Len Brown's mistake was in making it impossible for us not to know he made it. We need more from our politicians.

So there's been a (shock! horror!) revelation that a late-fifties man who fills an office of some power and public attention has had an affair with a (much) younger woman who felt a frisson of excitement at the relationship's illicit nature and was flattered by the attention that he lavished on her. Then, after the affair ended, she apparently has become somewhat bitter about the whole experience, and has chosen to layout its details in a somewhat sordid fashion. And now we're all sharks feeding off that chum, whether we like it or not.

In other words, the thing that has happened countless times before has happened again. So is there anything really new or interesting we can say about it?

Probably not. But seeing as everyone else is talking, here's my ten cents worth.

First, the very fact that this story is such a cliche ought not to lead us to deny the very real human hurt behind it. Living in the reflected glare of a man who (albeit for good intentions) seeks the public spotlight must be hard. Having to suffer through the pain of famial betrayal and exposed lies whilst that spotlight continues to shine must be near intolerable. And for all I know, the behaviour of Bevan Chuang may also be covering a deep hurt at the loss of a relationship she actually treasured.

These are real people, not just names in the newspaper. That matters. 

Second, Len Brown has fallen short of the standard of behaviour I'd like to see in a public official, in that he gave way to temptations he ought to have been able to resist. I don't by any means think those in public power ought to be ascetic saints, who turn their backs on all the delights the world has to offer. For instance, the regular tut-tutting over Ministerial travel bills and parsing of expense claims often degenerates into  puritanical silliness. And sure, the heart wants what the heart wants, so we shouldn't be too quick to judge other people's sexual peccadillos.

But for all that, when you're the mayor of New Zealand's largest city and have the added responsibility of being a husband and father, to pursue a lengthy affair in circumstances where it's almost inevitable that your actions will become general knowledge displays either an unattractive hubris or a disappointing lack of plain common sense. Serving the public means being able to think through the consequences of your actions and sometimes saying "no" to things that you really, really want. 

With those caveats in place, here's why Len Brown will stay on as mayor of Auckland.

The most important reason is that he wants to. Whatever damage the affair (and its subsequent revelation) have wrought in his private life, he isn't even saying that he'll take time to consider his public position. So there will be no voluntary stepping down to spend more time with the family in this case.

Furthermore, the Council that he leads is not going to push him out - either by formal means (although there's probably no way that it could do so, anyway) or through an informal removal of confidence and support. On nine-to-noon today, Katherine Ryan canvassed the views of a number of the Council's heavy hitters: Penny Hulse, Penny Webster, George Wood and Arthur Anae. The closest she could get any of them to saying that Brown should step down was George Wood's claim that it was a matter for Brown to consider himself ... but the affair wouldn't stop him doing the job of Mayor. The other three were unhesitatingly supportive of Brown continuing.

If that's as harsh as the criticism of Brown gets (and remember, as the titular leader of the old Citizens and Ratepayer's bloc, Woods is one of Brown's main opponents), then he's going to be able to stay on.

And that is a good thing, too. For all Brown's actions were dumb at a public level and sad at a private one, this shouldn't be a sacking offence. Len Brown as a political figure isn't any different today than he was yesterday morning, before the story started getting reported.

So what, then, if anything do we learn from this sorry saga?

Public figures need to understand that the way things work in New Zealand has changed. Now that blogs can set the news agenda, and bloggers of limited ethical capacity control those blogs, the portals of publicity have been considerably widened.

As such, the "what will this look like if it's on the front page of the paper?" question needs to be asked in a whole lot more situations. Which means that public figures need to start being even more discreet and calculating than they were before.

That isn't (just) a call for greater hypocrisy on the part of our political leaders. It's a recognition of a new rule of political life. We want you to have private lives, in which you can be human beings (with all the foibles and missteps that that brings). But the walls around those public lives are now a lot lower, with a whole lot more people trying to peer over them. 

So, please - for your sake and ours - make it possible for us not to know.

Comments (10)

by Andrew Osborn on October 16, 2013
Andrew Osborn

Whilst I personally don't care about Brown's sexual behaviour either way, consider this thought experiment:

If this revelation had been made public two weeks ago, would he now be mayor?



by Ross on October 16, 2013
Ross

Now that blogs can set the news agenda, and bloggers of limited ethical capacity control those blogs, the portals of publicity have been considerably widened.

No doubt you weren't referring to this blog when you wrote that!

But since you raised the issue, has Whaleoil behaved unethically here?

by Tim Watkin on October 16, 2013
Tim Watkin

Len Brown as a political figure isn't any different today than he was yesterday morning, before the story started getting reported.


