Young ACT continues to lose members amid allegations of ongoing sexual harassment and issues with rape culture. Laura Walters reports
Young ACT is bleeding members as a result of ongoing allegations of sexual harassment of members and what some describe as a pervasive rape culture within the organisation.
The flurry of public resignations comes in the wake of the youth wing’s vice president stepping down after enduring months of sexual harassment.
In May, Ali Gammeter publicly resigned from Young ACT due to being “sexually harassed, slutshamed, and ignored” for months.
The 18-year-old said she was not the only victim of this behaviour.
The day after her resignation, Young ACT president Felix Poole issued a press release detailing the actions the organisation was taking, including removing the members in question, forming an equity committee, and appointing an equity officer.
Poole’s statement acknowledged the “prevalent and systemic incidents of harm”, as well as “justified criticisms” surrounding how members and those using Young ACT’s platforms interacted with each other.
The statement said Young ACT had failed in its duty of care to members, and said the organisation would do better.
The party brought in employment lawyer Andrea Twaddle to investigate the claims and the culture within the organisation. The investigation has been completed, and the report is expected in coming weeks.
ACT Party leader David Seymour said the report was “forthcoming”, and he expected an anonymised summary of the report would be publicly released.
But those who spoke to Newsroom say nothing has changed since Gammeter’s resignation.
Since Gammeter’s resignation, a further three members of Young ACT’s active ‘inner circle’ have publicly resigned their membership, citing their own experiences of alleged sexual assault and harassment, and a culture and executive unwilling to change.
Newsroom has seen a collection of the online messages and social media posts on a range of pages affiliated with Young ACT.
The messages are sexually explicit, and are not appropriate for publication. They include jokes about sexual assault, including rape, and sexual harassment.
Gammeter was approached by Seymour to become involved with the ACT party after her participation in last year’s Youth Parliament.
She said she knew there was a culture problem when she joined the organisation, but it became more aggressive.
Gammeter said becoming vice president put a target on her back, and the sexist comments and ‘slutshaming’ became more extreme.
The comments happened on Facebook meme groups – both those officially run by Young ACT and unofficial spinoff, or secondary, groups – as well as private group chats, and in-person.
Other women who called out the behaviour were also targeted.
“I realised that nothing was going to change unless my resignation forced them to be publicly accountable.”
Gammeter said she believed these types of issues existed across the board, but they were more concentrated in some circles – particularly among right-wing libertarians.
“In Young ACT, there’s this idea that because we’re the freedom youth wing, people can just do whatever they want.”
Gammeter said she tried to deal with the issues while still part of Young ACT leadership, but when she removed people making hurtful comments from Young ACT’s official Facebook meme page, Poole re-added those people.
Those who were removed from groups controlled by Young ACT created their own separate online groups, which were unofficial but affiliated with the youth wing. There they continued to post offensive and abusive messages.
The main memes page, which was run by the Young ACT executive, has since been removed from Facebook. But other groups, such as David Seymour Memes II: Unarchived Boogaloo have sprung up in its place.
When Gammeter asked the executive to do more, she was told there was no policy in place, so it would be inappropriate to expel members. Much of the refusal to remove people and comments centred around the idea of protecting free speech.
Gammeter was working on creating an equity and wellbeing policy document at the time, and Poole said it was up to her to create a process to deal with these problems.
“It was like he was telling me I had to jump through hoops to save myself from the people who were harming me,” she said.
“I realised that nothing was going to change unless my resignation forced them to be publicly accountable…
“Maybe they’re trying – I don’t know – but to be honest not a lot has changed since I resigned.”
Almost two months later – on the day the ACT Party released its list for the September election – former Youth Parliament member Azaria Howell tweeted: “I feel like now is the time to speak out.
“[Someone formerly involved with Young ACT] sexually assaulted me on my first day in Wellington. This was covered up.”
The 18-year-old signed off her tweet with #MeToo.
“And after all of that effort and work, nothing had changed. Nothing had continued to change throughout two months.”
Member of Young ACT’s new equity committee Benjamin McKie then announced his resignation, saying:
“How can we continue to practise politics as usual when politics as usual is killing our young?
“How can we continue society as usual when society as usual is ravaging the mental health of our young? How can we continue to praise young men who assault young women?”
McKie, who was a member of Young ACT for about a year, said allegations of assault and misogyny were swept under the rug.
“Until the people responsible for heinous acts are held responsible, none of us will ever be free.”
Before leaving the youth wing, McKie was involved with writing the organisation’s equity and wellbeing document, which lays out values, policy and process for dealing with sensitive disclosures, such as bullying, harassment and assault.
