Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: Dirty politics means we all suffer

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Mayor Len Brown and his mistress Bevan Chuang. Photo / Instagram/@missbchuang
Mayor Len Brown and his mistress Bevan Chuang. Photo / Instagram/@missbchuang

When dirt gets thrown around in politics, everyone involved emerges looking grubby. In fact we are all going to suffer from the Len Brown scandal and its corrosive implications. This column looks at who has most to lose, in what way, and if anyone stands to gain any advantage at all from the scandal. This morning David Farrar has also written a comprehensive survey of the Lengate losers and winners http://bit.ly/16eoZps, and pointedly notes that 'there are far more losers than winners'. So who are the losers, and why?

Politicians and democracy suffers

In an age in which politicians, political parties, and politics in general is regarded very poorly by the public, this scandal will only further entrench anti-political attitudes. The reputations of all politicians are stake, and the political process - whether at local or national level - is likely to be tarred by this scandal. This will particularly be the case if this scandal is the catalyst for further scandals in escalating retaliation. Political competition in New Zealand is not traditionally centred around scandals and allegations about personal lives. There is an unspoken commitment from all politicians not to venture too far into this sphere on the understanding that everyone will suffer from a war based on scandal. Much like nuclear détente, politicians hold off from pushing the 'red button' in the knowledge that the other side will retaliate by unleashing their own allegations - see my comments in TVNZ's story, Expect more dirty tricks in local politics warns expert.

The Auckland Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse has commented on this: 'Making political gains out of people's private lives is a really slippery slope.

It is a culture that New Zealand politics absolutely doesn't need.... My worry is where the line suddenly starts to blur about what is in the public interest and what is simply salacious, lip-smacking interest and I have no time for that' - see Stuff's Sex scandal reverberates. (For a very different take on this, see Mark Blackham's Power elite rally for Brown).

The logical outcome of the rise of political scandals alongside negative campaigning and trivialised coverage of politics is a decline in public participation in politics. The extraordinarily low voter turnout witnessed in the most recent general and local elections is partly due to the public's disdain for politicians. Therefore, I think Mai Chen has it wrong today in her Herald column - Voter apathy is a serious issue - when she seeks to divorce the Len Brown scandal from the issue of identifying the cause of the voter turnout problem.

Of course the Len Brown sex scandal is hardly this country's first - see TVNZ's New Zealand political sex scandals and Chris Trotter's Adultery and Democracy: Should Len Brown Resign?

The blogosphere and new media blamed

What makes the Brown scandal a potentially landmark one for New Zealand, is the extreme degree of lurid detail involved. Cameron Slater's Whaleoil blog, in breaking this story, has spared few details of the relationship. In the past, when the traditional media has covered such scandals, more restraint has been shown. Media lawyer Steven Price has argued that Len Brown could take successful legal action against Slater because 'the sordid and salacious detail in the original story on Whale Oil's blog breached his privacy. In short, this is because it was unnecessary to provide that level of detail to serve the public interest' - see his blogpost, Can Len Brown sue for invasion of privacy?

In one sense Slater has become much more important as a result of this scandal. As Farrar argues, 'Whale likes nothing more than page views and visits. He's had 750,000 page views in two days. He not only broke the story, but covered himself by insisting on tape recordings and sworn affidavits. Cameron doesn't want to be liked - he wants to be relevant, and this week he has set the news'.

But Slater may also find himself increasingly marginalised, particularly by the National Party who will be extremely uncomfortable with his tawdry treatment of this episode, rendering him persona non grata at all levels of the party. His tactics may also harm the very party he wants to succeed at the next election.

Bevan Chaung turning against him is particularly damaging - see Simon Day's Feud between ex-mistress, blogger. See also, Scott Yorke's ambiguous parody post, I am disappointed in you. Slater's colleague, Stephen Cook, is likely to also suffer further damage to his reputation as a result of how the scandal has evolved.

To some degree, the whole blogosphere will be tarred with the same brush. For many, the scandal will reinforce the 'wild west' reputation of all social media. Unlike traditional scandals, this one has clearly revolved around the blogosphere, with much of the evolving story occurring on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. And for an update on what is being said about the scandal on Twitter, see my blogpost, Top tweets about the Len Brown scandal (updated).

The Media's tabloid risks

The traditional media is already receiving criticism for reporting on this scandal and some believe that the mainstream outlets are letting commercial sensationalist values drive the story. There's the possibility, therefore, that some of the public will regard the media as sinking into tabloid, gutter values in covering the story. Ironically, it's Cameron Slater who is the media's biggest critic - see, for example, his post, Sex Sells, Dodgy Rooting Ratbags Create Massive Interest.

Surprisingly, one journalist has even lost his job over the scandal - see Jared Savage's NBR journalist Jock Anderson fired for column supporting Len Brown. This is analysed in more detail by Greg Presland's Standard blogpost, The NBR and Editorial Independence.

An embarrassment for the political right

The sheer sordidness of the coverage of this scandal has the potential to be extremely damaging for the political right - especially in Auckland - and particularly for the National Party, which is closely linked to Slater. National will be very keen not to be seen as guilty by association. Judith Collins, for example, who is seen as being close to Slater and often endorses his blogposts, may have to distance herself from the controversial blogger. The Brown scandal reeks of dirty tricks and negative politics, both of which are voter poison.

