Gordon Campbell on Labour’s mishandling of the alleged sexual assault

ardern-imageThe focus of Labour’s alleged sexual assault scandal has now shifted from the party organisation to the Beehive. Earlier this week, once the scandal took the shape of PM Jacinda Ardern being mis-informed by party president Nigel Haworth about the nature of the assault at issue, it was clear that Haworth’s days were numbered. Letting the boss be hung out to dry (mainly) because of the apparent ineptitude of the party hierarchy is a capital offence in politics, and heads do tend to roll. As Haworth’s did, yesterday.

Yet this has been only the beginning of Labour’s problems. This is now a crisis of Beehive management and response, not something occurring at a distance within the party organisation. Presumably, the QC appointed to clarify what happened will eventually shed light on key issues. Such as: on what date prior to the publication of the original Spinoff article did the party hierarchy/PM’s office/PM’s press secretary realise they were dealing with a sexual assault allegation, and what did they do about it at that point?

Moreover, why hadn’t anyone in the PM’s office reached out to the main complainant both to console her, and to verify the facts of the matter? 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. How, the QC might well ask, was that presence managed by the PM’s office and could it have been managed better – even within the difficult constraint that no official complaint had been lodged about him with either the Police or with Parliamentary Services?

In the wake of the Labour Youth Camp episode and in the sure knowledge that if these things are not handled early and openly, they will emerge in public in the most damaging of ways… why should anyone in the PM’s office have trusted in the accuracy of the party hierarchy version of events, and in Haworth’s ability to manage the potential fallout? Reportedly, the correspondence citing the alleged assault had been in the hands of the party organisation for some months.

A lot has been ladled onto Haworth’s plate. In religion and in politics, there are sins of commission, and sins of omission. For every poor decision taken by the party organisation there seem to have been decisions that the parliamentary wing culpably omitted to take. All of this has been to the detriment of the young woman most affected.

Timelines, storylines

Initially, there had been a sharp divergence in views as to when and whether the complainant had indicated she had suffered a sexual assault. In the original Spinoff article, it is noted in passing that the complainant “Sarah” (not her real name) chose to bring this serious sexual assault – as related, it sounds almost like an attempted rape – to the attention of the Party, rather than to involve the Police. As Spinoff briefly reported:

Sarah didn’t want to go to the police. She knew people who had been through the process and had told her how difficult it was, she said. “I thought about the amount of people who come forward and then the number who actually get convictions, and it just felt like it was going to be really hard.”

Subsequently, Sarah contacted the Labour Party by email, in the wake of the Labour Youth Camp assaults. Here’s Spinoff again:

A month after the alleged assault, the [Maria] Berryman review into the Labour camp assaults invited others who had experiences of sexual misconduct to come forward. “I thought I might as well deal with it with people I know and trust, and that was through the party.”She made contact with Berryman in April 2018, and, in an email shown to The Spinoff, described the incident on the party trip in detail…

There’s more stuff that’s happened since the Young Labour camp,” Sarah wrote. But as the Spinoff article indicates, she did not mention the sexual assault in the email:

She chose not to detail the more serious allegation, explaining in the email that she was “unsure how to process it or tell people” because of his power within the party. Sarah chose to detail a more “low-level” allegation, she told The Spinoff, because she was worried about who might see the email. “I was pretty paranoid and still trying to process what had happened.”

Haworth responded on the next day after her email, and she later met in a room at Wellington Public Library with Haworth and assistant general secretary Dianna Lacy. Reportedly, Sarah told Haworth and the party’s assistant general secretary, Dianna Lacy, about her encounters with the man, including the full extent of the sexual assault allegations that she says she read out to them from detailed notes. This point is (or was) being contested. When the Spinoff story first broke, the Labour Party issued a statement denying that they were told that a sexual assault was being alleged.

Subsequently, Spinoff went on to report, Sarah experienced difficulty in obtaining a copy of the notes summarising the Library meeting and when she did, those notes reportedly did not mention the sexual assault allegation.

In late April, Sarah sent an email to the three members of the investigating panel seeking an update on the inquiry. In the email – receipt of which was acknowledged by one of the panel – she stressed “the seriousness of the situation here, an accusation of sexual assault [my emphasis], manipulation, bullying and emotional abuse of several young women in the party. All revolving around his power over women at Labour events.”

The inquiry findings were to be conveyed to the NZ Council of the Labour Party on June 15, and shortly beforehand – on June 11 – Sarah reportedly emailed the three members of the investigatory panel and attached her testimony notes that referred to the “sexual assault [that] occurred February 2018.” However, the inquiry concluded that the matter would not be taken further.

