The case of the latest MP in trouble shows once again how perilous it is to risk becoming an MP -- and how party selection processes militate for MPs who are 'safe', to the detriment of democracy

The breaking story that one of Labour’s young high fliers is currently subject to police investigation has been top of the New Zealand news over the last 24 hours, notwithstanding a new war, earthquakes and nuclear alarm.

Regardless of the actual circumstances surrounding the police inquiry, I cannot help but feel tremendous sympathy for Darren Hughes, who has always struck me as an intelligent, competent, courteous and hard working MP.

He has a wicked sense of humour too, something much appreciated by fellow MPs – and I’m sure the press gallery as well – during the longueurs of the average sitting day.

I have no more idea than anyone else in the public arena about what happened on the night of March 2.

However, I think this sad incident – because it will be sad, whatever happens, for the young man involved, and for Darren – is also an object lesson in how hard it is to become – and remain – a member of Parliament and retain any sense of reality and connection to ordinary life.

There is a two-stage process in operation here.

The first step lies with your own party’s selection procedures. I imagine most parties are the same, in attempting to weed out people who have unfortunate backgrounds or predilections before they ever hit the party list or electorate selection processes.

Mistakes of various sorts do happen, the strange case of Act’s David Garrett perhaps being the most visible in recent times – but on the whole, some fairly stringent gatekeeping occurs, even among that most liberal-thinking of parties, the Greens.

It’s true that a few of us with what one might call visibly ‘interesting’ backgrounds snuck through in the watershed 1999 election – Georgina Beyer for Labour, and Nandor Tanzcos and myself for the Green Party – but looking back, I think we were the exception, rather than a sign of even more progressive things to come.

While parties have made some rather odd selections in the period since then, and have had to live with some rather bizarre outcomes, on the whole, I think safety and respectability are once again the norm.

The second stage in the process happens as new MPs gradually realise and try to come to terms with the constraints of a life lived under the public microscope.

From drinking, spending and sexual mishaps through to one’s family life or lack of it, through to the wilder exploits of one’s children, journalists await with interest anything which will break the tedium of reporting on the complexities of legislation, select committees and budgets.

Even worse, the interest continues even after you leave Parliament, depending exponentially on how well known you are.

Having lived in the fishbowl for some time myself, and in the light of Darren Hughes’ current predicament, I’d like to offer just a few reflections:

  • I believe democracy would be better served if wemedia, public, and political partieswere a little more tolerant of peoples’ foibles and imperfections. If we only want people who have never deviated from a safe ‘norm’ to represent us, most of the population will in fact be unrepresented.
  • Next time you attack the level of MPs’ salaries, give some thought to the very real tradeoffs they make in terms of risk to their own and their family’s privacy and wellbeing.
  • One of the reasons women are often less willing to seriously stand for Parliament than men is that we are less confident than our male counterparts that things we’ve done (or have happened to us) in the past won’t come to light in a way that will impact harmfully on ourselves and those closest to us once we’re out there in the public arena.
  • For people who deviate from perceived ‘norms’ and are in a less privileged position, whether through gender, sexuality, disability, ethnicity, economic background or anything else, Parliament can be a place of great vulnerability. The fact that media attention can follow you even after you leave only extends the risk – Georgina Beyer’s story is an example of this.

It is human nature to have a prurient interest in the lives of others, especially when those people are in positions of comparative wealth and power.

I don’t blame the media or anyone else for this – it’s part of what we are as humans.

However, I would ask for a little more reflection and empathy at times from those who are the first to criticise those delectable falls from grace among our elected representatives.

If we expect only perfection, we will end up only with MPs who do not understand the reality of the muck and murk in which most of us actually live our lives.

Comments (19)

by Richard Aston on March 24, 2011
Richard Aston

Good on you Sue for calling on us all to take a wider and wiser view of public figures and their foibles.

It’s a tricky one though isn’t it? Personality politics is endemic at times among our political leaders. They are not always good role models for a more open acceptance of individual “falls from grace”.

You say “It is human nature to have a prurient interest in the lives of others, especially when those people are in positions of comparative wealth and power.”

I think it runs deeper than prurient when it comes to our leaders. I think its human nature to want to venerate others, to see our potential reflected in the light of public star. We all need something, someone, to aspire to, to stretch our own horizons – our limitations.

So when the golden one turns out to be just as flawed as we all are – our disappointment often turns to harsh judgement.

