If the political reputation of the Labour-led Government and Jacinda Ardern have been badly or even fatally damaged by the ongoing #MeTooLabour scandal, it will be because they’ve disappointed their own supporters, and failed to live up to their own values.
This is very different to a leftwing government and prime minister being undermined by their opponents or the political right. It’s one thing for opposition MPs, businesspeople, or conservative commentators to condemn the Labour-led Government on something like business confidence or law and order. Any perceived shortfalls on such matters often don’t actually hurt Labour over the longer-term. But when progressives, party supporters, and the political left are losing trust in the Government, it’s a much more serious problem. It could mean that mobilising those activists and voters at the election is that much more difficult.
This sense of disappointment was well expressed in The Guardian yesterday by journalist and #MeToo campaigner Alison Mau who says: “Ardern’s leadership has, all along, been about connection, equality, and justice by her own measurement. That entire fairytale now risks being brought down by a series of bungled attempts by her party apparatchiks to deal properly with examples of the very [#MeToo] issue she so boldly addressed at the UN” – see: Labour’s #MeToo moment eats away at Jacinda Ardern’s most prized asset – trust.
Mau points out that the latest controversy comes on top of other issues that Labour supporters might feel let down on, such as the failure to deal with the housing crisis. It’s the fact that Ardern and her Government have always projected themselves as something different, that now seems at variance with reality: “The boldest of Labour’s promises have always been its underlying strength and power – that this would be a caring and transparent government, the like of which had not been seen in several generations. It’s a very different Labour party we are seeing this week. The party wing has been exposed as anything but caring and transparent in the #MeToo space, and it’s threatening to bring down not only a number of party officials, but the prime minister herself.”
Of course, the whole scandal might soon fade away, writes Henry Cooke today, but it’s impact will remain for many: “What doesn’t fade is trauma. A lot of people across this country have experience with some sort of sexual harassment or assault. They also have experience with the people and companies who constantly preach progressive politics protecting the people responsible when accusations are made” – see: This mess will follow Jacinda Ardern.Cooke says there’s now a mismatch for many: “Ardern was supposed to be different. She oozes approachability and sympathy.” And while her supporters might never be clear about the PM’s real involvement in any wrongdoing, “there is enough grey here to make Ardern lose a seriously large amount of trust”.
As long-standing political journalist John Armstrong says, the scandal goes entirely against what the Labour Party and its leaders are supposed to stand for: “Labour claims to be the voice of the powerless fighting against the all-too powerful. In this instance, it was trampling the powerless into the dust. It has all made a nonsense of Ardern’s positioning herself as a promoter of women’s rights and a voice of young voters” – see: Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of Ardern’s administration?.
In Armstrong’s must-read column, he reiterates the historical extent of the crisis for Labour: “the tumult of the past week has been as serious a crisis as any that have afflicted the party since the bitter ideological warfare which tore Labour apart in the late 1980s.”
He says that for Ardern’s supporters, a seed of doubt has been planted: “They have trusted her as someone who tells the truth. But they are having a real struggle in convincing themselves that she has done so this week. For them, it will be the first step in their becoming what might be termed as doubters of Ardern’s capacity to actually walk all the talk which pours in torrents from her lips. For those who are already doubters, the past few days will be another step on the path to them dismissing her as a fake and a flake.”
Part of the problem is that Ardern has raised supporters’ expectations. Armstrong argues that the scandal has “made a mockery of Ardern’s declared intention to inject kindness and compassion into the conduct of politics. It has made Ardern’s parading of herself as some kind of Mother Theresa-Lite look like a hollow charade. This unseemly affair is a lesson in the risks of a leader wearing their heart on their sleeve. It is fine for Ardern to espouse the principles which she holds dear. But the bigger the bouquets for being seen to bring a fresh and more enlightened approach to the practise of politics, the bigger the brickbats when things go wrong.”
The risk therefore is that those who have until now adored Ardern, and who might have believed that she can’t have possibly known about what was going on, might suddenly lose their faith. This is nicely characterised on the RNZ website by Liam Hehir, who draws parallels with feudalistic times when loyal peasants eventually lost their faith that their ruler was actually on their side – see: If Only The Czar Knew…
Here’s the basic tale: “It is said that Russian peasants being victimised by local officials would wail ‘If only the Czar knew!’ Because, the lament went, if the Emperor of All Russia understood what local officials were doing in his name, he would put an end to it. Of course he would.” But in the end, the loyal supporters lost faith: “For a long time, the Czars cruised along on with the adoration of the people. But eventually the people worked out that, if the Czar did know, he didn’t really care – or really show it if he did. In politics, that amounts to the same thing.”
Complainants are still not being happy with how the Government has been responding to the ongoing scandal. A statement released from complainants on Friday said they were not satisfied and still talking about a “cover-up” – see Craig McCulloch’s Labour assault complaints: ‘We need to see reform, not just cover-ups and resignations’.
