The Government's domestic woes continue this week even as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern continues to bask in the global limelight in New York. First there was the fallout from Derek Handley's released communications in the failed chief technology officer saga, then there were allegations in Parliament which reminded the public about the investigations regarding recently appointed Deputy Police Commissioner Wally Haumaha. Now, the Department of Internal Affairs is set to investigate how the draft report of the investigation into the Meka Whaitiri incident was leaked to the Herald.
Ardern yesterday described the leak as "hugely disappointing". The Herald yesterday published details from the draft report, which the Government had been holding back while Ardern said it worked to protect the privacy of the staffer involved. The draft report finds it was agreed Whaitiri did have words with her press secretary for not alerting her to a photo opportunity with the PM during a function in Gisborne. It showed the staff member was allegedly left with bruising to her arm. Photos of bruises were produced to the inquiry. Although Whaitiri denies touching the staffer, David Patten, the Wellington lawyer who conducted the inquiry, found on the balance of probabilities the staff member's version that she was grabbed was the more likely explanation of what happened between the two women.
That is damning - and clearly what led to Ardern's sacking of Whaitiri as a minister last Thursday, a day after seeing the draft report.
So why the ongoing secrecy? Of course privacy is important; the Herald has not identified the staffer involved, the Government could surely have redacted the relevant information just as speedily. For this matter is clearly in the public interest and voters deserved to know the details.
There is also the issue of appropriate behaviour in an elected representative. Some view the incident as minor. Labour's Maori caucus is standing by her. Former Labour Cabinet Minister and Waipareira Trust chief executive John Tamihere has told the Herald he would get his staff's attention in a similar fashion by touching their arm: "I don't see this woman as a thug." That's as may be, but MPs, let alone a minister, must be held to the highest standard. National has called the alleged incident potentially "assault". At the very least it raises questions about anger management and suitability for public office. And, for those who believe the alleged incident is minor, teachers now have stringent new rules that prohibit manhandling pupils.
The public had the right to know exactly why Whaitiri was stripped of one of her roles. It would still be helpful to know why she was deemed okay to remain the Maori caucus co-chair, or whether there was any thought of expulsion from the party. The latter move would seem unlikely, but it will be interesting to see if she remains a Labour candidate at the next election.
This Government has made repeated assurances it was going to usher in a new level of openness and transparency in public office. So far it appears what we are seeing is more obfuscation or delay tactics. Is inner-party politics at play? Whatever the case, there has been little evidence to date the Government is any more transparent than any other administration it seeks to better.