Incompetence or cover-up? Labour's spectacular botch-up

The Labour Party President has resigned, the Prime Minister has apologised and admitted the party's investigation into several sexual assault allegations was mishandled; but, as Morgan Godfery asks, was Labour's treatment of the complainants symptomatic of a deeper issue?

It’s now completely normal to assume that everything – and I really do mean everything - can and will get worse.

Trump is a warm-up act. Nick Sandmann and the Covington Catholics lads will enter power in a generation or two. Brexit is pushing the old country into the pits. Ordinary people are stockpiling food and medicine, an extremely normal thing to do in 2019. Businesses are shutting up shop, too, finally figuring out you can live in a rain-soaked bankers’ state (Britain) or a tropical one (how do you do, Singapore?). Australia isn’t much better. The continent is cooking and the government’s only response is to ask if they’re meant to bring shrimp or saussies. And in New Zealand, toxic men are having a public moment.

 

Toxic masculinity, like racism, never seems to die out. Men keep getting away with it. None more so, it would seem, than the alleged predator in the Labour leader’s office. The accusations against the parliamentary staffer are vile, from homophobia all the way to sexually assaulting a nineteen-year-old woman. According to media reports, there are at least several different complaints from several different people against the man. Yet, inexplicably, he remains in the job. Up until five weeks ago, the man was still working from the parliamentary precinct. On at least one occasion he was responsible for escorting young party members to an event at parliament, hardly the kind of job you should give to a man under an accusation of sexually assaulting a nineteen-year-old, right?

But Labour argues things weren’t so clear cut. Now former party president Nigel Haworth, who put in his notice Wednesday afternoon, is adamant he wasn’t aware of allegations of sexual assault. In a statement on Tuesday, the ex-president said “the serious allegation of a sexual assault… was not provided to the President and Acting General Secretary at a meeting in the Wellington Central Library or subsequently to the Labour Party Investigation Panel”. This is a point blank denial, sure, but it seems increasingly implausible. Documentary evidence and testaments from the complainants themselves appear to prove that written allegations of sexual assault and verbal testimonies were given at the very least to the investigation panel. Is someone lying?

Two possibilities seem likely: either the party is stunningly incompetent, deciding on an ad-hoc investigation that did nothing to support the victims and protect others from further or future harm; or, the party chiefs were just trying to make it all “go away” – not necessarily for the benefit of the alleged predator but for the benefit of the party’s big names. Labour leader and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she wasn’t told of the allegations of sexual assault, even though the man worked in her own Parliamentary office. Most MPs, minus one or two, appear to have been in the dark as well. God forbid, it seems, any public figures should know the allegations and act on them.

I suspect this is what happens when you marry misogyny to an institution: it functions as a protection racket. The party manages information, launching an investigation into “process” rather than a process to investigate what might constitute a just outcome for victims. The people who should know, don’t. The people who do know fail to act appropriately. The victims at the very heart of it all – let down and suffering from trauma – turn to media and opposition politicians for support. “It was horrific,” one complainant told RNZ’s Checkpoint. “The whole thing felt like it was orchestrated to protect [the Labour staffer] and his image. And the power imbalance was huge. It was clear that the party had no idea what it was doing." Quite.

At this point, it’s worth acknowledging the Prime Minister – to her great credit – made an apology to the complainants. Her door is open, she said. The QC reviewing the whole process will report straight to her as well. Good. And yet it still seems so insufficient. It’s easy and obvious to acknowledge party processes went wrong. Victim support was absent. The investigators appear to have had no relevant skills. But did this all go wrong for procedural reasons, as appointing a QC to examine the process would seem to insist? I doubt it. Instead, the likely reason the victims were let down is political: Parliament and its parties approach abuse within their own ranks simply as a “risk” to manage. The cardinal example is Jamie-Lee Ross, the man whose personal manipulations were hush-hushed to protect his then party. 

With five years hindsight, it seems obvious former Labour leader David Cunliffe was on to something when he told the Women’s Refuge symposium “I’m sorry for being a man”. At the time the media wrote it off as a “gaffe”. But in 2019 it should be a job requirement for aspiring party leaders and MPs. “Family and sexual violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men,” Cunliffe told the audience, “and it needs to stop”. It’s a simple public admission, and it demands simple private acts. Listen to victims and survivors. Investigate allegations when they are made. And worry only about justice, not politics. Anything less and I’m afraid we’ll find out that yes: things can and will get worse.

Labour, depending on its actions from here, may or may not be about to find out just how much worse.

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