Helen Clark's views on marriage, Don Brash's affair - old taboos about politicians' private lives are being breached. But MPs know from past scandals they cross the line at their peril. By AUDREY YOUNG
The litany of scandals and semi-scandals over many years makes Parliament seem more like a House of Sleaze than a House of Representatives.
MPs have been accused of theft, fraud, having sex with a minor, having fights in bars, having fights at Parliament, not paying bills, trying to get off paying parking fines, forging signatures, double-dipping on parliamentary allowances, drunkenness, having kids who crash the car, having kids who take drugs, not to mention having affairs with staff, affairs with journalists, and affairs with other MPs.
Curiously, many of the above were not considered fodder for political opponents in the House. Neither was the row that erupted this week between Prime Minister Helen Clark and National leader Don Brash.
Talkback may have been in a fever earlier in the week about Brash's infidelity more than 20 years ago and whether Prime Minister Helen Clark is "indifferent to the institution of marriage" or not, as Brash alleged, but some things are taboo in Parliament. An informal code of conduct runs among MPs of all parties: personal life is off limits, unless it has a direct bearing on the job.
Talk in smoko rooms this week may have been about whether Brash is the new stud-muffin or not.
But the amazement around Parliament was that Brash had, intentionally or unintentionally, breached the code.
He actually breached two in one hit, religion as well as marriage. In a letter to the Dean of the Christchurch Cathedral, Peter Beck, criticising him for having had Clark speak there, he wrote: "You will be aware of my views that it is not appropriate for a cathedral to be used for such purposes, even leaving aside the Prime Minister's atheism, her abandonment of grace at state functions and her indifference to the institution of marriage."
Clark's immediate offence was taken at the suggestion she was an atheist rather than agnostic, before exploiting the "marriage" slight for all it was worth.
Religion has traditionally been a no-go area for political parties. It was famously broken, according to Press Gallery legend, by Michael Cullen, with major consequences for journalists who liked to share a yarn or two with former Prime Minister Jim Bolger.
Bolger had been a regular at the Beehive bar, prosaically known as 3.2 (floor three, entry point two). But Labour flunkeys there reported back to their political masters that one night Bolger, a devout Catholic, had light-heartedly genuflected to a whisky bottle, an event later referred to by Cullen in the House.
The real taboo was not so much about religion but a breach of the understanding that what happens in 3.2 stays in 3.2. The upshot of Cullen's breach - which he struggles to remember - is that Bolger hardly ever returned to the bar, an absence lamented by those who tracked at informal quarters the thinking of the Prime Minister of the day.
From time to time, the code is breached by a flippant comment or aside in the House. The most recent and blatant breach was by Associate Tertiary Minister Steve Maharey. In answering a question about medical school entry qualifications for Pacific Islanders and Maori, Maharey suggested that Bill English's GP wife, Mary English, of Samoan descent, may have gained entry under a quota scheme - allowing a lower entry standard. Speaker Jonathan Hunt pulled up Maharey and invited him to withdraw.
Bill English promptly stood up and told the House his wife had entered Otago Medical School on the same basis as everyone else. Maharey, whose own wife died this week from breast cancer, was no doubt under stress and the offence will be forgiven, if not forgotten. That incident was also contained.
What Brash invited with pious overtones about Helen Clark's attitude to marriage was the obvious reporter's question about his own blemished record, which duly came. A careless line in a letter hastily drafted by a staff member - though approved by him - turned into a national conversation and residual memory about his own fidelity and a part of his mystique was destroyed.
As Cabinet minister John Tamihere put it: "Every politician has got an ego, even the ones you haven't heard of. And their personal persona is their currency and you debase their currency by attacking them. That's what the game is."
Tamihere is an authority on politics and personal life. Before selection in 1999, he revealed that two years previously he had been accused of raping the daughter of a cousin of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.
He then faced months of attack about a string of drink-driving convictions, his work history as a lawyer and as chief executive of the Waipareira Trust before joining colleague Dover Samuels to try to save Samuels' Cabinet post (unsuccessfully) over claims he had had a relationship with a teenager.
The talk this week over the Brash and Clark respective marriages is in a different league entirely, not least because of the stature of the players - and that makes United Future leader Peter Dunne uneasy about the flow-on effects.
"When events like this week's occur, everyone has a bit of a collective intake of breath.
"It's not so much 'is this acceptable?' It's 'I don't like this. Where is it going to stop?' That is what no one seems to have a handle on."
He also believes the effect of having public discussions about personal issues lowers the threshold in society about what MPs should be willing to share.
"It creates a sense that a whole lot of other things become fair game.
"If we argue about the status of the Prime Minister's marriage or Dr Brash's fidelity, at the same time you can then argue about a whole lot of other things. 'What's your belief system?' 'What's your attitude to organised religion?' or a whole range of other things that are quite personal.
"That's a line we haven't had to cross before."
Dunne remembers being schooled as a young MP on the perils of getting too personal in political debate or the so-called "dirt file" could be pulled out and used on him or some of his colleagues. It was a powerful disincentive.
"It's a bit like the nuclear deterrent argument. Don't do it to them because they'll do it to you.
"We're not talking about common occurrence but take the events of this week, for instance. I don't think that they would ever have been a subject that would have been of interest or even pursued a few years ago."
Perhaps the best example of the nuclear effect was the politically fatal exchange in the House on November 4, 1976, between the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, and the Labour MP for Mangere, Colin Moyle.