“The issue with having an equity document is that it’s useless if you’re not going to enforce it.” A lot of time and emotional labour was put into the creation of the document, McKie said.
“And after all of that effort and work, nothing had changed. Nothing had continued to change throughout two months.”
“It is hard to find the words to describe the environment the Young ACT executive has created for victims.”
Kishan Modi also resigned via Twitter last month, “for reasons that boil down to a toxic culture.”
Modi said people were not held to account.
The following day, Alex Auty gave his resignation, saying the way the political youth organisation had responded to Gammeter’s resignation and complaints of other victims was “shocking”.
“It is hard to find the words to describe the environment the Young ACT executive has created for victims,” he said.
“Both those who have come forward and those considering coming forward. The truth is, that Young ACT is not a safe place for women to exist and I cannot in good faith continue to support it while women are forced out.”
Auty said comments made about Gammeter were “beyond harmful”.
He went on to say: “There has been much speculation, so much abuse, and so much sexism that has been tolerated ever since concerns were raised.”
Things had gotten worse, not better, since Gammeter’s resignation, he said.
“I realise now that the organisation is made up almost entirely of people whose ideas about women and rape culture actively exclude some of our most talented and articulate members.”
Auty told Newsroom youth politics had a problem with sexism. But Young ACT had sexism and racism, due to the “right wing-ness of it”.
It was clear nothing was changing within the organisation, despite promises from the executive, he said.
“I felt like there wasn’t any point staying around.”
ACT Party president Tim Jago, and Young ACT president Felix Poole, both refused to comment for this article, saying it would be inappropriate while Twaddle’s independent investigation was ongoing.
The party’s highest-ranking female candidate, Brooke van Velden, also said she had no comment while the inquiry was underway.
Newsroom understands Jago told those in the ACT party and Young ACT not to make any comment in relation to the allegations, and to refer all queries to him.
However, Seymour eventually responded to questions, saying that before Gammeter’s resignation he was unware of any issues.
Seymour believed ACT had handled the situation well, and taken the allegations seriously.
“Are young people being supported? Of course they are. But what you’re doing is you’re pre-supposing that the inquiry has found something in the allegations that would require someone to be supported.”
Like others who spoke to Newsroom, Seymour pointed to the difficulty of trying to monitor the “complex web” of chat groups, many of which included members of Young ACT but were not official ACT or Young ACT pages.
Young ACT was an affiliated group, which was allowed to use the party’s logo and name, so long as it didn’t bring the party into disrepute. It was not an official youth wing.
This meant ACT’s oversight and pastoral care responsibilities were limited, both in terms of events and online spaces.
“But obviously in these more serious allegations we obviously have a duty of care that we’ve actioned.”
Seymour said it would have been helpful to have a wellbeing policy or process to deal with disclosures of harassment or assault, as well as a designated liaison.
“I know it’s easy to say: ‘You should take more responsibility’, but in practice it’s very hard to decide where you draw the line between people’s ordinary lives and the party…
“But honestly do you think if that statement existed, they would have gone and told that person?
“All of these people knew me and could call me if they really needed to – ditto other figures in the party such as Brooke – but they didn’t; they chose to go and do it on Twitter. And I don’t think publishing a document would have changed their choice.”
“We had begged for change within the youth wing quietly for months.”
Gammeter pushed back against Seymour’s comments, and his speculation about the legitimacy of her claims.
“We had begged for change within the youth wing quietly for months…
“Public resignation was a last resort and it didn’t benefit us at all – it created a media s***storm that at the end of the day made me drop out of uni for a trimester and destroys opportunities we all had in political circles.. It’s almost as if David doesn’t want justice, he wants silence.”
Young ACT is not the only political youth wing to face these issues.
Young Labour has also been dealing with ongoing sexual assault and harassment allegations in recent years.
In 2018, Newsroom reported on sexual assaults of four people at a Young Labour summer camp. This resulted in a review of the incident and the party’s response, as well as a police investigation. In 2019, a 21-year-old pleaded guilty to two charges of assault.
The party’s general secretary also 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.
And 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.
In 2018, Newsroom reported police were investigating an incident following a Young Nationals event in central Auckland, in which a teenage woman reported inappropriate touching and behaviour by a male Young Nats member. The young man was subsequently removed from National’s youth wing.
Where to get help:
National Rape Crisis helpline: 0800 88 33 00
Safe to Talk national helpline 0800 044 334 or www.safetotalk.nz
Women’s Refuge (For women and children) – 0800 733 843.
Shine (For men and women) – free call 0508-744-633 between 9am and 11pm.
1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for mental health support from a trained counsellor
What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.
Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 for people up to 18 years old. Open 24/7.
If you or someone else is in immediate danger call 111.