Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: The morals and motives in a political sex scandal

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Morals and politics make for an explosive mix. The moral issues in the Len Brown scandal are dealt with expertly in three must-read blogposts on the Pundit blogsite - see: Tim Watkin's The unwritten rule re politics & sex: Does the Len Brown story write a new rule, Josie Pagani's Who Len sleeps with is nothing to do with me or you, and Andrew Geddis' Why Len Brown will still be Auckland's Mayor (and that's a good thing, too).

All three columns grapple with the moral questions around private and public lives, with the most thoughtful being Tim Watkin's post. On the one hand Watkin accepts that it is legitimate for the public to judge Brown on this scandal: 'We have every right to debate the character and morals of those we elect to lead us. Some may find that distasteful and can ignore such debate. But if it matters to Voter A, then Voter A has every right to vote on his or her moral values. Many of us in some spoken or unspoken way do employ our morals when it comes to casting a vote. Character, judgment, trust... these are important virtues when it comes to electing someone to lead us and to represent us'. On the other hand, Watkin worries that a line is being crossed in this particular scandal with tabloid and gutter values driving the coverage.

Josie Pagani takes a more hard line approach and asks, 'Is the new rule that anyone holding public office who has an affair must resign? Come on.

That's setting the bar ridiculously high. It would mean resignations in parliament and in councils across the country'.

I made some similar arguments this morning on TVNZ - see: Len Brown affair 'shouldn't affect job'. I've also given a nine-minute video interview for the Herald on some of the moral and political ramifications of the scandal - see: What next for Len Brown?.

Figures from across the political spectrum have come out to argue for Brown's privacy and ability to continue as mayor. Mike Hosking says, Brown's affair a personal, not political, catastrophe. The NBR's Jock Anderson says 'Brown is currently the target of a head-hunting media frenzy driven by finger-pointing journalists, news bosses and pundits, some of whom would do well to examine their own prolectivities before getting too comfortable on the moral high ground' - see Len Brown needs to stay on the job (paywalled).

Many have also argued that an affair is just not a big a deal in 2013. Brian Rudman says, 'Cameron Slater seems to have forgotten what century he's living in. Marital infidelity is hardly a sacking offence in this day and age. The sleazy and infuriated out-pourings of the discarded mistress on his website might have shocked his grandparents' generation, but today it's more likely to raise little more than the odd snigger, and feelings of sympathy for Mr Brown's family' - see: Don't worry Mayor, no apology is necessary.

Of course, not everyone agrees that Brown should be entirely left alone. Gordon Campbell - like Watkin - says there are still some important issues about trust: 'Brown's personal morality is an issue for himself and his family, but not entirely so. Brown has campaigned on being an honest, hardworking upholder of Christian family values. He deserves to be judged if he has betrayed the image he has promoted. Trust is an essential ingredient of the powers bestowed on the person who sits at the apex of the local government pyramid' - see: On Len Brown, trust, and Simon Bridges.

Will Brown survive?

Brian Edwards is quoted today as saying that 'Len Brown's self-created "saintly image" will be his downfall' - see Stuff's Hard for Brown to remain mayor - commentator. Edwards suggests that 'Brown had developed and campaigned on an image of a family man and worn his religious beliefs on his sleeve, making the scandal much more harmful'. Edwards says, 'If you have a halo above your head, which I think Len Brown would have and has partly put there himself, the fall from grace is much more severe'.

The same article quotes me as saying: 'So much of modern politics involves scandals and allegations of impropriety that I think we need to develop a culture of a bit more tolerance of the personal lives of politicians'.

In her Pundit column Pagani includes a very good 'rough guide on how Len can survive'. But she includes a caveat: 'If you've broken any big laws, there's no way out. Resign and move aside'. Similarly, myself and other commmentators have suggested that Brown might not survive if further damaging allegations come out - see NBR's Pundits say Brown likely to survive.

Gordon Campbell raises another possible problem for Brown: 'What would be fatal for Brown would be if any evidence should surface that he managed the termination of the affair - which, as he says, ended just before the campaign began - and the subsequent silence of those involved, over the course of the election campaign proper. If it exists, such evidence would implicate Brown in a process of information suppression and in effect, in a deception of the public. There is no evidence that such a process of deception and damage control did take place'.

