Time for Labour to get its house in order

The Labour Party has an opportunity to get its house in order and look forward to the election after a dismal couple of years. Laura Walters writes that might be a job best suited to a woman.

The Labour Party will want to use the election of its new president to get its house in order and move on from almost two years of mismanaged sexual assault controversies.

This weekend, the Labour Party will converge on Whanganui for its annual conference.

The AGM will have all the usual components, including campaign workshops, a guest speaker, socialising opportunities, and speeches from top dogs Grant Robertson, Kelvin Davis and Jacinda Ardern.

But Ardern’s brief opening address on the Friday evening is expected to include more than self-congratulations and an optimistic throw forward to next year’s election.

It will include an acknowledgment of the issues that have plagued the party for the past couple of years.

The Labour leader will talk about the not-insignificant impact the sexual assault allegations have had on the party, which culminated in the resignation of president Nigel Haworth in September.

While the party’s handling of these situations has rightly been criticised, this has now created an opportunity for a new president to step into the role this weekend, and set about getting their house in order, ahead of the fast-approaching general election.

Former Labour Party president Nigel Haworth resigned following the party's poor handling of multiple sexual assault allegations. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The problems started almost two years ago, in February 2018, during a Young Labour camp in Waihi, with allegations four people were sexually assaulted during the boozy summer camp.

(Earlier this week, the 21-year-old man who admitted assaulting two young men at the camp was discharged without conviction. He was originally charged with five counts of indecent assault, against four people.)

Criticism of the party continued after it released the results of its report into what happened. One of the victims told Newsroom the way the party handled its review was “absolutely appalling”.

Haworth said the recommendations to improve processes and procedures were “both welcome and specific”, and he would lead the implementation.

Fast-forward to September 2019, and the party was again fending off accusations of a serious sexual assault, this time involving a staff member and a young Labour volunteer.

Again, the survivors slammed the way the party handled complaints and investigations.

With allegations of a cover-up by senior male party members, Haworth bowed to the pressure and resigned as party president.

Labour’s response to its #MeToo moment

A party insider, who did not want to be named, said like many other organisations, Labour had faced the rise of #MeToo.

“That has hit the Labour Party, just as it has hit other organisations. That’s not to excuse anything, it’s just to say it’s something that’s happening more broadly.”

Labour’s not alone in being forced to face up to inappropriate, damaging and potentially unlawful sexual assault and harassment allegations.

The National Party was criticised over allegations levelled at Jami-Lee Ross.

The Francis Review, commissioned by Speaker Trevor Mallard, then revealed wider issues of bullying and harassment across Parliament.

“Where people perceive an element of not living up to your own high standards, that does compound the story, and make it much larger than it would otherwise be."

However, Labour’s #MeToo failures were compounded by the disconnect between the rhetoric of the young, female leader and what happened within the party.

“Where people perceive an element of not living up to your own high standards, that does compound the story, and make it much larger than it would otherwise be,” the Labour party source said.

The past couple of years had taught Labour it could not continue as a hodgepodge constellation of independent bodies that coalesced.

There needed to be structure, oversight, policies and procedures that minimised the risk of bad things happening, ensured any issues were dealt with appropriately, and – more cynically – protected the party leader from being blindsided, yet again.

“We’ve got to realise that in the press, and in public expectation, and in members’ expectation, there is The Labour Party. And there is no distinction between a group of young Labour people organising a summer camp, the head office at Fraser House, or even the Prime Minister. People see it as one in the same, and have expectations that are one in the same. So I think we have to have a far more professionalised approach to the party organisation.”

As part of the party’s response to the failures, MP Poto Williams will be leading a session called ‘creating a safe and inclusive party’ over the course of the conference weekend.

It will focus on how members and Labour Electorate Committees can keep volunteers in a large organisation involved and motivated and safe.

Time for a woman?

For the party to learn from its past and move forward, it needs the right person at the helm.

Saturday will see the new president elected from three candidates: Tane Phillips, Claire Szabó and Kevin List.

As Newsroom political editor Sam Sachdeva wrote earlier this month, the race to replace Haworth in Labour’s top governance role at its annual conference this month is different - both for the manner of his departure and the potential factions that could be highlighted by those who have put their hands up.

The Labour Māori caucus is backing Phillips, Labour’s Māori senior vice president, who was instrumental in securing all seven Māori seats in 2017. He would be the second Māori president in the party’s 103-year history and this would send a strong signal after a difficult year for Labour’s Māori caucus, largely thanks to the dispute over Ihumātao.

However, the time may be right for a woman.

Szabó is the chief executive of Habitat for Humanity NZ and a former Labour candidate.

She would bring experience of running a large organisation - and potentially only a woman could restore confidence to those who were concerned about the handling of sexual assault allegations.

If Claire Szabó is elected as Labour Party president, she will be only the second female president in the past two decades. Photo: Facebook

The party obviously knows what needs to happen to clear house and fix systems.

But it needs the appropriate person at the helm, and Szabó just might be the right person, for the right job, at the right time.

The biggest danger to Labour at the moment is another summer camp situation. It would be devastating to its credibility.

Looking to the horizon

While the Labour Party has mostly been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons over the past couple of years, for many party faithfuls, the annual conference will be an opportunity to come together, catch up with old friends, celebrate the successes of the Labour-led Government and talk about the plan for next year.

The Labour Party source who spoke to Newsroom said the current mission of the party and the new president needed to be raising money, and getting into a solid position with election year fast approaching.

“The primary job of the president is to make sure the organisation doesn’t disgrace itself, raise money and build the campaign machine.”

The president’s role was not about policy or politics; it was functional – they needed to get things moving.

While the sexual assault allegations and subsequent botch-ups did concern a group of Labour members, that will not be top of mind for many making their way to Whanganui.

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