As the Labour party prepares to release the findings of an investigation into its handling of sexual assault allegations, another ex-volunteer, who approached The Spinoff after the publication of Sarah’s story, shares her experience. The Labour Party’s response follows.
I was heading home from work in March, 2016 when I saw my sexual assault in the news. The headline popped up on my phone when I was on the bus – no heads-up, no warning, nothing. To say that I wasn’t prepared for my story to play out in the media would be an understatement. I felt disgusting.
I went home and hid, unable to face going to work the next day.
I joined the Labour Party at 21 in 2011 because I was really sick of hearing all the benefit-bashing – I was unemployed at the time and really struggling financially. One day I realised that sitting around complaining wasn’t as useful as doing something about my situation. I volunteered for the 2011 election in Auckland and became heavily involved in Young Labour.
The party was awesome when I first joined. I met heaps of young people from around New Zealand and we felt really positive about the progressive change we were making. Young Labour Summer School was always a highlight, arriving every year before uni was due to start. It was a chance for us to decide what policies we wanted to focus on for the rest of the year, elect new party presidents and, of course, socialise.
This particular year, 2015, there were more than 100 people from Young Labour in attendance. It was hosted at Victoria University in Wellington, and it was a big deal. Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson were going to be there, and there were a broad range of speakers and guests that funneled in and out of the student union building over the two day event.
When we weren’t at Summer School, we were drinking. Although I am sure it’s common across all young political parties in New Zealand, I believe Young Labour has a particularly bad drinking culture. We were even banned from one of the local halls that we used to hire during events for being too rowdy. On this particular night, we had been out for a big group dinner and then ended up at someone’s flat close to town. I was definitely drunk, but I remember everything.
I’d known the guy for a while through Young Labour stuff – he was another volunteer – so I didn’t find it weird when he came over and sat on my lap in the lounge. At first I just thought it was nice, but then that changed. He was very tall and imposing and quickly wrapped his arms around me so I couldn’t really move. He started groping my breasts and trying to kiss me in the chair, even though I kept saying no.
The feeling of fear and adrenaline kicked in just as my friend nearby saw what was going on and pulled him off me. He was kicked out of the party. I went and hid in a bedroom, scared to go back into the party in case he came back.
The next morning, I blamed myself for what happened. I was drunk, I told myself, and it wasn’t really like he did anything. But he did. I didn’t want him touching me, I told him that, and he didn’t stop. It scared me that it would probably have been way worse if someone didn’t pull him off. If my friend hadn’t been there – I don’t know what would have happened. Thankfully, one of my friends took me aside and told me “that wasn’t nothing, that was sexual assault”.
I didn’t tell anyone senior in Labour about it because I was focussed on staying away from him. A part of me also wanted to do what was best for the party. He was a Young Labour volunteer, just like me, and I didn’t feel like it was important enough to cause a fuss. Also a (now-ex) friend said “no-one would want to sexually assault you” when I told them what had happened. My body image was bad enough at that time, so to have that verbalised really upset me.
As my mental health started to get worse, I went to see a counsellor at my university. She minimised my experience further, highlighting the fact that I was drunk and that there wasn’t any penetration, so the police wouldn’t even be able to help if I ever wanted to press charges. That made things a whole lot worse and I started to have really bad anxiety. Before any Young Labour event, I would have my friends check the guest list to see if he was going to show up.
Based on those early experiences in the aftermath of the incident, and my allegiance to the party, I didn’t tell anyone at the party anything until March 13, 2018. The news of the Summer Camp sexual assaults had just broken, and I was feeling overwhelmed. But I wanted people to know that it wasn’t a one-off, it wasn’t even unusual. The party needed to know it had happened before, so they could make changes. I sent the email to Andrew Kirton the same day.
To his credit, Kirton contacted me really quickly and didn’t press for any details, offering nothing but support and counselling. I told him I was drunk when it happened and he emphasised the point that it didn’t change my experience. His immediate response wasn’t the problem, but I was sickened by what happened next. By the end of that same day, less than 12 hours after I emailed Kirton, my story had been front-footed in the media by the party.