The trap as I see it is we come to believe the object of our veneration, our worship, is the good, is the brave, is the holy and not just a reflection of what lies hidden in us. We get caught up in our own projections.

And I do think many leaders work those projections to their own advantage, “trust me I am heroic in my goodness, what ever I say can be trusted to be for your good” okey dokey John comes to mind.

Your challenge is a good one though. I think the level of our compassion to other’s failings is a mark of a good society.

by Andin on March 24, 2011
Andin

There's an old old saying from some book, something about "let he(typical patriarchal beginning) who is without sin, caste the first stone".

Or something like that. But who pays any attention to old books these days. Some just venerate its just cause its old, others want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Hey thats another old saying isnt it? Or have I modified it....

Hi Sue.

by Tim Watkin on March 24, 2011
Tim Watkin

Another saying from the good book is "to whom much is given, much will be expected". I'm a big fan of that one, and so I find this issue tricky, as Richard says.

Isn't it reasonable to expect those who represent and lead us to be of sound judgment, to be the best of us? On the other hand, I hear what you're saying about our representatives to be real and grounded and sympathetic to life's failings.

Are the two mutually exclusive?

Another question – too much, too soon? As someone who did a lot else before entering parliament, Sue, do you think it healthy for folk to enter parliament so young? There are now a handful of MPs Hughes' age.

 

by Penny Bright on March 24, 2011
Penny Bright

The last time I remember seeing 'MAN ON THE MOON' headlines in election year over an unproved allegation, was the corporate media attack on Winston Peters and NZ First in 2008.

In 2008 - it worked.

The constant slinging of political mud at the wall stuck, and NZ First failed to achieve the 5% party vote.

Complaints made to both the Police and SFO (to discredit Winston Peters and NZ First), came to nothing, but the HUGE and continuing fuss accompanying the allegation and complaints left its mark on the voting public.

(Unlike my complaint to both the Police and SFO in 2008, at a similar time, over John Key's, (in my view) corrupt attempt to flush out commercially sensitive information about Tranz Rail at a time he had an undisclosed pecuniary interest in this 'matter before the House'.

Although I followed up  with taking a private prosecution - there was not ONE sentence about any of the above in the NZ Herald.)

What a prize this would be!

Getting rid of a promising young Labour MP and undermining Phil Goff for  standing by him?

Hmmmm.... I smell a political rat the size of an elephant.

Is this how democracy works in 'clean, green NZ' - 'perceived to be the least corrupt country in the world'?

We get the Government the majority of big business want us to have - through corporate media manipulation such as that which is happening now with Darren Hughes?

Penny Bright
Public Watchdog
http://waterpressure.wordpress.com

by Hamish Stewart on March 24, 2011
Hamish Stewart

" It’s true that a few of us with what one might call visibly ‘interesting’ backgrounds snuck through in the watershed 1999 election – Georgina Beyer for Labour, and Nandor Tanzcos and myself for the Green Party – but looking back, I think we were the exception, rather than a sign of even more progressive things to come.

While parties have made some rather odd selections in the period since then, and have had to live with some rather bizarre outcomes, on the whole, I think safety and respectability are once again the norm."

I rather suspect that you are on the money Sue and that is a shame. You and I would disagree on a lot of issues but " respectability " is a relative term and resspectable MP's  won't push boundries. MMP gave us that.

I have commentted on AG's blog about the substantive issue you have covered.

by Andin on March 24, 2011
Andin

"Another saying from the good book is "to whom much is given, much will be expected". I'm a big fan of that one,"

Well its a crap book really, and are people given stuff?

Or do we have to be kinda liberal in the interpretation?

by Tim Watkin on March 24, 2011
Tim Watkin

Of course people are given stuff. Are all people born equal in wealth, talent, opportunity, height, intelligence, health, EQ, opportunity, contacts...? Of course not.

by stuart munro on March 25, 2011
stuart munro

 a little more reflection and empathy at times from those who are the first to criticise those delectable falls from grace among our elected representatives.

Ultimately, NZ has been moving away from the centre for a generation. We used to be a relatively homogenous bunch, but now more and more of us are outsiders. And those who presently retain access to the relatively privileged positions (excepting of course in the matter of privacy) want consideration of their feelings? While the country is underperforming so badly half of us have had to leave it?

