In Loco Parentis: The errors of judgement made by the event organisers, and then compounded by the party organisation’s leadership, have been well rehearsed over the past week. Too many participants under the age of 18; too much alcohol; too little supervision; too few people with the experience required to manage a serious crisis; too many party members desperate to avoid a scandal.
“WHAT WERE THEY THINKING!?” That’s the question which thousands of New Zealanders put to their families, friends, workmates and, of course, to themselves, when they learned what had happened at Labour’s 2018 summer school, held at the Waitawheta Camp near Waihi on 9-11 Februray.
The errors of judgement made by the event organisers, and then compounded by the party organisation’s leadership, have been well rehearsed over the past week.
Too many participants under the age of 18; too much alcohol; too little supervision; too few people with the experience required to manage a serious crisis; too many party members desperate to avoid a scandal.
And that was just for starters. Having been informed by four sixteen-year-olds that they had been sexually assaulted by an extremely drunk twenty-year-old male, the summer school organisers failed to either lay a complaint with the Police or inform the victims’ parents of what had happened to their children.
Even more astonishing was the revelation that the highly contentious decisions of the “first responders” were not immediately countermanded by the Labour Party’s General Secretary, Andrew Kirton. Not only was the senior administrative officer of the NZ Labour Party unwilling to involve the Police and the parents, but he was also unwilling to inform the leader of his party, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern!
It was only when Labour’s senior officials realised that the story was about to break in the news media, that any serious thought was given to how the country might react to the summer school scandal. The extent to which these officials failed to anticipate the public’s response is, politically-speaking, one of the most concerning aspects of the whole, sorry saga.
Instead of putting themselves in the shoes of the ordinary Kiwi parent of a teenage daughter or son and trying to imagine how they might feel about a political party which kept themselves, the cops and the Prime Minister – for goodness sake! – in the dark about their kids being sexually assaulted, the party organisation opted instead to frame its public response in terms of the victims’ right to determine what, if anything, should be done about the summer school incident.
The party’s senior officials did not believe they had the right to inform anyone about the events of 10 February without the consent of the young people directly affected. In taking this position, they were following the lead of doctors, counsellors and teachers who refuse to involve the parents of the young people who come to them seeking advice on sexual intimacy, contraceptives or, more rarely, the termination of unplanned pregnancies. According to Andrew Kirton, the party organisation was following the “victim-led” protocols of individuals and agencies who deal with sexual trauma on a daily basis.
Nor should it be forgotten that it was only a few years ago that the Labour Party membership came within a few votes of carrying a remit calling for the voting age to be lowered to 16. Should New Zealand parents be surprised that a political party which seriously considered allowing 16-year-olds to vote, decided to allow the four 16-year-old victims of the summer school incident to set the parameters within which the rest of the world would be granted access to their own, extremely personal, experiences?
By adopting this impeccably “progressive” stance, Andrew Kirton and his comrades have forced Labour back into the same perilous political position it took up to defend the so-called “anti-smacking” legislation.
Morally-speaking, that was unquestionably the right thing to do. Politically-speaking, it was the height of folly. Far too many of its working-class voters interpreted Labour’s stance on smacking as an implied criticism of the way they’d raised their kids.
On this issue, Labour seems to be saying: “We’re not going to tell you that some drunken creep has groped your daughter/son during an out-of-control party at one of our summer schools, because we don’t believe you have the right to be informed.”
In the words of the irrepressible editor of The Daily Blog, Martyn Bradbury:
“That position is utterly untenable to every single voting parent in NZ. And that this is the best excuse Labour could come up with since the event is a terrible blunder and political miscalculation. As the enormity of [Labour’s] defence sinks-in to every voting parent in the country, the backlash will grow and grow and grow.”
Jacinda Ardern simply cannot allow that to happen.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 March 2018.