Power and abuse within youth politics

In recent years, political youth wings have been hit with instances of sexual assault, harassment and allegations of rape culture. Laura Walters takes a look at what’s going on

New and ongoing allegations of sexual assault and harassment in Young ACT further demonstrate the cultural issues plaguing youth politics, but experts say it's hardly a surprise across the parties, given who their role models are.

Issues of rape culture, harassment, bullying, and a spectrum of sexual misconduct, are not confined to political youth movements - in fact they are entrenched across all levels of politics.

Yesterday, Newsroom reported on the ongoing issues with rape culture, and allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment within Young ACT.

Despite the ACT Party launching an independent investigation, and the creation of a comprehensive equity and wellbeing policy, those affected said no meaningful improvements had been made.

This has led to a string of resignations.

In May, former Young ACT vice president, and former youth MP, Ali Gammeter resigned from the political youth wing due to being “sexually harassed, slutshamed, and ignored” for months.

She said she was not the only victim.

Those who’ve since quit Young ACT, also said they were not satisfied with the way the organisation’s leadership, and the ACT Party itself, had dealt with the issues.

But the issues were not unique to Young ACT.

The misogyny, sexism and rape culture were prevalent among youth politics more generally, Gammeter said.

A certain type of person was attracted to youth politics, and politics in general, she said.

“Politics is about power. Because of that it attracts a lot of people who are obsessed with power.”

Benjamin McKie, someone who also recently resigned from the organisation, agreed.

“This goes for all youth wings, it just happens that Young ACT is in the spotlight. This is everywhere.”

The past few years have seen a string of incidents relating to sexual assault, harassment and misconduct among political youth wings.

In 2018, Newsroom broke the news that four people had been sexually assaulted at a Young Labour summer camp.

In 2019, following a police investigation, a 21-year-old pleaded guilty to two charges of sexual assault. He was discharged without conviction.

Labour also launched an independent investigation into the handling of the incidents at the summer camp, and Labour’s leadership said it would implement the recommendations in full.

But one of the victims slammed the party for its “absolutely appalling” handling of the review into what went wrong, saying nobody was held accountable.

Following the summer camp scandal, then-general secretary Andrew Kirton revealed to media that another person in Young Labour had contacted him with their experience of sexual assault at one of the youth wing’s events.

The survivor of this assault later said the party hadn’t sought permission to publicly reveal what had happened.

Again, the person was critical of the way the party dealt with their official complaint, and the lack of support and correspondence.

Then in 2019, the Labour Party was investigated by Maria Dew after a former staffer alleged sexual assault. Five complainants were involved, but Dew's report found the allegations could not be substantiated. The party’s handling of these allegations led to the resignation of party president Nigel Haworth.

And in 2018, police investigated an incident following a Young Nationals event in which a teenage woman reported inappropriate touching and behaviour by a male Young Nats member. The young man’s membership was later revoked.

“It's incredibly competitive, which often leads to a toxic bullying culture.”

One person who was sexually assaulted at a Young Labour event recently tweeted about the experience, saying the party handled everything “terribly”.

The party didn’t listen, or give the person the respect deserved.

Like others, this person also told Newsroom it was important to acknowledge this was a non-partisan issue.

"National, Labour and ACT have all been accused of sexual assaults or harassment in their youth wings, it's not unique to the left or right.”

Youth politics was a difficult space to navigate..

“It's incredibly competitive, which often leads to a toxic bullying culture.”

And the environment bred a culture of silence.

“If you see your future in politics, or desire to be an MP one day you shut up, you don't want to be seen as difficult, so that means you don't say anything when someone with a lot of power abuses you...

“I know so many people who have left youth politics burned out, and full of resentment about politics, these are people who would have been incredible people who keep in the party, or in organisations around the party.”

University of Auckland politics and public policy lecturer Lara Greaves (Ngāti Kuri, Ngāpuhi) said the issues within youth political wings were unsurprising given the organisations didn’t operate in a vacuum.

She referred to issues with political parties, politicians and the parliamentary culture, and organisations such as law firm Russell McVeagh.

And she mentioned the “appalling statistics” about the number of university students who have been sexually assaulted. 

Last year, preliminary results from the country’s biggest study into the prevalence of sexual victimisation at university found a third of students will be sexually assaulted while they are studying.

“Given these two factors, I am not surprised that political youth wings have been having issues,” Greaves said.

“I would say that we really couldn't expect the behaviour in youth wings to be any better, given that their role models are hardly behaving in a suitable manner."

Over the past couple of years, there has been a collection of New Zealand politicians who have behaved inappropriately - painting a picture of pervasive cultures of harassment, bullying and sexual misconduct.

In the case of now-Independent MP Jami-Lee Ross, one woman told Newsroom that Ross targeted her for a relationship which evolved into controlling behaviour, “incoherent rages” and “brutal sex”.

Earlier this week, National MP Andrew Falloon resigned after it was revealed he sent unsolicited sexual images - not of himself - to several young women.

And Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has been stripped of his ministerial portfolios after having an inappropriate year-long affair with a staffer. He will leave politics at the September election.

“I would say that we really couldn't expect the behaviour in youth wings to be any better, given that their role models are hardly behaving in a suitable manner," Greaves said.

When announcing she'd sacked Lees-Galloway on Wednesday, Jacinda Ardern said politicians needed to maintain a standard and a culture.

“It’s my job to make sure that my actions - when I’m made aware of things that don’t meet my standards - demonstrate the culture we expect in this place.”

When asked whether there was a specific problem with male politicians, Ardern said she wasn’t going to cast judgment on specific genders.

“We all have a role to make sure that we maintain standards in this environment.”

There had long been issues with the environment and culture within Parliament and politics, Ardern said.

“I think some really important conversations need to be had... about the political culture and about sexism, sexual harassment, and assault.”

The systemic bullying and harassment within politics and Parliament were laid bare through the Francis Report, which was released more than a year ago.

This review of workplace conduct at Parliament was meant to help lift standards of behaviour. But just over a year on, progress has been slow-going, with little in the way of obvious transformation.

And earlier this week, Stuff reported MPs are refusing to establish an independent commission to police bad behaviour, and are yet to sign up to a workplace code of conduct, despite all parties committing to ensuring the creation of a safe and healthy parliamentary workplace, in line with the Francis Report recommendations.

While the report did not cover youth politics, those who spoke to Newsroom said the issues seen in politics and Parliament - bullying, harassment, rape culture and silencing - were prevalent through all levels of politics. And the culture within parties, and youth wings, fed into each other.

But Greaves said these challenges shouldn’t spell the end of youth politics.

"It should be safe, it should be a place where we can challenge everything. We deserve it."

Some people joined because of their political ambition and ended up becoming MPs or even the Prime Minister. Others joined for the social aspect. And both were valid motivations, she said.

“I still think they can be a good way for young people to meet like-minded individuals.”

The former Young Labour member who spoke to Newsroom about their their sexual assault and aftermath agreed.

“I hope that things change, I hope this doesn't keep happening, I hope young people are safe to join political parties, because it truly creates good change… It should be safe, it should be a place where we can challenge everything. We deserve it.”

But in order for that safe space to exist, Greaves said there needed to be that much-talked-about, and ever-elusive, culture shift across all levels of politics.

“I think some really important conversations need to be had, both within youth wings, and within political parties more generally about the political culture and about sexism, sexual harassment, and assault.”

The culture needed to change away from one where ‘politics is a sport’, to one where people reflected more on why they were in politics, and specific policies or ways to make New Zealanders’ lives better.

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