In NZ politics, do expenses leaks matter more than sexual harassment?

Allegations raised today by four women about the conduct of rogue MP Jami-Lee Ross, and the response to complaints, send a bleak message to women in Aotearoa, writes Morgan Tait.

Remember that time a senior political figure was the subject of a long and sustained pattern of allegations of sexual harassment and abuse of women and barely anyone seemed willing to do anything about it?

No, I don’t mean Donald Trump. And I’m not talking about US Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh, either. I’m talking about the New Zealand member of parliament Jami-Lee Ross and the New Zealand National Party.

I’m talking about the new allegations from at least four New Zealand women that were revealed today. We can’t say for certain how much senior politicians knew, but several knew at least something of the allegations, and as far as we can see their response was to do something close to nothing.

The way the saga has played out, the sexual harassment allegations – the first of which we heard about from Ross in a pre-emptive denial on Tuesday – have been made to seem trifling in comparison to, say, leaking some expenses records. It all sends a great big message to the women of Aotearoa – once again – that their safety is worth less than a man’s reputation.

Newsroom this morning published accounts of four people that contrast sharply with Ross’s insistence that he has always been respectful to women. They say they have been harassed, manipulated, abused, and threatened by the rogue Botany MP for years in a string of extramarital affairs with the politician, as well as making allegations of workplace bullying.

The reporting, the result of a year-long investigation by Melanie Reid, alleged a pattern of behaviour in which Ross wooed women with ties to the National Party and its staff, “grooming” them for information and access to power, and making threats against their careers and families if they betrayed him.

One spoke of “brutal, misogynistic sex” and jealous rages, another detailed being embarrassed through rumours and lies, and they all shared fears for their personal and professional reputations – and even their safety.

At least one of the women says she was driven to seek medication for stress and anxiety.

Beyond these disturbing details, the women said they did not want to speak publicly for fear of harming the National Party, and told Newsroom they were speaking now in light of Ross’s comments this week that he “had never harassed a woman”.

One of the woman said she raised her concerns with members of the National Party leadership, “At the time, those people did what they felt they could to address the situation by discussing Jami-Lee’s behaviour with him,” she told Newsroom.

“Unfortunately Jami-Lee is a very manipulative individual and he had plenty of ways to continue to intimidate and undermine me without it being particularly obvious to the National Party leadership.”

If that account is true, the National Party knew there were allegations about Ross’s conduct, but it wasn’t enough to threaten Jami-Lee Ross’s role in caucus. It apparently took the leaking of information to media to set in motion the end of his career.

Bridges, when quizzed this morning about the Newsroom allegations, said he was “completely unaware” of any criminal matters and praised the women’s courage in speaking out, but said he was aware only of accusations of inappropriate conduct. His comments focused, however, on Ross’s deceit to him, and to the party; the behaviour towards the women was made to seem somehow incidental.

After everything #metoo has exposed about workplace cultures of power imbalances, protecting powerful men by minimising the experiences of victims, and blaming those victims for their own harassment and abuse – it shouldn’t need to be said, but …

Where was the investigation into this conduct by National? Were there reassurances to the people being interviewed that they could speak openly and honestly with investigators with no fear of career hindrance? Where was the announcement to the public that the inappropriate conduct was being taken seriously, a full review was under way, and any behaviour remotely close to what is being alleged is completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated?

And no, the remarks earlier this week by Paula Bennett about Ross’s “inappropriate behaviour for a married man” don’t count.

Pretty sure that’s not simply inappropriate, sweetie. If it’s true, it’s illegal.

National don’t have a monopoly in this area. The Labour Party’s handling of sexual assault allegations at a Youth Summer Camp were woeful. We should be able to expect far better of our political leaders.

New Zealand women deserve to be heard and have their words acted upon. They certainly don’t deserve to see a scandal playing out in which traumatic experiences appear to have been  used as leverage. They deserve representation in parliament by people who value their safety more than they do a man’s reputation.

Update: In a statement today, Jami Lee Ross said: “You will be interested I am sure in any comment on the Newsroom article. I make no comment on that. I am considering my legal options.


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