The Sutton debacle

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: it’s not a good thing, except when you’re playing Frank Zappa’s 1988 instrumental album Guitar, in which case ‘Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’ is the opening track, and it’s a stonker. However, setting aside the brilliance of Frank Zappa, when one hears that someone is about to resign due to sexual harassment claims that have been upheld and substantiated, all sorts of icky things come to mind.

Roger Sutton’s press conference of a few days ago undoubtedly therefore seemed like a great idea at the time to him. He talked of hugs, off-colour jokes and calling women “honey” and “sweetie”. It was calculated to minimise the damage, instilling in people’s minds the image of a harmless, ever-so-slightly flawed, olde world boss, struck down by the forces of modern feminism.

I for one initially heard the soundbites from the press conference and thought that the whole thing sounded like a storm in a teacup. I considered all of the female colleagues over the years who’ve called me “darling”, “hon”, “sweet” and the like (and indeed the female colleagues who do indeed still call me such terms of endearment!): it never worried me. I thought, “I too am a hugger! What’s wrong with a hug?” In short, I sympathised with Mr Sutton’s position.

But of course the worm very quickly began to turn. Other senior female CERA staff made anonymous statements, asking whether anyone was really so stupid as to believe that hugs, jokes, “honey” and “sweetie” were the beginning and end of the matter. Details of Mr Sutton’s misconduct began to leak: asking female staff to engage in visible g-string Fridays (which reminds me of the secretary who resigned from a well-respected Central Auckland law firm after one of the partners began pondering the efficacy of upgrading Casual Friday to No Pants Friday…) and asking who they’d want to have sex with.

And of course there’s the issue of Mr Sutton breaching confidentiality with his press conference, while the victim remained gagged.

Now, former National Party MP and current Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Jackie Blue has waded into the debate. She’s sent a strong letter to State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie, querying his handling of the complaint against Sutton, and expressing concern about “the chilling effect on future complaints arising from the current situation”.

The Sutton press conference has now resulted in Sutton’s exit from CERA being brought forward by two months, and his actions are now being analysed in far greater detail than they would have had he simply gone quietly.

Whether Iain Rennie survives remains to be seen. The SSC is under attack from all sides, with allegations that the initial inquiry into Sutton was mishandled and that other allegations against Sutton had been swept under the carpet. That’s in addition to the outrage over the SSC providing a platform for Sutton to breach confidentiality, by organising the resignation press conference.

The Sutton debacle has provided an immediate platform for new Labour leader Andrew Little, who was grabbing the opportunity with both hands, providing suitably pithy soundbites yesterday afternoon. With Sutton remaining in his CERA job until 1 December, and with Rennie thus far refusing to fall on his sword, Sutton’s downfall seems likely to provide ammunition to the opposition for some time to come.



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