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Ardern’s star has come to earth with an almighty bump

15/09/2019

Tracy Watkins in her Editorial for the SST  – Labour’s House of Pain  ( as an aside this was the headline in a print edition and not the headline at the website; I wonder why?) on what else the Labour sex scandal.

The reality, which I suspect many in the Labour Party, the media and the Ardern supporters do not wish to face, is this issue has now become much more about Ardern’s leadership, or more precisely, her lack of it.

Ms Watkin’s editorial is short, sharp and very much to the point.

The ugly side of scandals like the one engulfing Labour at the moment is the people who become collateral damage. Reporters have been sent photos of entirely blameless men with red circles drawn around their faces; falsely identified as being involved, because of their ties to Labour. The senders are 100 per cent wrong but that’s how people fill the void when all the facts aren’t public.

True and most unfortunate.

But the truly ugly face of scandals like these is the political tribalism they unleash.

Absolutely the case, Twitter has been rife with tribal comments and the drawing of false equivalences, especially when  the subject of an item is a negative view of Ardern. See as just one example – Tweet for Today: Clare Curran attacks RNZ for running an Opinion piece critical of Ardern

Ardern’s halo effect has blinded many of Labour’s supporters to the party’s appalling failings in its sorry handling of abuse allegations. Some still don’t get it. But pony tails, they protest. But Jami-Lee Ross.

These are false equivalencies, but they have been on display aplenty. In what I would characterise for many is a desire not to have to recognise that their party and their leader have feet of clay.  With regard to others I would not be so charitable.

Yet what we see here is a culture within the Labour Party of obfuscation, process and a desire to protect Ardern and the Party rather than tend to the victims. Think Darren Hughes, think Labour Youth Camp, think  now.

Ms Watkins continues

But just contrast the last few weeks to former Prime Minister John Key’s swift removal of Richard Worth from both Cabinet and subsequently Parliament after a serious sexual allegation. Of course the circumstances were different. Worth was there by the grace of the prime minister; it’s not the usual employment relationship.

But Key had an antennae for political risk (barring pony tails, perhaps). Helen Clark was the same, an iron fist in an iron glove. Key, for all his occasional goofiness, was as well. Ardern’s nose for risk just doesn’t seem to be as sharp.

Therein is a key observation. A leader with no ability to sense risk is not a leader. A leader without the ability to project certainty that there is an iron fist in an iron glove behind the necessary political bonhomie, is not a leader.

Not for nothing did many refer to Wellington during the Clark era as Helengrad, or within National to Key as ‘the Boss’.

Ardern is just not seen by anyone, in my view, as possessing those characteristics. She is seen as the Consoler in Chief, the leader of’ hugz and feelz’. She is not seen as the one in charge. The fact that she was running what has been described as the Sgt Schulz defence reinforces that view.

However, the I knew nothing defence is just not credible as she said in March 2018 after the Labour Youth Camp allegations surfaced – report by Andrea Vance for One News

Ms Ardern was blindsided by the claims at her weekly post-Cabinet press conference late this afternoon but pledged to investigate.

She said she had attended the camp before the incidents took place and “none of that was apparent when I was there”.

This evening the Prime Minister released a statement.

“I’m very disturbed to hear about the allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct that occurred at the Summer Camp.”

“I expect young people, and indeed anyone, attending our camps can do so knowing the environment is safe,” Ms Ardern said.

“I’ve sought assurances that everything is being done to support the complainants. I’ve also asked the party to take every step possible to ensure that our events are safe for everyone who attends in the future.

So the initial response this time round was very similar. Does anyone see a pattern here? Is it just me, or is Ardern just not involved enough.

Back in 2018 there was a lawyer’s report by  Maria Austen, a leading Employment Law barrister in Wellington into the Labour Youth Camp debacle, amongst the recommendations was this, news report by Sam Sachdeva for Newsroom;

The report also called for a review, or development, of the party’s code of conduct – including whether Young Labour should adhere to the same code or develop a separate one – as well as its policies around sexual harassment and assault, alcohol, events and host responsibility, bullying, and complaint procedures.