If there is deemed to be conflict of interest in Brown's scandal, this could also bring about his downfall. David Farrar suggests that there might be in his blogpost, Should Brown stay or go?. He says: 'So her appointment and tenure is at the discretion of the Mayor. I think that makes it arguably worse than if it was a Council employee. Council employees are employed by the Chief Executive and have some protection. Chuang was a direct Mayoral appointee. How can you argue no conflict of interest?'

Certainly there is plenty of public opprobrium towards the mayor - see, for example, Brendan Manning's Public opinion turns against Auckland mayor Len Brown. But that doesn't mean he can't survive. Currently the iPredict stock for Len Brown to Depart as Mayor of Auckland by 1 Jan 2014 is only at 25%.

For further interesting comments, see Newstalk ZB's Len Brown needs to 'keep his head down', Barry Soper's Lavicious Len, and Rachel Smalley's Perception is everything.

Political motives

Why has this scandal erupted? What are the motives of those involved? Cameron Slater, one of the main protagonists, talked this morning on TV3's Firstline and answered questions about this - see the 7-minute video and article, Slater denies political motive in Len Brown sex scandal.

The women involved in the affair is also calling for Brown to resign, and notably has a rightwing background - see Jared Savage's Ex-lover calls on Mayor to step down.

Most of the analysis about political motives amounts to speculation. The Standard puts forward one of the more plausible explanations - see: What's the play?. Here's the key part: 'Let's draw some links: Chuang was a rightwing candidate, apparently linked to the Palino campaign. Palino's campaign was run by John Slater, Cameron Slater's father. Three days after the election results: Chuang's telling all on Slater's blog. hmmm. To what end? If Brown resigns (he won't and at this stage I can't see why he would) Palino doesn't accede to the mayoralty automatically but he would be far and away the front runner for the new election that would have to be held quickly'.

The Political ramifications

The Len Brown scandal could be dismissed as 'just another silly politician affair'. However, it might end up having significant ramifications if the episode initiates an escalating war of allegations in New Zealand politics. As I discuss in my video interview, What next for Len Brown?, this controversy might lead to retaliations from the political left, some of whom could take Cameron Slater's blogposts as well as the huge media coverage, to be a 'green light' that 'anything goes'.

Grant Duncan, an associate professor at Massey University, warns of this type of scenario, saying 'one can ask now 'why stop there?' We all know that there is a raft of such stories floating around the Beehive, the courts, the law firms, etc etc. So, why not lift the lid on the private sexual affairs of the whole darned establishment?' - see: Political affairs. His point is worth quoting at length: 'There exists in New Zealand an unspoken detente between journalists and politicians: reporters will not cover the 'affairs' of the rich and powerful, unless the cat gets out of the bag by other means. There's a good reason for this. Delving into the private lives of politicians would create a potentially endless chain of accusation and counter-accusation. The consequence would be a decline in trust between reporters and those reported on. If every such story were outed and led to demands for the guilty party to stand down from his or her office, then I venture to suggest that the country would soon be in danger of becoming almost leaderless'.

Matthew Hooton has written an insightful column, suggesting that 'we can expect Camp Brown and various elements of the Auckland local-body right to go to war with a viciousness beyond that found in central government in Wellington, where the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) holds firm' - see the paywalled NBR column, Brown affair: Will wise heads prevail?. He is also worth quoting at length: 'If the left can prove anything resembling a honey trap, it will do serious harm to the Auckland right. The left, however, also faces questions that create severe risk of blowback. In her affidavit, Ms Chuang swore that, a fortnight ago, she received a text message from an unknown number warning her there would be repercussions if she elected to go public with her story. If the right can verify that claim and link the text message back to the mayor's campaign, it would be suggestive of criminal conduct. If the mayor knows about or learns about any such conduct, he will have little choice but to go public with it immediately. As they say, it's not the crime but the cover up that gets you. While wise heads in the Auckland left and right will understand that raising the honey-trap or threatening-text allegations risks an immediate breakdown in MAD, not everybody involved in local politics will feel bound by that convention. But, unless those wise heads prevail, a nasty and mutually destructive few days may be ahead'.

If you really want to see the original Whaleoil posts, here they are: Stephen Cook's Len Brown's Town Hall to Downfall, and Len Brown - Fresh revelations (http://bit.ly/1aognZa), and Cameron Slater's Why we broke the story of the rooting ratbag mayor,

Finally, to get an idea of the storm of debate occurring in social media, see my blogpost, Top tweets about the Len Brown scandal.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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