This timeline, and the actions taken/not taken by the Labour Party and by the PM and her office will now be examined by the independent QC. Besides delivering the complainant some sense of justice being done, the QC’s conclusions will have an obvious political impact, and keep the scandal alive. 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.

Reportedly, the QC will take about four weeks to canvass the issues, and report back. If one week is a long time in politics, four weeks is going to seem like an eternity.

Footnote: The systemic failings involved extend beyond the Labour Party and the Beehive. If the Police process of investigating sexual assault allegations was (a) less gruelling to complainants and (b) offered them more hope of a positive outcome, this issue would never have been left to a Labour Party trio of part-time panelists to investigate and to arbitrate upon.

Plainly – as last year’s allegations around the behaviour of Jami-Lee Ross indicated – the internal party processes in both National and Labour are inadequate vehicles for resolving serious allegations of this kind. The complainants may have felt they had no other available option than taking it to the Opposition, and thus turning their grievances into a political football. Obviously, that is their call. Yet from the outside, it is hard to see how the current political bunfight is going to be any more satisfactory to them than taking the original complaint to the Police would have been.

Bridges Grovels in China

The alleged sexual assault scandal has been a godsend for Simon Bridges, if only because it has blown off the front page the National Party leader’s shameless pandering to the Communist Party leadership of China. Bridges’ cringeworthy performance during the Chinese TV interview has been greeted with incredulity by overseas China experts.

Euan Graham, the executive director of La Trobe University’s Asia department in Melbourne, said the visit set a “new jaw-dropping standard in cringeworthiness for Western politicians visiting China… While the questions were leading, Bridges took up the challenge of buttering up the party with obvious enthusiasm, praising Xi Jinping in such obsequious terms that he sounded like a paid-up party member,” Graham said.

The Bridges interview can be viewed here.

Even allowing for the possibility that his comments on the Hong Kong protests may have been lightly edited, the rest of the interview is damning enough. Ultimately, Bridges looked as though he was touting for Chinese political donations for election 2020. That’s a bad look, given National’s recent scandals with Chinese donor Lang Lin and its similar scandal with regard to Chinese donor Zhang Likun.

National has been here before, and quite recently. Nine months ago, the Chinese media carried an obsequious op ed based on an interview with former National leader Jenny Shipley, an article that Shipley rapidly distanced herself from. Yet revealingly, Bridges repeated almost every plot point in the Shipley op ed: eg gushing praise for Chairman Xi, undiluted praise for China’s notoriously dodgy Belt and Road initiative etc etc. Both Bridges and Shipley echoed the lavish praise heaped on China by John (“Why I’m a China Bull”) Key, over the course of a NZ Herald story published late last year.

Back in February, Werewolf had outlined the close business connections that exist between current and former National politicians (Jenny Shipley, Don Brash, Ruth Richardson, John Key, Judith Collins) and Chinese-owned banks and corporates. This closeness has also been reflected in the diverging response of National and Labour to the potential threat posed by China’s actions in the South China Sea and South Pacific. It can hardly be accidental that the only words of criticism Bridges offered in his China TV interview were directed at the United States, over its blocking of appointments at the World Trade Organisation…

How on earth did a National Party that treated anti-communism as one of its foundation principles end up in bed with the world’s biggest communist party? Answer: follow the money.

Feminism vs Country Music

Since we’re talking this morning about Me Too… it’s worth mentioning the disappearance of female performers from US country music radio stations. There are a few exceptions (eg Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwoo). But Brandi Carlile has cited the lack of female voices as one of the prime reasons for her founding the new country supergroup, the Highwomen.

Revealingly, one of the most talked about country songs of 2019 has also ended up being one of the least played tracks on country radio. In their 2019 song “Daughters” the prominent country group Little Big Town tackle the sexism that’s rampant not only in society at large, but in religion in particular… The lyrics of the song are really sharp:

Oh girl, wash your face before you come to the table
Girl, know your place, be willing and able
Take it on the chin, let the best man win
Girl, shoulders back and stand up straight
Girl, watch your mouth and watch your weight
Mind your manners, smile for the camera

And pose like a trophy on a shelf
Dream for everyone, but not yourself…

Girl, don’t be weak but don’t be strong
Say what you want, just as long
As you nod your head with your lipstick on….

And then came the killer lines that probably cost the song its access to country music radio playlists:

I’ve heard of God the Son and God the Father
I’m still looking for a God for the daughters

Amen to that. Here’s to God the Mother, and God the Daughter.