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Mishandling of sex assault complaints a political mess

Jane Patterson, Political Editor @janepatterson jane.patterson@radionz.co.nz

Power Play - No one disputes victims of sexual assault should be treated with respect and confidentiality, and offered the greatest level of support possible.

But the mess the highest ranks of the Labour Party have found themselves in is also about political management.

NC Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The party is now in full damage control with general secretary Andrew Kirton having fronted the bulk of the media requests, except for the Prime Minister appearing on her scheduled Tuesday morning spots.

Expect a higher-level response this afternoon as Labour goes into overdrive to show it acknowledges the woeful response in the weeks immediately following the February camp, and what it intends to do to in the future.

When first alerted to serious acts of sexual assault against four 16-year-olds, Mr Kirton initially left it up to the youth wing of the party to deal with.

The upshot of that was a delay in communicating properly with the victims and bringing in professional support, just one of the failings in the way this has been dealt with.

Mr Kirton and other party officials made the call not to tell police or parents in the interests of the victims. He justified that approach by saying that was consistent with advice from specialist support agencies.

That advice was, however, received three weeks after he and other other top ranking officials - including the Party president - made no move to inform authorities or the Prime Minister.

Endorsement was then sought for the plan to "keep the circle small".

Mr Kirton's first approach to the sexual abuse support agency HELP was also only made the day after someone involved in the incident contacted Cabinet minister Megan Woods - in other words once the circle was starting to widen.

Much has been made of whether parents had a right to know, whether police should have been contacted, and why Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was not informed.

The specialist advice is victims should decide who is told and whether they want to make a formal complaint, as bringing several people into the process can add to the trauma and stress.

Mr Kirton said they did not want to be "running around, telling a wide group of people". However, informing the Prime Minister of a major political controversy - or at the least her Chief of Staff - would not fit into that category.

To the general public, the distinction of it being at Young Labour event or a party event as opposed to being connected to the parliamentary wing would be lost: the damage is to the Labour Party brand.

Ms Ardern, Mr Kirton and senior MPs also attended the camp and addressed the young people there, as shown by pictures that appeared on Young Labour's Facebook page.

Police have now launched an investigation into the allegations of sexual assault, which will bring greater focus onto how the event was run, and the way the whole situation was handled by Labour's top officials.


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