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The Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Paula Bennett


On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Paula Bennett

National's Deputy Leader Paula Bennett spent the week claiming a serious cover-up in the Prime Minister's office. She used parliamentary privilege to name three of the Prime Minister's closest advisors who, she says, knew about the sexual assault allegations against a Labour staffer. Is this about justice for complainants, transparency in the public service or scoring political points?

Simon Shepherd asked Paula Bennett if she is outright accusing the Prime Minister and Senior Minister Grant Robertson of lying about this.

Paula Bennett: Well, they're either being misleading or they have been misled. It seems to me that pretty much everybody has known for a lot of weeks that we've got sexual assault claims within the Labour Party, except the Prime Minister is what she's trying to say. Certainly, the victims have told me that they have spoken to senior staff in her office. Certainly, one of them have said that they've spoken with Grant Robertson. To be fair, none of them have said that they have spoken directly with Jacinda Ardern. So, in that context, I can only go by what I know.

Simon Shepherd: So, you can't actually say that they're lying, though, can you? You don't have evidence that the Prime Minister or Grant Robertson are lying?

Well, Grant Robertson is not saying what he knows, and I think in that context that kind of speaks volumes, really. I mean, the thing I'd say to you, Simon, it's not me that should be sitting here this morning; It's, quite frankly, someone from the Labour Party fronting up and actually saying what really has been going on.

OK. So, we have asked the Labour party, and they've said, no, they don't want to come on. But Robertson's just saying, 'Look, let's trust the process. Let's trust the QC rather than just giving details and adding to the fire.'

Well, that's incredibly appalling in its own way. So, a QC was called in five week ago. We still have no terms of reference. The very people that are deciding those terms of reference are the Labour council of whom three members sat on the original panel and, as we know, have hideously mistreated the victims and this whole process. So, five weeks on, they can't decide on what the terms of reference are. I think it's time that we accept that they cannot handle this process and that it has to be truly independent and they have to get the right experts in that do right by the victims.

OK. So, the complainants came to you five weeks ago?

Around five weeks ago. Yeah.

OK. At the time, what representations did you make? Cos you said in the House yesterday, your 'own representations on this issue'. Did you tell the Prime Minister?

I certainly suggested to them around the police—

Who's them?

The victims, sorry. Around the police because they're very serious allegations, obviously. I also indicated to them that I thought I would know someone who would be particularly sympathetic to it and very good within the police. I offered support as far as counselling and others like that.

But you didn't take it to the Prime Minister?

I did take it to the Speaker.

To the Speaker?

Yeah, but not to the Prime Minister.

Why did you take it to the Speaker and not the Prime Minister?

Because it was within parliament buildings at that point. From their perspective, that was something that they wanted to go further down. The way I read it and the way I heard it from them was actually I believed at that point that Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party and the Council already knew what was going on. This wouldn't be new news to them. It was actually the actions that needed to change. OK. So, it is new news to them. Or the detail of the complaint or the fact that it actually involves sexual assault. That's new to the Prime Minister, she said on Monday.

Why is it not possible that you can believe that the Prime Minister has either been shielded or misled?

Just because of the number of people that now we know know. And we can see by Nigel Haworth having to stand down. We've got senior people within the party right up to the president. We then have, I'm told, senior people within her office, of her Chief of Staff. If her Chief of Staff and other senior people don't know, why was he stood down five weeks ago? So, they did know at least five weeks ago, otherwise he wouldn't have been stood down from his job. We then have two victims that've told me— Who, by the way, these victims have been proven to be honest the whole way through this. People have tried to say that they have lied. They've tried to dismiss them. But they have proven time and time again to be honest people. And they have told me they took a direct complaint to one of the Prime Minister's very senior staffers.

Which staffer did they complain to?

To Rob Salmond.

Rob Salmond. So, they are saying all of these people knew. So, they've either shielded the Prime Minister from it or she has known and she has chosen to try and avoid— So, this is what the complainants are telling you? You haven't actually seen that complaint? Have you seen any documentary evidence to back up these complainants?

No. No, I haven't.

OK. So, you're believing the complainants?