I agree with most of that Andrew, but not this line. He's most certainly a changed political figure – even the fact a few vox poppers said they no longer trust him proves that. He's politically less powerful than he was because his mana is diminished, his chances of a third term are hurt, and he's going to waste time and effort and public attention getting through this when he could have been build a tunnel. Thousands (thought possibly at the low end of that, who knows?) who voted for him now want him gone... he's completely different.

by Tim Watkin on October 16, 2013
Tim Watkin

Andrew, that's a core question. The best we can ever say is "probably". And that's a real problem for Brown.

Ross, yes. Not the story per se, but the way it was told. And we haven't heard Chuang's side yet or got to grips with how it came to light.

by Andrew Geddis on October 17, 2013
Andrew Geddis

@Andrew,

Sure - it's a "don't know". In part, it depends on when the story broke - if it had been at the start of 2013, I think Brown would have been OK. If it had broke in the midst of the election campaign, then maybe not. But you don't get an election result based on "might have beens" ... it is what it is.

@Ross,

I wasn't referring to all of this blog. Just some contributors to it. I'll leave you to guess which ones ... .

As for the rest, what Tim said.

@Tim,

Well, we'll see. Shane Jones, remember, was politically diminished by his "porn on the public purse" behaviour ... until he wasn't. I accept the two examples aren't completely analogous, in that Jones could pull out the "red blooded male" card in a way that saintly Len can't. But there's a potentially powerful narrative of fall, repentence and redemption open to him here - especially now his children are coming out to back him, whilst his accusers are starting to look pretty venal and dirty in their motivations.

So, yeah - I was too glib. Brown today isn't the same figure as he was on Monday. But in a few months ...?

by Steve F on October 17, 2013
Steve F

Andrew, a very good analysis but consider it from another angle;

From a certain bloggers website ( Oct 17th) whose name need not be mentioned in polite company;

"...Had she not received that text message, the whole affair would probably have remained a secret, she said....." 

With that little pearl in mind this is why LB will not survive and should not. Read on:

Everyone seems to have an opinion on where to draw the line in these sad and salacious events and that line shifts from one end of the private/public business divide to the other. 

But the  line is erased altogether when you consider what any politician opens themself up to when the details are NOT made public.....you can imagine Len receiving this text.....

 " hi len u ratbg u brk mi hrt, i wnt u 2 ensur i get on dat comitee and i wnt yr vote 4 me in anythg i ask or i spill all d beans, and u will not b mayor much longer."

or maybe something like this

"hi len u stinkn ratbg u brok mi hart but i hv a nu man.hes a developer an we nd a favor u sign d papers u get 2moro or i spill d beans and you will b toast no mayor no famly"

Where would it all end. It just goes on and on....

 That is exactly why these actions are completely unacceptable in political life and he will undoubatable not be mayor beyond the end of this week. Its nothing to do with anyone's moral goalposts, whether its his private life or public life. If a politician is able to  maneuver himself into a position to be blackmailed whether in his own time or the publics time, then it is all over red rover in my opinion. 

As an analogy, imagine the PM trying to run a cabinet when hes got ministers who are horse trading away behind his back to avoid being exposed and humiliated and having lives reduced to train wrecks. And this guy is at the top of the heap......

   



by Andrew Geddis on October 17, 2013
Andrew Geddis

That is exactly why these actions are completely unacceptable in political life and he will undoubatable not be mayor beyond the end of this week. 

We'll see. But I agree that it's looking more likely he'll have to quit - the fact he was a referee for her whilst also seeking to get her in the sack (or somewhere else) is starting to look pretty terrible ... .

by Steve F on October 17, 2013
Steve F

"... the fact he was a referee for her whilst also seeking to get her in the sack (or somewhere else) is starting to look pretty terrible..."


Precisely, and now an STD has entered the mix. Heaven forbid. Imagine  if it was HIV... It dosen't  bear thinking about.... 

by Andrew Geddis on October 18, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Precisely, and now an STD has entered the mix. Heaven forbid. Imagine  if it was HIV... It dosen't  bear thinking about.... 

I think you're a bit out of touch with the contemporary reality of life with HIV. Let's stick to the stuff that matters?

by Andrew Osborn on November 03, 2013
Andrew Osborn

OK I'll mention it. Whaleoil.

There! It didn't really hurt did it?  ;-)

The fact is - he has had two massive scoops recently which the main stream media missed (or more sinister - self censored). The Len Affair and the Labour Man-Ban.

Without this particular cetacean, the MSM would be writing about cats up trees.

So is this dislike of him based on envy?

 

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