Saturday, September 16, 2006

Brash Behaviour

I couldn’t possibly care less whether a politician has an extra-marital affair or not. In fact, I’d rather not be reminded that politicians ever do the nasty, whether it’s with their partner or not. For some politicians, that image is downright icky.

So when news broke this week that Don Brash, the leader of the New Zealand National Party, was taking a short leave from his duties to deal with marital problems arising, it was said, from an affair he’d had, I wasn’t interested. But that changed a bit when the Machiavellian manoeuvres behind the scenes came to light.

First a bit of background. The New Zealand National Party that Don Brash leads is the second-largest party in the New Zealand Parliament, and the largest opposing the main party of government, the New Zealand Labour Party headed by Prime Minister Helen Clark. This makes Brash Leader of the Opposition.

In a parliamentary democracy like New Zealand’s, the leader of the largest party in Parliament forms a government and becomes Prime Minister. The leader of the largest party in opposition to that government becomes Leader of the Opposition and, in essence, the leader of a government-in-waiting. There’s a bit more to it than that, with coalitions with smaller parties being necessary to govern, but in all cases the leader is chosen by that party’s Members of Parliament who are free to change leaders at any time.

All the parties in Parliament have a caucus, basically a meeting of their members. Traditionally, these meetings are a bit like Las Vegas: What happens there, stays there.

On Tuesday, September 12, Brash alluded to the alleged affair to caucus members because he thought the news media would ask him about the rumours and he wanted them to be warned. One MP, Brian Connell, was reported to have told Brash that if the rumours were true, he had an obligation to say so. It was also reported that Connell was said to have told Brash that if they were true, he was morally unfit to be Leader.

Connell has been portrayed by the media has something of a self-appointed guardian of morality. This is mainly the result of his fierce opposition to the Civil Union Bill, which created civil recognition under law for non-marriage relationships, including both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, giving them the rights and privileges of marriage while leaving marriage itself restricted to opposite-sex couples.

At the time it was before Parliament, Connell described the Civil Union Bill as a "gay recruitment drive". His vehement opposition earned him a well-deserved telling off from his lesbian sister-in-law. So, was his sense of “morality” so offended that he leaked the caucus proceedings to the media?

“I’m not a whistleblower,” he told the Ashburton Chronicle, “but someone has leaked this almost word for word—and it wasn’t me.”

Why would the news media suggest that Connell had been the source of the leak? He told the paper, “I believe this person [who leaked the news] thought they could get rid of Don Brash and Connell can be the fall guy.” Maybe so, but he also told the paper, “On balance I think it should have come out into the public domain.”

Connell, often described as a “maverick MP” isn’t exactly flavour of the month in the National Party Caucus. Last year, he complained loudly about the portfolios he was given, and was dumped to the bottom of the rankings of National Party MPs after he publicly criticised Brash. It’s easy to see how he could be thought of as the source of the leak.

But the fact is, certain National Party MPs have been gunning for Brash for a long time. Brash led the party into the election last year, doubling the number of National MPs in Parliament and bringing them nearly to government. It’s the “almost” that apparently is the reason the knives are out for him.

All of which makes the use of his marital problems particularly slimy. With underhanded tactics like this, is it any wonder politicians have such a bad image? And if National Party MPs would really resort to this sort thing, do we want them running the country?

I don’t support the National Party. In fact, I find many of their policies downright dopey. Also, I have grave concerns about some of their supporters, like the secretive fundamentalist Christian sect that spent millions of dollars to try to get National into government, mostly by attacking other parties. But I also don’t think Brash’s marital problems are relevant to his job as leader of his party.

His opponents, including people in the Labour Party as well as the National Party, are suggesting that this calls into question Brash’s honesty and integrity. Call me a cynic if you want, but I don’t actually expect “honesty and integrity” from a politician. I just expect them to get on with the jobs we elected them to do.

It’s a different story if a politician uses the office for personal gain, or if they use power to get advantage over another person (including intimate advantage). However, none of that is the case here.

So, while I may not personally support Brash or his party, I think that he ought to be left alone to deal with his marital problems. In this case, questions about honesty and integrity are between him and his wife. Much as I would love to see National brought down a peg, this isn’t the way to do it.

On Sunday, September 17, the New Zealand Herald reported the results of a Herald on Sunday Digipoll taken after the news broke:
Almost three-quarters of Kiwis disapprove of the private lives of politicians being brought to public attention in Parliament, with women strongly believing affairs of the heart belong at home. Only 16.5 per cent of females polled said private lives were fair political targets, compared with 25.5 per cent of men.
They reported that the poll of 400 voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 per cent, which is a pretty big margin.

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