Yeah, I absolutely believe them. And that was something I made a call on, quite frankly. I did want to know who they were. They couldn't be anonymous to me in that context. But I felt that actually if you were doing victim-led then you take them at their word. And I feel like they deserve a voice, and they came to me for that.

So, is that why you take them at their word, that the Prime Minister's closest advisors— You said under parliamentary privilege that they took out a witch hunt. I think it was Andrew Campbell that you mentioned in parliament performing a witch hunt. What evidence do you have of that? Or is it just the word of the complainants?

It was one day I was in contact with one of them, and they just said, 'Look, it's just absolutely awful here. Andrew Campbell is literally walking the corridors, looking for people that are talking to the media and looking for them. And we're actually going more inside of ourselves because we're actually terrified.' The fear was genuine. I guess that's why you raised it in parliament because it's serious allegations and you're taking the word of somebody.

Is that why you raised it in parliament under privilege?

They can stand up and defend it at any time, and they're not.

Well, the Prime Minister, she is defending it. She said she's happy with the conduct of her senior staff.

All right. Well, that's her call to make, I suppose. I think that there will be a number of victims out there that would disagree with that completely.

You say you encouraged the victims or complainants to go to the police. Have any of them told you why they have not done that?

Look, it's their call, right? So, all the way through this, I have felt that they are incredibly smart, intelligent people that get to make a call on what they want to do next, and that that's not mine to make, right?

But you've laid out that option for them?

Yeah, absolutely. These are very serious allegations.

Absolutely.

And they should have the support to go to the police if that's what they wanted as well.

OK.

That's not the path that— Look, they wanted to keep this within the Labour Party. If they had been treated fairly and respectfully and appropriately from day one, then, obviously, we wouldn't be sitting here discussing it now.

Well, the process is underway now. Nigel Haworth has resigned; so has the staff who's at the centre of these allegations; and the QC is investigating. So, why not just step back now and let the process take its course?

Because the process is not taking it's course. We have not terms of reference. The victims were expected to sign up to the QC's investigation without even knowing what those terms of reference are. The Council themselves are deciding what they are. It's not truly independent, and they don't have faith in that. And I think we do have a job to now hold the Labour Party to account. They've completely botched this every step of the way. They need to get it right now for the victims.

What about the counter pointer, though? Wouldn't it be more ethical of you to stand back? And this is what Labour says, they say they never got involved when Jami-Lee Ross was making all kinds of allegations and there were stories coming out around Jami-Lee Ross, OK? And they stood back, and they did not get involved. They said that's up to the National Party to handle that. So, why are you dipping your toe in this one?

I think that the reason they stood back then was because they had their own mess that they knew was going on. And they did know that. I would not have come forward on this if the victims hadn't come to me, yeah? So, the victims came to me. They said every step of the way they have been shut down, they have been maligned. They feel like they have no voice and no one that's actually speaking for them.

OK.

And in that context, I really thought about it, Simon, to be fair, because it was a big call to make.

And I felt that me not sticking up for them and not speaking is me yet again having them being silenced.

Is it somewhat hypocritical for you as a deputy party leader to take that stance, when National's never released its own workplace culture review?

Our health and safety review is there. People can go and look at it.

The recommendations. You haven't actually released the report, though.

So, the whole recommendations are there. We've implemented them. We want to do and wanted to do better, so it's absolutely— You can't compare allegations of serious sexual assault that have gone through a whole process that have been covered up and actually been more about managing the communications around this than it has been really seeing it as victim-led.

If it's proven that the Prime Minister did know about the alleged details earlier than this week, what do you think should happen?

She absolutely can't stay in the job if that's the case. But that is a big step to make, because she has blatantly gone out there and said that she didn't.

OK. And if it's proven that she didn't know, are you going to apologise and say there wasn't a cover-up?

But there is a cover-up, because we've got the council that's covering up. We've already got a president that's had to resign because they've been covering it up. We've got Grant Robertson, who won't say what he knows. I think it's time they came clean. It's time they fronted up. Time they gave these victims a voice, quite frankly, not me. I would rather not be here this morning. I would much rather that they were truly standing up and saying what they know and making sure that they got the process right from here.

OK. Deputy leader of the National Party Paula Bennett, thank you for your time this morning.

Thank you.

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