 The shaming of those who fail us is almost the only sanction the public have left. It's like Bollard's cash rate button - he's going to push it just to assure himself he still exists. No bread -therefore circuses.

by Andin on March 25, 2011
Andin

"Are all people born equal in wealth, talent, opportunity, height, intelligence, health, EQ, opportunity, contacts...? Of course not."

Not by god tho' a small but significant point. And I wouldnt use the word "given" as much as, "born into..".

"born with....." or "inherited"

And I think its IQ...

by Rob Hosking on March 25, 2011
Rob Hosking

Sue,

Aren't you conflating two quite different issues here: that is (a)  what someone might have done before they got into Parliament and (b)what they do when they get there?

Hughes isn't in trouble because of an 'interesting' backdground: he's in trouble because as an MP he went on the piss with a bunch of students and something (as yet unconfirmed) happened.

And can I just take this opportunity to say that not all journalists "await with interest anything which will break the tedium of reporting on the complexities of legislation, select committees and budgets."

Given the choice between grubby personal stuff and writing about budgets, give me fiscal policy any time.


by Penny Bright on March 25, 2011
Penny Bright

What do folk think about these related issues?

1) 'Privacy' vs 'transparency' for MPs elected to public office.

When do we put a cover over the 'fishbowl'?

Where should the line be drawn?

Video-camers in MPs bedrooms?

Presumably "NO"!

Ok - so where should the line be drawn?

2) What about MP's conduct which is not 'criminal' - but arguably 'inappropriate'?

In the absence of an enforceable 'Code of Conduct' for NZ MPs, can we rely upon MPs to exercise 'common sense' and good judgment, when arbitrary guidelines exist inside their own individual heads, and are thus as variable as they are invisible?

3) Isn't it time for NZ - 'perceived,' along with Denmark and Singapore, to be the least corrupt country in the world (according to the 2010 Transparency International 'Corruption Perception Index'), to have a 'Code of Conduct' for MPs - with clear guidelines and sanctions for breaches thereof?

______________________________________

More information to hopefully aid the debate and discussion?

Further to the pivotal matter of the presumption of innocence before being PROVEN guilty, is the contradiction between an individual's lawful right to privacy, in matters concerning their 'private life', and the public's right to 'transparency' regarding those elected to public office:

1) 'Privacy' vs 'transparency':

Individuals are lawfully entitled to privacy, regarding their private lives.

Individuals who obtain public office, are expected to fulfill their public duties in an 'open, transparent and democratically accountable' manner.

Where is the line drawn, when an individual becomes an MP?

Does an MP have NO right to privacy, in ALL matters concerning his or her private life?

Where does 'privacy' start and 'transparency' stop for an MP?

Arguably, the line demarcating where public office stops and private life begins, is somewhat blurry, and fraught for MPs?

Isn't it high time for an enforceable 'Code of Conduct' for MPs, to help give some guidance on this troubled matter?

Obviously, action or behaviour proven to be criminal, is totally unacceptable, and the full weight of the law should be brought to bear down heavily upon any transgressors.

However, what about 'conduct' or behaviour' of MPs which is arguably 'inappropriate' as opposed to 'criminal'?

Again - where are the 'open, transparent and democratically accountable' guidelines
for the 'conduct' of MPs?

One might hope that those elected to public office in the 'highest court in the land', would have generous helpings of 'commonsense' to assist them in such judgment calls.

However - it would appear that given the number of MPs who have been 'demoted' or forced to leave, because of conduct effectively deemed 'inappropriate' - that leaving arbitrary guidelines inside the heads of our elected representatives, is not good enough, and is simply not working.

It is clearly time for NZ to have a legally enforceable 'Code of Conduct' for our MPs - with clear guidelines, and sanctions for breaches thereof.

In my view - this issue deserves intelligent and considered debate.

Penny Bright
Public Watchdog
http://waterpressure.wordpress.com

by Tim Watkin on March 26, 2011
Tim Watkin

Andin, there's both IQ and EQ.

Given Hughes has now resigned, you think that's the right approach?

by Sue Bradford on March 26, 2011
Sue Bradford

Thanks to all of you for the interesting feedback and queries - a few responses:

Richard - You raise a really good point about  the way in which people venerate leaders - & want to be able to venerate them - another human need which I think is as old as time.  We want them to be special, to be above criticism, to have no failings - but of course, as those of you quoting the Bible point out, it is a case of 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone.'

For the 'leader' It's a tough place to be - 'followers' who suddenly find that their leader's feet are made of clay are often the most rabid in their hatred for their erstwhile hero/ine.  This is why I think humility, being prepared to admit to mistakes,  and keeping in touch with the realities of life for most people  are key virtues of leadership.