Cameron Slater's father John Slater is, of course, a senior National Party figure, and was the campaign manager for John Palino's mayoral campaign. Slater senior and Palino have both been damaged by all of this - see Brian Rudman's Sex, blogs and right-wing plots. Until the scandal broke, it was apparent that Palino might have future success as a mayoral candidate, but this effectively rules out any future political career. It's not surprising therefore that Bernard Orsman reports today that Palino and fiancee keep a low profile.

Not everyone on the Auckland rightwing will be disadvantaged by the scandal however. Cameron Brewer is now well placed as the rightwing front-runner for the next mayoral contest. He has wisely kept well clear of this controversy, therefore avoiding guilt by association.

Attention has also turned to the role of one of Palino's campaign workers, Luigi Wewege, who appears to have been instrumental in bringing this scandal to light - see the Herald's Mayor saga: Who is Luigi Wewege?. For further analysis of Wewege and the other important players in the Auckland political right, see Russell Brown's Everybody's Machiavelli. Brown is particularly critical of Stephen Cook, saying: 'The question he should be expected to answer before he gets to say anything else is this: Is he being paid for these stories? And if so, by whom? Freelance journalists don't usually work for free, and Cook can't exactly be flush with employment since Truth went under'.

Bevan Chuang's downfall

One of the major twists in the sage was when the main female protagonist, Bevan Chuang, turned against her rightwing partners in the scandal. This is best conveyed in the article by Jared Savage and Bernard Orsman, Chuang: I felt pressured to reveal Brown affair. She has now suffered major embarrassment and will be seen by most as one of the biggest losers in the scandal she helped create. She is having to endure the dirt being dished on her own background - such as Jared Savage's Revealed: Chuang's computer criminal past. Chuang is also receiving some criticism from within the Asian community - see Inside Flat3's An Open Letter to Bevan Chuang.

For some sort of defence of Chuang, see Slater's Why the full court press against Bevan Chuang? and Greg Presland's In defence of Bevan Chuang.

The biggest loser - Len Brown

At this stage it's hard to tell just how badly Len Brown will suffer from this scandal. There are certainly some items that give a more positive reading of the situation for Brown. Blogger Andrew Robertson correctly dismisses the various online opinion polls about the issue and points to a better indication of what the public might think - see New Zealanders differentiate the public from the private life of politicians. Similarly, see Mark Blackham's Why political sex matters.

There is also good reason for believing that the increased focus on the role of rightwing political agendas will also help Brown - see Colin Espiner's New claims may save Brown. See also, Espiner's Can Brown stage a political resurrection?.

Much is made of Brown's conservative Christian supporters and how they are likely to abandon him. Yet TV3 reports one of Brown's rival mayoral candidates, Reverend Uesifili Unasa, as being more positive about the situation - see Unasa urges Brown to make amends for 'betrayal'.

There is still debate about whether Brown has brought the scandal on himself due to his self-promotion as a morally upstanding family man. Brian Edwards looks at this in his blogpost, On Len Brown And The Problem With Haloes. Cameron Slater also points to examples of Len Brown and campaigning on values.

Brown's family have also brought themselves into the story further by writing an open letter - see: Len Brown daughters: 'We stand by Dad'. Slater criticises this in Brown desperate as he drags daughters into the spotlight to fight battles for him.

The revelations keep coming, making things worse for Brown. The reference for Chaung was bad enough - see Stephen Cook's Whaleoil post, Brown helping Chuang get council job, gave personal reference. But now there is speculation about free hotels - see Bernard Orsman and Lincoln Tan's Chuang: Mayor dipped into own pocket for hotel rooms. Slater comments on these allegations in Brown didn't pay with council cash but did take freebies for hotels.

Some of the legalities of the situation are discussed by Andrew Geddis in a 5-minute TV3 video interview and article - see: Law weak on philandering mayor - expert.

Another very good analysis - making some similar points to this column - is the Dominion Post's editorial, A sordid affair in all regards. This argues that Brown is 'undoubtedly the victim of dirty politics', and that 'none of those drawn into the expanding controversy will emerge with their reputations enhanced'. Duncan Garner also has some interesting opinions in his RedioLive column, Resign and stand again Len Brown.

The real winners

The biggest winners from the Brown scandal are the satirists who will dine out for weeks on both the issues and colourful personalities involved. To see how the cartoonists are covering the scandal, see my blogpost, Images of the Len Brown scandal. For an amusing video montage of Len Brown's history, watch TVNZ's 2-minute Len Brown the 'cream whippin' king. For a satirist who is pushing the boundaries a bit further, read Ben Uffindell's The Civilian post, Nation struggles to masturbate to Len Brown affair. And for a Shakespearian version of the tragicomedy, see Ted Somerset's Lenardo of Auckland. The dramatis personae include Lenardo, 'King of Auckland', Palino, 'bastard, pretender to the throne', Bevanus, 'mistress to Lenardo', Cameranius, 'deformed witch', and Weeweege, 'lover of Bevanus and himself'.

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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