Week in Review

No more distraction, let’s see action and compassion

Until those within Labour change their mindset that the party can do no wrong, no amount of tidying up, rugby-based distraction or international photo-ops can save it, writes Peter Dunne

Few New Zealanders would have been as keen to see the advent of the Rugby World Cup as the Labour Party. At last, there would be an opportunity to divert the public’s attention away from the sexual abuse issue that has enveloped the party in recent weeks, with the prospect of six weeks of top quality rugby hopefully burying the issue once and for all in the public mind, especially if the All Blacks do well.

On top of that, all this would coincide with the Prime Minister’s latest overseas trip to address the United Nations Climate Change meeting and the General Assembly.

And then came the opportunity to meet beleaguered British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who needs all the friends he can muster at present.

"Look over there": Jacinda Ardern with Boris Johnson. Photo: Getty Images

The positive photos of both occasions would allow the Prime Minister to polish the halo of her international reputation once again.

But the biggest prize of all would be the meeting with the President of the United States. Forget the fact that it was only a 25 minute “pull aside”, and not the full White House treatment accorded the Australian Prime Minister recently, it would still be an opportunity to put our happy and smiling Prime Minister alongside the most powerful man in the world. Never mind the lack of substantive announcements, nor the apparently American imposed ban on media presence at the start of the meeting, one happy photograph would still be a million miles away from the dour events of recent weeks.  

And then, to top things off, while all this was being planned, came the dramatic failure of Spark’s streaming arrangement over the first weekend of the Rugby World Cup, and during the game of all games between the All Blacks and the Springboks. As a way of burying other bad news, it could not have come any better. The vast majority of the media headlines in the days immediately afterwards focused on the streaming failure, the All Blacks win over South Africa, and the Prime Minister’s meetings with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. The sexual abuse allegations looked set to recede into the background.  

For Labour strategists, the recovery would be complete. And New Zealand First would come to their rescue too. First was Shane Jones’ typically boorish (and somewhat prophetic at the time) comment that he was more interested in seeing Spark successfully stream the rugby than delve into the sexual abuse allegations within the Labour Party. With the advent of the World Cup looming, he was clearly aiming his words at tens of thousands of keen rugby supporters who were probably of a similar mind at that moment.

Add to that Winston Peters’ equally rude and ignorant dismissal of the ongoing media and public interest in the Labour story and his subsequent vow as Acting Prime Minister to get to the bottom of the Spark issue because he had been forced to watch the All Blacks defeat the Springboks on his mobile phone, while many thousands of other New Zealanders were unable to watch it at all.

Labour ... probably will now, as payback, have to acquiesce ... to some sort of deal, brokered by NZ First, of major sports events henceforth being required to be broadcast free-to-air, ostensibly to address the Spark issue, but also to help NZ First secure its elderly and provincial voter base.

(As an aside, that vignette provides an insight to everyone under about the age of 40 - and a painful reminder to those older than that - of how it was that this country, provincial New Zealand in particular, nearly tore itself apart over the 1981 Springbok Rugby tour. Just as the Muldoon Government was prepared to sweep aside the moral issue of apartheid in pursuit of letting the people see the Springboks play the All Blacks in New Zealand for the first time since 1965 and ensuring National’s narrow re-election in that year’s election in the process, here was New Zealand First similarly making a calculated play for the votes of rugby supporting New Zealanders by asserting that their wish to watch rugby was more significant than instances of sexual abuse and harassment within the major party of government.)

Labour certainly was not going to complain about New Zealand First’s intervention getting it off its hook, and probably will now, as payback, have to acquiesce (despite its current opposition) to some sort of deal, brokered by New Zealand First, of major sports events henceforth being required to be broadcast free-to-air, ostensibly to address the Spark issue, but also to help New Zealand First secure its elderly and provincial voter base, and thus the coalition Government its re-election next year.

On the face of it, it is a clever, if somewhat coincidental, strategy. The Prime Minister’s fading star can be re-burnished; the public’s wish to be able to watch all the big rugby games uninterrupted can be met, and the delicate and awkward issue of sexual abuse and harassment in major organisations, and the workplace generally, can be pushed quietly and firmly into the background. And, if, at the end of it all, Kieran Read is holding the Rugby World Cup aloft once more, we can all bask in the glory, through to Christmas and beyond into election year.

Where all this becomes problematic for the Labour Party is that its entire approach to date has been managing and moving on from the crisis engendered by the sexual abuse allegations ...

However, it may not turn out to be quite as simple as that.

There have been further stories reported about the complainants in the Labour Party case and the strategies they adopted over a period of time to deal with their alleged abuser, raising even more doubts about the credibility of claims by the senior leadership that they did not know what was going on until very recently. 

And now, there have been the revelations in recent days of alleged unsavoury behaviour towards young people by a Christchurch City Councillor, coming on top of the conviction last year of a Kapiti District Councillor on sexual misconduct charges.

Where all this becomes problematic for the Labour Party is that its entire approach to date has been managing and moving on from the crisis engendered by the sexual abuse allegations, rather than seeking to address the specific allegations themselves and the reasons for them.

Even the latest process announced last week by the Prime Minister is more about tidying things up, and keeping her as far as away as possible from the crisis brewing in the party she leads, than getting to the bottom of the reasons why her office (where the alleged abuser worked) and the party, as a whole, failed the complainants so badly in this instance.

Labour’s mindset is always that the party can do no wrong, and that it is individuals, not the collective, that cause problems, so those problems have to be managed to a solution that keeps the party’s reputation intact.

While that thinking prevails, neither an extravaganza like the Rugby World Cup, nor meetings with foreign leaders, nor an external diversion like the Spark issue, will save it.

Labour can only save itself by applying some of the Prime Minister’s legendary compassion to its internal victims, and showing the same level of intolerance it does to groups in society it disagrees with (farmers, and business for example) to the abusers within its own ranks.            

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