Rodney Hide: Judge on ability, not tax return

John Key is right not to release his tax returns. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Key is right not to release his tax returns. Photo / Mark Mitchell

John Key is right not to release his tax returns. There's no doubt it would be news and would feed the nosy-parker in us but it would not serve the public good.

We need to encourage our best and brightest to stand for office but it's getting harder and harder as the public realm encroaches ever further on the private.

I have spent a great deal of time getting good people to stand for Parliament - and not just for my own party. It's hard. And one of the biggest turn-offs is the level of scrutiny applied to private lives. It's hard to advise potential candidates because there's no guarantee of what's in and what's out.

It changes with the times and what's in the news. The British Prime Minister has tabled his tax return so the question is asked of ours. To the best of my knowledge no Prime Minister has previously been asked.

In 2007 it was visits to strip clubs. Then Australian Opposition leader Kevin Rudd was in the news admitting to a drink at a "gentlemen's club" with a news editor and another MP in New York four years earlier.

Our press gallery dutifully lined up on the walk to the debating chamber with cameras and microphones to ask every MP if they had ever been to a strip club and for details.

I recall Key characteristically owning up that he had once or twice years ago and I remember, too, Prime Minister Helen Clark not being amused. She didn't find it appropriate.

MPs aren't judges or archbishops. We would like to think they have lived a little. It is a House of Representatives. But the deeper we delve into private and personal affairs, the less attractive politics becomes, especially for those who have experienced life. So, too, for the financially successful.

It's good to have a PM who has proved successful outside of politics, especially financially. It shows he's smart and knows business. That outside success means he knows things other than politics and is not in for the career or money.

But how many financially successful people would stand for office if they had to front with their tax returns? Not many, I suspect. That loss of privacy would be simply too high a price to pay.

Plus, their wealth would become an issue, not their performance in office. It would also arm the envy button that reporters and opposition MPs could not resist pushing.

Politicians need a private life for their sake and ours. They need a private life before politics. And they need to keep a private life when in politics. We must take care in pushing the public scrutiny ever deeper.

Key doesn't hide his success. Nor does he make a big deal about it. That's as it should be. He should be judged on his performance as Prime Minister, not on his tax return.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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