Tim - you ask if it's reasonable to expect that leaders exercise sound judgement ?  My answer - of course.  We can and should expect a lot from MPs, and from others in leadership roles - I'm not arguing that we lower the bar in terms of expecting MPs to work hard, to have integrity, to represent their party well etc.  I just felt that in the wake of the current sad situation for Darren and the young man affected, it was worth making a few points about  a) what it's like from the MP's side, and b) my concern that it's becoming harder and harder for people who deviate from some kind of 'respectable' norm to make it into Parliament at all.

Re Tim's question about people possibly entering Parliament when they're too young -   I don't think it's so much age, as  I think it's great that young people do get their voices and interests heard directly in Parliament - rather  that often the people who make the strongest contribution are those who have had reasonably substantial life experience, know what life is like for others than those who are just like them, and who have achieved something in the wider community before entering Parliament.

Stuart talks about shaming being the only sanction left vs MPs who fail - where does that leave voting?  and engagement with political parties and extraparliamentary political processes - the various levers of democracy?

Rob - you're absolutely right about my conflating several issues in the column... I did this partly because I didn't want to go into questions re Darren's guilt or innocence at all, but instead wished to reflect on a few related issues from a perspective others may not be offering at present.

And I'm delighted that you'd rather deal with the real stuff of parliament  - in fact I've got heaps of respect for the gallery and political journalists as I know  you wouldn't be there if you weren't deeply interested in the detail of it all.  But I also know how the reality of how boring some of it can be ...for journalists and MPs alike.

Finally - Penny - thanks for your thoughts re a possible code of conduct, and for all your related work on trying to bring about greater transparency and accountability  - all good stuff.

Now Darren has resigned - my  take on this is that it's simply a pity that Phil Goff didn't just accept when Darren first offered.

 

 

by Andin on March 27, 2011
Andin

"Given Hughes has now resigned, you think that's the right approach?"

Well we'll slowly find out what his crime was. He, I'm sure, will maintain his innocence. It is of a sexual nature, was it rape or attempted rape? If it was he will pay the price no doubt. As he should, protestations of innocence and all. He still has a long life ahead of him, and I guess we depend on the workings of his own conscience as to whether he learns from it. And to me that is as it should be. And he should be made painfully aware of any grief he caused the other person.

Is an extra burden placed on him, of course. We live virtually in each others pockets now, and we are still subject to all type of urges that are out of place in such a world. And he was in the fishbowl of politics (our supposed modern saviours). So I will now just step away from the debate, and let time run its course and events will play out. I won't follow with keen interest, tho I'm sure we will be kept informed of events.

How's that, philosophically vague enough!

Just a question was he appointed by Helen C? Or something like that.

Sue, the last time I tried to contact you was the day you resigned from the parliament. Hope you have had a good break away.

by stuart munro on March 27, 2011
stuart munro

 shaming being the only sanction left vs MPs who fail - where does that leave voting?  and engagement with political parties and extraparliamentary political processes - the various levers of democracy?

Voting is a pretty opaque process, given that a diverse public need to send several possibly conflicting messages through a single indicator.

Parties do not engage with their constitutencies so much as with their interest groups - a tiny fraction of the people who ought to be represented.

Like many other human institutions, democracy depends on sincere efforts to support the preferences and interests of citizens. NZ's long malaise is indicative of a lack of sincerity and engagement with the actual issues that trouble our citizens. Egypt has been having the same problem.

by animalspirit on March 28, 2011
animalspirit

As one who has experienced a malicious complaint made by another business to ruin mine - such behaviour does happen here in dear old NZ  and is worth adding to the list of possibilities!    There was never any "crime" so why the assumption here?   It took two years to meander through the courts and that's plenty of time to stuff up a business and a reputation ..........

by Hesiod on April 04, 2011
Hesiod

 

what this is all about is the danger of political nepotism combined with sexual politics.

Hughes got the easy ride because he was groomed by judy keall and then began to think he was above any and all restricitions on his behaviour.

Now that politics has become like the USA where the meejah is obsessed with personalities and not policies then sooner or later anybody with abnormal drives or proclivitys is going to be exposed.

It is said that Hughes was a parliamentarian rather than a politician so his going will be no loss  to any one really because it is impossible to point to any personal achievements.

Just being there is not enough.

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