By Peter Dunne*
The resignation of the President of the Labour Party over the sex pest allegations was inevitable. It was inevitable because of his appalling handling of the situation so far; and, because in situations like this where there has to be a “fall guy” it was better the President take the fall to protect the Prime Minister.
But, in reality, it changes nothing. The Prime Minister’s claim that it was only earlier this week that she became aware that the senior staff member suspended some weeks ago from working in her office was facing allegations of sexual misconduct raises serious questions of itself, regardless of the President’s resignation.
This whole saga has been handled appallingly by the Labour hierarchy since the Youth Camp stories emerged last year, only to be followed by the allegations surrounding the person working in the Prime Minister’s own office. The original instinct seems to have been to deal with the whole set of matters “in house”, ostensibly to prevent further embarrassment and upset for those involved, and clearly to minimise damage to the Labour Party. All of which is perfectly understandable, and arguably defensible so long as the complaints of the young people concerned were listened to, and acted upon in a robust, fair and balanced process.
But here is where the problems for the Labour Party and now the Prime Minister began. There is no need to rehearse the individual allegations here – they have been increasingly well-aired in the general media – but the consequence of the muddled, confused and ramshackle way of dealing with them has left the individual complainants feeling further insulted and angry, and the credibility of Labour’s leaders shattered. And now, the Labour Party increasingly appears, for whatever reason, to have resorted to an almighty cover-up, which it is now trying to keep out of the public eye. But, as the Watergate example so dramatically shows, it was not the original offence, nor even the cover-up of that, but the cover-up of the cover-up that ultimately brought down the President.
The Labour Party likes to describe itself as one big family. Allegiances and friendships within the Party, and the connections that arise from them certainly run far deeper in the Labour Party than in most other political parties. Indeed, that common bond and sense of “we’re all in this together” have undoubtedly sustained the Party in some of its darker moments in the past. That, and the internal Party gossip it breeds, are generally positive features. Indeed, the informal camaraderie so engendered where everybody seems to know everybody else’s business is one of the things I look back on nostalgically as I reflect on my own previous more than twenty years’ membership of the Party. It truly is one big family.
All of which creates a real problem. The chronology shows that allegations of misbehaviour by the now suspended staff member were made to senior Labour Party officials in late 2018. Following further allegations of sexual misconduct, a subcommittee of Labour’s New Zealand Council, the Party’s ruling body, convened in March this year to consider those. Its findings were considered by the full Council in June. Some time after that, the staff member was suspended from the Prime Minister’s office, and required to work from home.
Now, the Prime Minister is an ex-officio member of the New Zealand Council, and while she would not be expected (or indeed able) to attend all of its meetings, she could reasonably expect to be briefed by the President (and the Caucus representative, usually the Caucus Secretary) and other members on what took place at meetings she was not present at. It would surely have been impossible to discuss these matters at the New Zealand Council without any reference to the sexual misconduct allegations, nor would it have made it any sense to do so. After all, that was what the subcommittee had been established to consider.
With a matter of this magnitude on their plates, it is simply inconceivable that the Prime Minister was not briefed about this time as to what was going on. Further, it is hard to believe that the Party President, the more than 20 individual members of the Council, and the Caucus representative were all unaware of the allegations against the Prime Minister’s staff member or resolved to keep her in the dark on what they actually knew. And then, having received the subcommittee’s report, and given Labour’s notorious propensity for gossip, that none of them sought even informally to tip off the Prime Minister. What did her close friend and confidante Grant Robertson know, and did he pass any message, however oblique, to the Prime Minister? Also, consider 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.
It is possible, but unlikely, that the Prime Minister was quite unaware what was going on. But interestingly, she now says she attended the August New Zealand Council meeting to express her complete dissatisfaction at the handling of events. Moreover, she made comment to the media about that time hoping the Party had learnt from the Summer Camp scandal, implying by linking the two that she was well aware of the sexual connotations.
And even if the New Zealand Council Members all maintained a remarkable silence throughout, it is hard to see how the matter was not discussed at the subsequent weekly meetings before Caucus between the Prime Minister and her President, especially once the person had been suspended from duty. Is it credible, given the Prime Minister’s earlier comments, and the mounting media interest to accept that the matter was not discussed by anyone, anywhere in the Labour Party at all? Was the Party President, a respected academic in his own right, that removed from reality not to have raised the specific information we now know he possessed with the Prime Minister? And how is it that the Prime Minister can say that it was only five weeks after the senior staff member’s suspension that she became aware there were sexual misconduct allegations involved? Presumably there were other serious reasons that led her to agree in the first place to the suspension of a valued senior staff member?
In short, none of this rings true. 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.
Whatever explanation holds water, this is the end of her Golden Weather as Prime Minister.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.