On the announcement of the recommendation from much delayed Austen report, in late August 2018, Ardern is reported, by Lucy Bennett in a report for the NZ Herald, as follows

“I think actually what’s important is that we take on board what the report has told us about what we need to do, so I’m looking forward to seeing that in full. I’ve seen the highlights of the recommendations. But we undertook it for a reason, we know we need to do things differently.”

Again let us note, she went to the press briefing, but she had not at that stage read the Austen Report, nor even just the recommendations, but she had seen the highlights, seen not read, discussed or reviewed – she was looking forward to seeing things in full. Looking forward – really!

In some ways this is an example of what John Armstrong said in a recent column for One News

Ardern is vulnerable to the charge that a fair chunk of what she utters is political flannel. She is exceptionally good at making the meaningless sound meaningful.

So what happened. It seems that in effect nothing happened, although at the time,Nigel Haworth, the then, and now the former, Party President said in Sam Sachdeva’s report

he would lead the implementation of all of the recommendations, with support from outside experts.

“The recommendations are both welcome and specific, and reflect the care taken by Ms Austen in completing her report,” Haworth said.

Haworth’s statement at the time met with negative reaction from victim’s of the alleged Youth Camp Predator according to Sam Sachdeva

‘Absolutely appalling’ – victim

However, one of the victims told Newsroom they were disappointed with how the party had handled the investigation into its failings, including the decision not to release the report publicly.

“Failing to release the report shows a blatant lack of accountability and from my perspective as a victim, is absolutely appalling.”

The report should have been released with the redaction of any information which could have identified people, they said.

The victims and witnesses involved in Austen’s inquiry were not given a copy of the final report either.

They also questioned the news that Haworth would lead the work on changing Labour’s procedures, given the failures of the party in handling the initial complaint.

“The person in charge of implementing the recommendations is the person that hasn’t been trusted in the first place to provide support and resolve the issue … I don’t see accountability there.”

So the team that presided over the Youth Camp debacle was the team that would make substantive change. Hmm

So has process changed it would seem not much.

So has culture changed, it would seem not.

As so often in instances such as this the saying, often attributed to Talleyrand comes to mind  – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Now Watkins goes on

The view from the top is that she was let down by her people. But Key or Clark would have had their chief of staff haul the party hierarchy into their office as soon as the first whiff of a problem with young women surfaced. The summer camp fiasco was warning enough that Labour’s judgement was seriously wobbly on such matters.

Indeed it was.

Why did Ardern who is PM, Party Leader and Labour’s primary political asset, not assert herself over this matter?

Why did she not read Haworth and his cohorts the riot act?

If she did read them the riot act, why did it not have any effect?

Does this mean that she is just a political prop not seen as having any real say by the Party. That I doubt.

I think it shows that she is all froth and no substance.

I think it demonstrates that she is not a leader of any substance.

Indeed as I noted the other day Lady Bracknell’s quip, written by Oscar Wilde for his satirical play on Victorian mores as it happens – The Importance of Being Earnest comes to mind

‘To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’

Absolutely, to use a word beloved of Jacinda Ardern.

One incident highly publicised to which she reacted upset and concerned and promised change is bad enough.

Now we have a second incident where, the alleged predator worked in the Leader’s Office in Bowen House and allegedly senior staff and at least one Minister close to Ardern were aware of the predator and the allegations and Ardern says she did not know.

Carelessness indeed, lack of leadership absolutely – Ardern is the Prime Minister, she is the Labour Party Leader, she is the very public face of New Zealand.

Yet she is not a leader at all.

Then Tracy Watkins asks

So what now?

No leader likes loose ends and there are plenty of those as Ardern prepares to head overseas this week. So expect her to announce further action before she goes. But it will have to be more than token – Ardern has to be clear that urgent, and painful, culture change is needed in the organisation she leads.

Do you really see that happening I am extremely doubtful. I suspect what we will see, if we see anything, is fluff, puff and figleaves. In other words lipstick will be applied to a very dirty pig, but it will still be a dirty pig.

Many of the party faithful will find it hard to swallow that Labour has failed to walk the talk on an issue so core to its – and Ardern’s – identity.

But the only place where they should be pointing the finger is at themselves

So true Ms Watkins, but I suggest that  this old phrase sums it up very clearly

We have met the enemy, it is us

That is what Ardern Labour, it’s members and supporters need to understand.

 

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