrives in silence. And that's the case here. For years he was able to bully and intimidate women and have relationships with women where he was abusive… That was reasonably well known and yet he was still given opportunities within the party. Despite his reputation, he kept on going up the ladder.’”
It’s the alleged offender’s relationship with key figures in Labour that Vance says is crucial: “The complainants say they flagged it with a number of senior figures going back as far as 2017 (one woman counted that she had raised concerns on eight separate occasions). The branch that he was involved with is one of the party's more influential, and its members certainly hold more access and sway with MPs and officials than others.”
The fact that key Beehive staff supposedly knew about the allegations, is enough for some to prove that the PM must have known. For example, leftwing blogger No Right Turn says: “So, in order to believe the Prime Minister's claims of ignorance, we're required to believe that none of her key staff - whose job is literally to keep her informed of political risks like e.g. a case of sexual assault by a well-connected member of her party on a young volunteer - told her. Despite her supposed clear instructions in the wake of the last Labour sexual assault case that she was to be informed” – see: Implausible ignorance.
The blogger concludes: “to be honest, I simply find that implausible. But if it is the case, then pretty obviously every single one of those named senior staff members has violated the Prime Minister's trust and failed in their jobs. So if it’s actually true, I'd expect them all to be being fired about now. And if they're not, then we can assume the PM's claims of ignorance are just another shoddy lie by just another lying politician.”
Similarly, Andrea Vance can’t see how the PM’s trusted staffers couldn’t have been aware of the allegations, and also questions if they can stay in their jobs: “Politics is a hotbed of gossip, and there are no secrets at Parliament. Staffers, politicians and reporters trade information as a currency. It's possible Ardern and her staff were oblivious to the stories, but unlikely. And if it really is true, she should be asking questions about the efficacy of her key advisors.”
Others in the Labour Party might also be scrutinised. For example, Peter Dunne says that surely Trevor Mallard would have known the details but must have chosen not to tell his leader: “Speaker Trevor Mallard, who was only too keen to get involved in the Jamie-Lee Ross scandal to embarrass the National Party, and is a well-known sponge for political gossip. He seems so keen to protect the Prime Minister in the House, it is hard to believe he was in the dark on this issue involving a member of the Parliamentary staff, and did not pass on what he knew.”
For a very different perspective on the whole issue – one that hardly exonerates Jacinda Ardern or the Labour Party but says “the system” dealing with sexual assault allegations doesn’t work, see Danyl Mclauchlan’s A chance for this Labour-led government to begin to redeem itself.
Finally, to get a sense of how the cartoonists are covering the scandal, see my blog post, Cartoons about #MeTooLabour.
Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society.