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Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Jones has learned an important lesson

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Shane Jones. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Shane Jones. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The worst thing that can happen to a Maori politician is to be touted as a future Prime Minister.

It's the kiss of death - more curse than blessing - as Winston Peters, John Tamihere and now "hapless Shane" Jones have found.

All that pressure and too early scrutiny. All those unmet and often unrealistic expectations.

The next worst thing is to slip and fall on the way to the country's highest office because of something as pathetic and private as a penchant for pornographic movies.

On the hierarchy of bad behaviour, Jones' charging of movies to his ministerial credit card (which he later paid for, long before any media hounds sniffed him out) counts as an administrative rather than a deadly sin.

It's not mana enhancing by a very long shot, but for all the faux outrage and saturation coverage, it's not a scandal of major proportions either.

Jones was slack and cavalier, but he wasn't fraudulent. (Phil Heatley's transgressions were arguably worse; he didn't reimburse his $1402 of private expenditure until he was forced to come clean.)

Most damaging to the Jones brand is the fact that he watched up to three pornographic movies a night when he was away from home on ministerial business.

But even that ranks at the lower end of human weakness. Not admirable by anyone's reckoning but not worthy of an inquisition either. Jones wasn't hosting prostitutes in his room or carrying on an extra-marital affair; he was watching TV alone. Sad and stupid, but not a capital offence.

(Just for perspective. According to American statistics, 55 per cent of movies watched in hotel rooms tend to be porn. The average time of watching is 12 minutes. Many polls indicate porn-watching is widespread; in one 2006 poll, 50 per cent of all Christian men and 20 per cent of all Christian women admitted to being addicted to porn.)

In Jones' defence, the former Labour MP Dover Samuels argues that if we're going to enter a debate about morality, "three-quarters of Parliament wouldn't be there".

I suspect he's right but I don't think this is about sexual morality.

If it were I'd be inclined to agree with Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who recently defended a Republican politician forced to resign because of an extra-marital affair.

Gerson wrote that while sexual conduct isn't irrelevant to public service, it isn't everything either. Political character is more complex than marital fidelity. There are worse things than sexual vices.

"There is a difference between breaking a vow out of weakness and smashing it out of malice. Sexual behaviour can reveal our shared foolishness. Or it can reveal coldness, compulsion, cruelty, exploitation, arrogance and recklessness.

"Who can deny that these traits are potentially dangerous in a political leader? ... I have known politicians who are cold, arrogant, reckless - and faithful to their spouses. And I have known politicians who have been unfaithful and served the public well."

We ask a lot of our political leaders - and rightly so. But at a time of unprecedented transparency and media scrutiny, we may be asking the wrong questions.

Most of us want unblemished, high-minded, courageous visionaries who combine, as someone else has said, moral energy with bold public purpose.

We want politicians with big, bold ideas driven by a sense of justice rather than ideology or powerful special interests. We want leaders more concerned about long-term consequences than short-term popularity. Leaders with a touch of the maverick.

Instead, we're fostering a managerial style of political leadership that cares more for managing risk than solving our complex problems.

Is Jones worth saving? Though his predilection for blue movies is what will linger in the public mind, it's his poor judgment, arrogance and apparent sense of infallibility that should exercise us.

Jones has cultivated what he calls "a robust image" in his time in politics; he hasn't been afraid to challenge cultural taboos and other Maori.

That's earned him the admiration of the wider electorate, as it had with Winston and J.T. before him. But it may also have given him a false sense of security. There's something about being an anointed son - Harvard educated, skilled in business, truly bicultural - that gives one a sense of being bulletproof.

For all his intellectual firepower and apparent sophistication, Jones lacked the political antennae (possessed by Labour's squeaky clean top tier) that would have saved him from leaving a self-destructive porno trail for his enemies.

Being humbled and publicly humiliated may be the best thing that ever happened to Jones. While it's ruled him out of leadership contention for now, it may, ironically, have made him a better leader.

Tapu.Misa@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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