Jacinda Ardern clasped her hands tightly together as she sat in Parliament’s debating chamber, standing to offer single-word answers as Paula Bennett grilled her over the rapidly growing scandal enveloping her party.
Did she stand by her statement that “we need to make sure we have environments in all our workplaces that meet the expectations of alleged victims”? “Yes.”
Would she revise her statement to the United Nations last year that “Me Too must become We Too”, in light of of her own office’s failures? “No.”
It was little wonder the Prime Minister was not in the mood for conversation after the latest in a run of damaging days for her party, its president, and herself.
The first casualty of Labour’s failure to adequately handle complaints made by a number of its supporters against a staffer in the leader’s office – most significantly, a woman who alleges she was sexually assaulted – was party president Nigel Haworth.
Ardern announced his resignation on Wednesday afternoon, less than 72 hours after The Spinoff published a detailed, distressing account of the young woman’s allegations against the accused man.
The woman insisted she had raised her claims directly with Haworth and the panel investigating the staffer; Haworth was adamant that neither she nor anybody else had done so.
After Ardern told media that the president had offered his resignation if a QC-led inquiry into the investigation found him at fault in any way, his fate was sealed.
Only a categorical rejection of the woman’s claims would have saved him. Instead, Ardern’s review of correspondence from the complainants to the party several months ago led Haworth to jump before he was pushed (albeit with a helping hand onto the ledge).
This is far from the end of the matter, however. Using the protection of parliamentary privilege, Bennett named several senior members of Ardern’s office who she says knew about the nature of the allegations as far back as last Christmas.
We do not yet know whether that is true (a spokeswoman for Ardern said her office had no comment to make) but it is clear that the review of Labour’s processes will almost certainly uncover a few more skeletons.
Some potential findings – that some of Ardern’s staff did know but deliberately kept her out of the loop in the interests of plausible deniability, or that Ardern did know and has been economical with the truth – would almost certainly lead to more resignations.
Even if Ardern did not know that sexual assault claims had been made, some may question why she did not more forcefully ask her party to look back over its records, given the repeated claims made by complainants through the media.
Some of the Prime Minister’s more hardline critics have suggested she should cancel her upcoming trip to the United Nations to deal with the scandal at home.
At its heart, this scandal is not about the political ramifications but the very real pain that has been afflicted on those who raised their concerns with Labour and expected them to be taken seriously.
That will not happen – but as with last year’s UN visit, Ardern has tried to tidy up embarrassing domestic issues before heading away (back then it was the sacking of Meka Whaitiri, among other problems).
New Zealand’s problems still found her in New York, in the form of jilted chief technology officer Derek Handley’s decision to release his emails with Ardern and others over the botched process.
With international media outlets carrying the news of Haworth’s resignation and the growing pressure on Ardern, that will almost certainly happen again.
At its heart, this scandal is not about the political ramifications but the very real pain that has been inflicted on those who raised their concerns with Labour and expected them to be taken seriously.
Of course, there will and should be political consequences – but righting the wrongs that appear to have been done to the complainants is the most important outcome.