David Farrar
The week in politics with centre-right blogger David Farrar

David Farrar: The Darren Hughes saga

'Darren was just as comfortable with Helen Clark as he was with Phil Goff.' Photo / Supplied
'Darren was just as comfortable with Helen Clark as he was with Phil Goff.' Photo / Supplied

There can be no doubt that the major political issue of the week was the decision by the Police not to charge former Labour MP Darren Hughes in relation to a complaint from a Victoria University student. As the second biggest issue was whether you can wear a rugby jersey in the debating chamber, it wasn't a week with a lot of policy in it.

The near universal sentiment around Parliament was relief that the popular Mr Hughes would not be facing a trial, and if found guilty a potential prison sentence. But there was some divergence of views on the nature of the complaint. Darren referred to it as a false accusation and repeated his insistence he "did nothing wrong", which is a wider assertion than "I broke no laws".

The police have confirmed that they had no concerns about the validity of the complaint. I've not heard any credible suggestion that the complaint was made maliciously.

In the absence of details, speculation flourishes and if the injunction prohibiting publication of the complainant's name is lifted, there will be immense pressure on him to tell his side of the story.

There have been some remarkable similarities between the Darren Hughes saga and the Richard Worth saga in 2010. The similarities are:

· Both MPs had complaints laid with the police alleging some sort of non-consensual sexual encounter

· Both MPs didn't resign immediately as MPs, but did within days

· Both MPs also had stories circulate of unwanted attention on previous occasions (which is not a criminal offence, otherwise half the male population would be in jail)

· Both MPs resigned from Parliament

· Both MPs had the police investigations stretch on for months and months

· No charges were laid by police in either case

The public reaction to both cases was quite different though. When the police confirmed no charges against Richard Worth, it was a minor story that almost passed without comment. So why has it been so different in the case of Darren Hughes?

The first factor is the respective popularity of the two MPs. Richard Worth wasn't universally popular in Parliament, or even within National.

It sounds like a cliché, but Darren was near universally popular. Consider how Paul Henry talks of Darren as being one of his closest friends - yes the same Paul Henry reviled by many on the left.

I knew Darren when he was Judy Keall's parliamentary secretary and was proud to attend his farewell (he was leaving to become the candidate) and even then a large number of Labour MPs turned out for his morning tea. There were a few suspicious glances cast in my direction.

And as a Labour MP, Darren had first class relations with his colleagues. The days of formal factions in Labour are long gone, but nevertheless you don't often see (for example) Ruth Dyson and George Hawkins eating and drinking together. Darren was just as comfortable with Helen Clark as he was with Phil Goff.

The second factor different is how the Leaders dealt with their MPs. John Key sacked Richard Worth as a minister within days of hearing of the complaints. Phil Goff kept quiet for three weeks, and this helped fuel the media interest in the story. Brian Edwards in his blog notes:

Had the Leader of the Opposition handled things more adeptly, Hughes would still be a Member of Parliament.

A third factor is the behaviour of the other party. From the day this issue went public, National MPs were under strict discipline to not get stuck into Labour over this. No patsy questions in the house, no angry press release, in fact almost no comment at all. This was made easier by the fact that Darren was popular on both sides. This stands in contrast to the Richard Worth saga when Phil Goff constantly attacked the PM for his handling of the issue, levelled further allegations himself and was widely seen as having acted inappropriately - something Goff himself admitted during the Hughes saga.

A fourth factor is that the media interest was heightened by the fact the encounter happened at the house of Deputy Leader Annette King. While I understand the media interest, I think it is rather regrettable that in some quarters people have suggested Annette somehow did something wrong. I regard her as pretty blameless in this affair. She has known Darren since he was 10 years old (Annette was his local MP originally), and having Darren board with Annette in Wellington was preferable to what most out of town MPs do, which is stay either in hotels or expensive single room apartments. I rate Annette as one of the more decent MPs in Parliament.

There has been much speculation about Darren's future. At the risk of being accused of trying to polish a turd, maybe Darren should look on what happened as an opportunity. Darren is a smart personable guy who could probably excel in any number of roles. My advice is to get out of New Zealand for at least a couple of years - travel the world, find some interesting jobs to do, visit your mates and then decide down the track whether you still have that burning desire to serve in Parliament.

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