“Second sexual assault allegation surfaces for Labour Party,” the headline read, less than 12 hours after I sent the first email to Kirton.
I hadn’t had any warning, I wasn’t prepared in the slightest. They didn’t use my name or any identifying details, and Kirton had been responding to journalists’ questions, but that didn’t change how it made me feel. When I got off the bus after seeing the headline on my phone, I arrived home to my concerned mum saying there had been allegations of another Labour sexual assault that had emerged. That’s when I had to tell her that it was my story everyone was talking about.
After the initial contact, I was put in touch with Maria Berryman, who was running the review into the Summer School allegations. We began emailing to arrange a time to talk, but she went quiet for two months before getting back in touch to say she had “only just relocated my email”. I felt like nobody cared about me. I told her I was going overseas for a few weeks and she put the onus on me to get back in touch when I returned.
When I got that final email, I felt like nothing was going to happen unless I really pushed for it. I gave up – until now.
I know that rape culture is not unique to the Labour Party. I imagine this happens across all political parties that have built themselves up as a boys club, but I think it is important to talk about how those processes made me feel. I was left feeling like I was a second thought, as if protecting the party and controlling public perception was more important than anything else. Nobody has ever followed up with me after I made those initial complaints.
Of course, the issues here go beyond the Labour party. This is about rape culture. In the aftermath of the assault I was made to feel by multiple people like I wasn’t the right victim. People made me feel that I didn’t act the right way or look the right way. My trauma was minimized, people questioned whether it was the “right” kind of assault, as if it wasn’t bad enough for me to complain about or feel the lasting trauma of.
Even two years later, the trauma is still there. I carry this fear now of being trapped, of not being able to escape to somewhere safe. A while ago I was with a male friend who reached his arm across to grab something that was near me, and I totally freaked out and burst into tears. I have this fight or flight instinct built into me now but, in the moment, I just hadn’t processed it. I haven’t seen the man in several years, and I have since left the Labour party.
I don’t think I could ever go back to the Labour party. It doesn’t feel to me like a safe or inviting place where victims are offered a voice. At my core, I still believe in left wing politics, but not at the cost of people’s safety. I joined the Labour party because I wanted to make a difference, and I didn’t speak out about my story for so long because I didn’t want to hurt them. But now I just want survivors to know that they are not a bother and they are not an insignificance.
It’s still so important to me that young people are encouraged to get involved in politics and for that to be a safe space for them. I’m fearful in speaking out now, but it’s not fair for me to carry this weight alone.
As told to Alex Casey
A response from Labour Party President Claire Szabo
“An individual emailed the former general secretary on March 13 2018 about an historic alleged assault. They did not set out the nature of the assault.
“He spoke to the individual and it was agreed they would speak to Maria Austen, who was undertaking the review into the Labour Summer Camp. I understand they had a conversation with Maria Austen, but that the issue wasn’t pursued further.
“Any incident of sexual assault is distressing and unacceptable. I’m committed to doing all I can to ensure that is not people’s experience in the party, and when incidents do occur we exhibit excellence and best practice in the handling of them. I accept that hasn’t always been the case in the past.
“We’ve implemented a number of changes since this incident. We’ve put in place the recommendations of the Austen report, there’s now professional support offered to victims who raise issues with us, policies have improved and we’re training leaders in the party on how to handle complaints – we did this as recently as our conference on the weekend.
“With these changes in mind, and with our commitment to doing better, we would welcome this person, or anyone else, to contact us and use our current processes to help find resolution on this issue.”
A response on the complaint being mentioned in the media
“On the same day the general secretary received the allegation via email he was interviewed on RadioLIVE and was asked a direct question about whether he was aware of any other complaints or issues of a similar nature to what had occurred at the Summer Camp.
“He answered that he knew of one other, but was vigilant in protecting the privacy of the person concerned. He provided no details that could be used to identify them and gave no details of their allegation. He felt not to answer the question accurately would have diminished the complainant’s experience and he didn’t want to lie.”
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