Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s unprecedented criticism of Speaker Trevor Mallard yesterday followed a series of bitter exchanges between him and National MP Chris Bishop in the House on Tuesday night.
“The serious issue of alleged sexual assault and harassment at Parliament was poorly managed and inappropriately politicised last night,” Ardern said.
“Any investigation of claims of sexual assault should be in a manner that takes a victim-centric approach. It also needs to include principles of natural justice for the person allegations are made against.”
But though Mallard has admitted he was wrong to accuse a Parliamentary staffer of rape, Parliamentary Services is refusing to settle an unfair dismissal claim with the man who may yet face a court hearing, and it appears there may be others who are also guilty of sexual assault within the building.
Parliamentary Services has re-opened the investigation into the original complaint against the man and says it will take the matter to the Employment Court, and Mallard is suggesting that Parliamentary Services will have the results of a Police investigation to back its position up.
We still don’t know who the staffer was who was accused by Mallard, and we don’t know what section of Parliamentary Services they were employed in.
Nor do we know who the other complainants are, nor do we know what the nature of the sexual assaults was.
The saga began in November 2018 when Mallard appointed Debbie Francis to conduct a review of bullying in the Parliamentary workplace.
Francis had been Chief People Officer at the Defence Force and had experience conducting human resources reviews at a number of state sector organisations.
She reported in May 2019 saying that she had identified 11 cases of sexual assault on then-current Parliamentary staff.
“Three of the alleged incidents disclosed to me in interviews were in my view extremely serious, and some appeared to be part of a multi-year pattern of predatory behaviour,” she said.
Commenting on the report, Mallard told Morning Report that he interpreted “serious sexual assault” as rape.
He said from his reading of the report he believed there was one perpetrator and believed they still worked at Parliament, but he did not know who it was.
In short, he appeared to be saying a rapist was loose in Parliament.
National Deputy Leader, Paula Bennett, offered what in hindsight, must seem as a self-evident suggestion.
“I think there is a duty of care for Debbie Francis and the Speaker to have the police involved immediately so that those allegations can be followed up and the safety of the people working here be put first,” she said.
Mallard said that the review had been conducted with participants assured of their privacy.
“The complaints were made under the absolute condition that none of that would be passed on. You can’t have women come on that certain basis and make complaints and then totally betray their trust,” he said.
But Bennett said the safety of all women working in Parliament was at stake.
Bennett acknowledged people had come forward because they were promised anonymity, and she respected their continued right to privacy.
“But I also have concerns on behalf of people working here, that they feel that there is a known perpetrator of a crime, and they are feeling unsafe,” she said.
A member of the Parliamentary complex staff was almost immediately stood down as a consequence of the report.
His name remains suppressed, but he told Newstalk ZB journalist Barry Soper that he had not been interviewed by Francis and claimed the allegations against him related to an incident two years earlier when a staff member had complained, and those allegations were found to be unsubstantiated.
Mallard then said: “I don’t want to cut across any employment or possible police investigation, but I am satisfied that the Parliamentary Service has removed the threat to the safety of women working in the Parliamentary complex.”
This man has never been named, nor has his precise role in the complex ever been made public.
Nevertheless, he launched defamation proceedings against Mallard. These were resolved after mediation in December last year with a statement from Mallard.
“Trevor Mallard accepts that his understanding of the definition of rape at that time was incorrect and that the alleged conduct did not amount to rape (as that term is defined in the Crimes Act 1961) and that it was incorrect of him to suggest otherwise,” the statement said.
“Trevor Mallard apologises for the distress and humiliation his statements caused to the individual and his family.”
But then it transpired through written questions asked by the Opposition that the anonymous Parliamentary staffer had been paid $158,000 as an ex gratia payment.
A week later, a contrite Mallard appeared before a Select Committee, once again apologising for his comments.
“I’m acutely aware of the need for the Speaker to be above reproach,” he said.
“I made a mistake, and for that, I unreservedly apologise to the House and to New Zealanders.”
The General Manager of the Parliamentary Service, Rafael Gonzalez-Montero, told the Committee that the Parliamentary staffer who was the subject of the sexual assault allegations had a complaint laid against him in 2018.
He said there had been no sanctionable conduct found which would have stopped the staffer from continuing to work at Parliament, but the “process” was still open, and there was an extant claim by the staffer against the Service.
In the best of all possible worlds, that is where the whole matter might have rested.
But on March 10, Gonzalez-Montero was back before the same Committee and once again, sexual assault in the Parliamentary complex was on the agenda.
Gonzalez-Montero dropped a bombshell when he revealed that a month after the staffer had been stood down, in June 2019, he re-opened the investigation into the original complaint from 2018.
He then said he had been approached “by one of the complainants,” who was extremely upset about the rhetoric.
“And the question was, why is everybody interested in this person who created so much pain for us, but nobody is actually looking into what they did to us?” he said.
“Nobody has picked it up. Not the media. None of the members seem to be interested, they’re only interested in —“.
Gonzalez-Montero then confirmed that “there was more than one incident with more than one victim.”
Kieran McAnulty: “So just to be absolutely clear, there was more than one complaint?
McAnulty: “Therefore, is there more than one complainant?”
Gonzalez-Montero: “: There was, yes. There is more than one complainant, but the case that we are talking about here was one complaint. There have been other complaints, but they are separate to this complaint.”
Mallard clarified this in a debate on the Select Committee’s report.
“There are actually, as far as that individual (the staffer who was fired) is concerned, two complainants, and there are at least three separate incidents involving three separate women, and at least two perpetrators, of serious sexual assault,” he said.
Mallard and National MP Chris Bishop have continually clashed both in Parliament and on the hustings; Mallard defeated Bishop in Hutt South in 2014, and Bishop has maintained an almost constant attack against Mallard over his allowing the assault matter to go to a defamation settlement.
Tuesday night was Mallard’s first opportunity to respond in nearly two years.
“I do not agree with the characterisation that Mr Bishop has given that particular individual, and my comments that it ruined a person’s life, that I caused the heartbreak and agony for the complainant,” he said.
“I don’t believe the stuff that he posted on Facebook about destroying a man’s life.
“That man’s life was destroyed when he sexually assaulted a woman.
“That’s what did it.
“And I want to reiterate; I will support the woman, and what she said, I will support the investigation that found that he seriously assaulted her, and I will support the police—and I will support the police and their investigation and the results of that.”
Bishop replied: “When we look back on this period, a tawdry, sordid period, in this Parliament led by this disgrace of a Speaker, I think we will look back with shame.
“That 10-minute contribution from the Minister responsible for the Parliamentary Service will be probably the thing that sinks him as the Speaker.
“Because I do not believe anyone watching the Parliament tonight could look at that display of petulance and contempt and hate for both me and Parliament, actually, and consider that he is appropriate to continue in the role.”
Mallard went on to confirm that Parliamentary Services did not propose to settle with the departed staffer over his employment matter and was willing to take the matter to the Employment Court if necessary.
The other complaints have been referred to the Police, but it seems the complainants may not want to pursue them through the courts.
“When the police make a decision, I will believe that,” said Mallard.
“Now, that doesn’t make someone criminally guilty, but what it does, is give me the confidence to support the general manager in his decision.
“It’s not my decision; it’s his decision. (to not settle the employment matter but have it go to the Employment Court).
“But I will stand behind him when he says that the particular individual is not a fit and proper person to work here.”