Other reports talk about party members resigning, and how unhappy activists are that it’s been the National Party who have done more for advancing their cause – see RNZ’s Labour youth wing member ‘heartbroken’ over handling of allegations.
Even Labour MPs are apparently unhappy about being left uninformed. Collette Devlin reports: “There is understood to be a level of frustration among MPs about the lack of updates coming from Labour leadership outside of caucus meetings” – see: Labour Party insiders told not to speak after sexual assault scandal.
The article raises the prospects of the leader’s relationship with the party organisation becoming fraught. And people in the organisation, as well as MPs, are being told not to say anything: “Those who are in the know, along with Labour Party Council members, have been told not to talk – presumably by the Prime Minister’s Office, which is in damage control”.
There is also now confusion about whether the party’s promised QC-led investigation will adequately deal with any possible cover-up, with some major disputes inside the Labour Party on this – see Henry Cooke’s Labour scandal: Terms of reference don’t include initial investigation, prompting council stoush.
Here’s Cooke’s main point: “An investigation into the Labour scandal may only cover the actual sexual assault allegations – not the party’s reaction to them. The draft terms of reference for QC Maria Dew’s investigation, seen by Stuff, are generally limited to the alleged sexual assault and bullying itself, not the party’s process in dealing with them – which has formed a large part of the political scandal engulfing the party. This has led to a stoush within the party over whether to approve the terms of reference, as some in the party want to prove that they handled the initial complaints appropriately, Stuff understands.”
Ardern is, however, promising the review will sufficiently deal with all of the complainants’ concerns. She’s also inviting existing or new complainants to contact her directly. One hiccup about this is that yesterday the PM said that her office hadn’t yet heard directly from the complainants, which Newshub’s Tova O’Brien says isn’t strictly true: “Newshub was copied into an email on Thursday night, which was – sent directly to Jacinda Ardern – from someone who says they told Labour they were assaulted by the staffer who resigned yesterday” – see: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was sent email by alleged sexual assault victim.
O’Brien says: “if you invite feedback from complainants, checking emails, responding to them and acknowledging that contact seems key to getting the process right.”
It’s also now the PM’s top advisers who are the focus of scrutiny – and not just in the media, but by party activists who are apparently wanting to know why they have let Ardern down. The chief of staff at the time that many of the allegations were being put to officials was Mike Munro. He stood down from the position in June, but is now back working in another ministerial office.
Claire Trevett writes about Munro’s role: “He was the main liaison between the PM and the party, and was updated on the investigation in weekly briefings with former Labour Party president Nigel Haworth. It was likely it was Munro and [Raj] Nahna who checked with the party whether sexual assault was involved after the claims were first raised in the media in August” – see: Labour sex assault claims: What did PM Jacinda Ardern’s staff know? (paywalled).
Others in the firing line include chief spindoctor Andrew Campbell as well as Rob Salmond (who infamously developed the “Chinese-sounding names” campaign to accompany Labour’s policy of banning foreign purchases of housing). Trevett reports: “Salmond is the director of the Labour Leader’s Office at Parliament but has some crossover to the Prime Minister’s Office. According to Bennett, two people who worked at Parliament went to Salmond last December to complain about the staffer. It is not clear what the nature of those complaints was or whether Salmond was aware of any allegations of sexual assault or harassment.”
The question of which senior staffers knew about allegations is dealt with by Andrea Vance in her must-read feature article: How to make the Labour abuse scandal worse. According to this article which covers the entire scandal, Vance’s research shows that the party’s general secretary Andre Anderson “says that he, or Haworth, knew the following people had been told: Ardern; her former chief of staff Mike Munro; new chief of staff Raj Nahna; chief press secretary Andrew Campbell; and the party’s solicitor Hayden Wilson.” But it’s still not clear how much these staff knew and how they acted on the information.
There’s also an increasing focus on Finance Minister Grant Robertson, and speculation about what he knew, why he’s gone so quiet, and whether he will have to go too – see, for example, Duncan Garner’s Mud stinks, and now it’s sticking to the people at the top.
In the end, such columns will be viewed by many as coming from Labour’s opponents, and therefore won’t matter too much to Government supporters. You can see other hard-hitting columns, such as Garner’s Jacinda Ardern could be forced to resign, Mike Hosking’s Jacinda Ardern’s explanations not good enough, and in particular, Matthew Hooton’s Nothing behind Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s words (paywalled).
However, it’s the fact that progressives and the left are feeling disillusioned with the Prime Minister and Labour that will ultimately determine whether this scandal is of longer-term consequence.
Finally, for a very good parody of Jacinda Ardern’s response to the scandal, see The Civilian’s The moment I found out that you found out, I acted swiftly.