To Protect and Serve: When the Prime Minister finds herself enmeshed in the coils of a full-blown political scandal, her colleagues and party comrades have only one priority: to release her as swiftly – and with as little lasting injury – as possible. Is this what Jacinda Ardern’s colleagues and comrades did? Over the course of the past eleven days, has the only cry rising from Labour’s ranks been: “Protect the King!” Or have the other pieces on the board been more concerned with finding excuses for their failure to do so?
“IN POLITICS, as in chess,” writes Richard Harman, “the ultimate objective must be to protect the King.” If only because the game of chess is, itself, a symbolic representation of politics, the veteran political journalist is unlikely to be mistaken.
Placed in its context, Harman’s dictum also rings true. When the Prime Minister finds herself enmeshed in the coils of a full-blown political scandal, her colleagues and party comrades have only one priority: to release her as swiftly – and with as little lasting injury – as they possibly can.
Is this what Jacinda Ardern’s colleagues and comrades did? Over the course of the past eleven days, has the only cry rising from Labour’s ranks been: “Protect the King!” Or have the other pieces on the board been more concerned with finding excuses for their failure to do so?
How much damage would the Prime Minister and the Coalition Government have avoided if, on the same day as The Spinoff article detailing an alleged sexual assault on one Labour member by another was posted, the Party President had assumed responsibility for an unsatisfactory in-house investigation and resigned?
And if, on that same day, the young man at the centre of multiple allegations of misconduct had relinquished his job in the Leader’s Office? Wouldn’t that have limited the damage still further?
The answer is, of course: “Yes, it would have lessened the damage considerably.” By delaying their departure from the board for so long, these two pieces allowed the King to be unnecessarily placed in check. Bishops and Knights should be made of sterner stuff.
Surely, however, “Protecting the King” means more than simply protecting a single individual – no matter how elevated her rank? Surely, when it’s a political party – a government – under discussion, then “Protecting the King” must be assigned a larger and much more enduring meaning? Viewed more broadly, shouldn’t the injunction “Protect the King” be understood to mean “protect that which is of absolute value”?
In the case of a Labour Party; in the case of a Labour Prime Minister; that can only be “Justice”. Justice for the complainant. Justice for the respondent. Justice unsullied by the pawing fingers of ambition. Justice untrammeled by fear. Justice, pure and simple.
Justice is the only King that must be protected at all costs.
That Labour; that a Labour Prime Minister; have proved unequal to the task of turning New Zealand’s justice system into a place where a young woman can be absolutely confident of being heard, supported and protected. A place where the search for evidence of her allegations is conducted by a police force with maximum rigor and minimum prejudice. A place where courtrooms are not turned into torture chambers for revictimizing and retraumatising rape victims all over again. A place where the rights of the accused are not transformed into weapons of reputational annihilation. That is the true scandal.
If, in February 2018, the young woman to whom The Spinoff has given the pseudonym “Sarah” had been living in a country whose justice system was characterised by all the above virtues, then she would not have hesitated to take her allegations of sexual assault to the nearest police station. If she, and thousands of women like her, felt no qualms about seeking and receiving justice from the courts, then institutions ill-designed for such a purpose – like small businesses and big corporations, government departments and political parties - would have no need to devise their own systems for delivering justice internally.
Had that confidence been there, then the young woman and the young man at the centre of this scandal would have been in the hands of professionals. Instead of being placed in the none-too-trustworthy care of politicians and journalists, their identities would have been protected by law. The determination of guilt or innocence would not have been the work of a score of hard-bitten political activists, but the verdict of a jury of twelve impartial citizens.
Seeing the dismay etched upon the features of the Prime Minister over the course of this past week is all the evidence I needed to acquit her entirely of blame for this scandal. Jacinda Ardern’s all-too-obvious consciousness of having failed not only the complainants, but, more broadly, all the women of New Zealand, is what I would expect of their “King” – and worth protecting.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 September 2019.