Meka Whaitiri breaks silence, wants ministerial role back

Author
NZ Herald,
Section
Politics,
Publish Date
Sunday, 28 April 2019, 10:44AM
Meka Whaitiri lost her ministerial roles last year over bullying allegations. (Photo / NZ Herald)
Meka Whaitiri lost her ministerial roles last year over bullying allegations. (Photo / NZ Herald)

Former Government minister Meka Whaitiri has broken her silence about an incident last year in which she was accused of assaulting a staff member, resulting in her sacking as a minister.

The staff member, a press secretary, allegedly suffered bruising in the encounter with Whaitiri at an event attended by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Gisborne on August 27.

The staff member claimed Whaitiri came up behind her in the foyer of a building and grabbed her arm hard and took her outside when she saw Ardern having a press conference.

The alleged incident occurred at a Ngāti Porou summit also attended by ministers Kelvin Davis, Nanaia Mahuta, Carmel Sepuloni and Eugenie Sage, according to the ministerial media diary.

David Patten, a Wellington lawyer who conducted an inquiry for Ministerial Services, the employer of ministerial staff, found that, on the balance of probabilities, the staff member's version was the more likely explanation of events.

Whaitiri was suspended by Ardern as a minister on August 30 and sacked from her portfolios a month later after Ardern read the final report from Patten.

Whaitiri, in an interview with Turanga FM in front of whānau including her mother, continued to refute the claims.

"There was no altercation and there was no assault. I did not touch my staff member," she told Turanga FM.

"I growled her for not doing her job, but I didn't touch her."

Whaitiri sounded emotional as she recalled that she didn't have time to call her two sons and her mother to tell them beforehand and to assure them that she didn't do what she was accused of.

She recounted her version of events on August 27.

"We had the Prime Minister in Tairāwhiti, we had five Crown ministers. So I knew as the local MP it was going to be an exciting but a very busy day," Whaitiri told Turanga FM.

"I had a reasonably new staff member with me. She was about six days into her job, she'd never worked in Parliament. I was constantly looking for my staff member to ensure that she knew where to be."

Whaitiri said she had sat down for lunch with kaumātua and Ardern's partner and baby when she noticed other ministers leaving the hall.

She got up and could see through the doors that Ardern was having a stand-up press conference outside, "surrounded by all the ministers that had accompanied her, except me".

"As the local MP, as a Minister of the Crown, I immediately turned to try and find my staff member, whose role was to make sure I didn't miss those opportunities.

"Clearly I was disappointed that in my neck of the woods I had lost the opportunity to stand with the Prime Minister and my colleagues. I took her outside to show her the lost opportunity and to express to her, as I did, that this was her job."

Whaitiri said she did not raise her voice because she was in a public place.

"I didn't grab her as I'm alleged to have done, because we're in a public place and I don't grab staff."

Whaitiri said after they were finished at the hui, she took the staff member for a milkshake at a local cafe.

"Two days later I got a call from the Prime Minister's office; it completely blindsided me."

She said she was told the Prime Minister's office had received a complaint she had manhandled a staff member.

"I immediately said I absolutely refute those allegations."

Whaitiri's version of events is at odds with Patten's conclusion in his report.

"After giving careful consideration to this matter, it is my view that the explanation provided to me by Employee A is a more probable explanation as to what happened than the explanation provided to me by the Minister. That is, rather than the encounter between the two of them in the foyer being a face to face encounter as described to me by the Minister, the Minister in fact approached Employee A from slightly behind and grabbed Employee A by the arm," Patten said in the report.

Patten found that Whaitiri did not pull or drag the press secretary outside from the foyer of the building.

But he found it more probable that Whaitiri approached the staffer from behind and grabbed her by the arm and that Whaitiri spoke in a raised voice to the staffer.

Whaitiri remains the MP for the eastern Māori electorate of Ikaroa-Rawhiti and Labour's Māori MPs support in her as co-leader of the Labour Māori caucus.

Whaitiri denied she was a bully but said as a manager she had expectations of her staff.

She said she had done mindfulness courses and had counselling after the incident.

She said Ardern continued to support her.

"She made a decision based on the information available to her in the time she had available."

Whaitiri said she wanted her portfolios – Customs and associate Agriculture, Local Government and Crown-Māori relations – back.

"The fire is still burning inside me ... despite what happened last year."

 

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