Sir Robert was having a heated exchange with Wanganui MP Russell Marshall (now High Commissioner to London) and Sir Roy Jack was in the chair during, of all things, the dull-sounding second reading of the Appropriation Bill (No 2) Bill.
According to the Herald's story of the day, Muldoon said he would forgive the "effeminate giggles" from the member for Mangere because "I know his background".
The Speaker asked for the remark to be withdrawn and it was. Moyle then asked if it would be in order to ask whether the Prime Minister was the member of an accounting firm that was guilty of illegal practices.
Muldoon then asked whether it would be in order for him to accuse the member for Mangere of being picked up by the police for homosexual activities.
After declaring it a lie, the entire Opposition walked out and Opposition leader of the time, Bill Rowling, hauled out that well-worn phrase of disgust: "Parliament has reached an all-time low".
After an official inquiry, Moyle resigned. Discrepancies were cited in Moyle's account of the central incident in 1975 involving meeting an undercover police officer.
Speaker Hunt well remembers the "dirt file" as Labour's senior whip for many years, though suggests it was a phantom dossier.
"When I was senior whip, and was so for a number of years, of course sometimes comments were made of a personal nature in the House. I just used to point to a file I had in my in-tray in the House.
"They knew perfectly well what it meant - that if they started that, they'd have it given back to them and that was usually the end of the matter."
Contrary to perceived public wisdom, Hunt does not believe that political parties' are getting any worse at dragging personal lives into politics - a view reinforced by many MPs this week.
The feeling was that there would always be breaches and regrets.
Hunt is serving his 38th year in Parliament and there isn't much that he doesn't hear about. Affairs? He's seen a few.
"Since I have been in Parliament I have always known about MPs who have affairs. You can't help but hear these things and you observe them. I've seen it happen on all sides of the House."
But he shares with Dunne - and probably most MPs - the view that unless the affair impacts on the MP's work or political positions, it should not be an issue for either political fodder or the news media.
"What a person does in their private life is their private life provided it doesn't impinge on their decisions in Parliament," Hunt says.
"My view is that it is for the MP to make a judgment about and if the MP isn't sensible, then it is the MP that will suffer. But provided there is no breaking of the law, I don't see that it is the business of anybody else."
Peter Dunne: "I think the public expects to know when there is a manifest influence on someone's ability to do their job. If a minister of the Crown was having an affair with a senior official of his or her department, I think people would want to know about that, but I'm not sure they would want to know about just the casual relationship."
Faced with a real situation, however, the media fell short of Dunne's theoretical standards. When Sandra Lee was Associate Maori Affairs Minister, her relationship with a Te Puni Kokiri adviser in her office, Anaru Vercoe, did not make scandalous news. Like many other parliamentary affairs, it went unremarked on publicly and developed into a long-term relationship.
Others include Cullen's with then fellow East Cape MP Anne Collins, now his wife; former National deputy leader Don McKinnon's relationship with former Radio New Zealand journalist Clare de Lore, now married; and National MP Murray McCully's with Listener journalist Jane Clifton.
The New Zealand media's treatment of MPs' affairs in general is that they are not, of themselves, news.
But Richard Harman, TVNZ's former political editor, says society has changed and so have expectations of reporting personal lives.
"We now have tabloid magazines that devote much of their content to celebrities' sex lives and in some senses, MPs are celebrities."
He has no doubt that if Helen Clark or Don Brash were having an affair today, it would be reported.
"It's just a consequence of everything all round the world, whether it's Bill Clinton or the things that have happened here. Politicians are part of the celebrity culture. At the end of the day, the celebrity culture demands that we know what goes on in their bedrooms."
He says that Lange's affair as Prime Minister with his speech writer, Margaret Pope (now wife) changed everything.
"That was a story that as well as prurient domestic detail, it had political importance because Pope was functioning as Lange's key adviser - and in a Government deeply divided over its direction. It was a political relationship, too."
Harman was part of extensive debates about whether to report the Lange-Pope relationship at the time but lack of proof and the defamation laws were a big factor in not doing so. The relationship was eventually revealed by Lange's former wife, Naomi, who telephoned a newspaper about it.
Ironically, an unrelated defamation action taken by Lange against North & South magazine has relaxed defamation law on reporting MPs.
Northern Advocate editor Tony Verdon, who worked in the Press Gallery for the Herald from 1979 to 1987, says various rumours of infidelities of key players in his day, including Muldoon, were never established.
"And I don't think we were interested, to be honest."
He believes the public's expectations have changed.
"If an MP was having an affair, I think probably on balance, the story should be written. The public have a right to know because they are making judgments on moral issues and that is part of the picture that the public is entitled to have."
Alan Hitchens, former editor of Sunday News and Truth and now Act's head of media at Parliament, believes there is a strange mix of changing standards in society. During his editorship, in the 1970s and 80s, MPs' affairs would have been big. "Today I don't think they care too much. The media seems to think they care. But I wonder whether they do."
He also believes anything is "fair game" for the media. "It is just a matter of assessing whether they are right in thinking that the public is going to be interested.
"But I don't think there are any taboos for the media. They should be able to get into whatever is required."
National senior whip John Carter says National does not keep a dirt file.
He tries to maintain a close relationship with other whips. "There is a whole lot of history that is known, that is never discussed, never disclosed but from time to time there is understanding conversation between whips."
He believes MPs' families and their affairs are their own private affair, that the public no more deserves to know about them than Telecom's shareholders would expect to know about any bedroom antics in their organisation - that is, unless it affected business.
"We are all humans and we all have our strengths and weaknesses.
"Like everybody else in society, things happen that are better not referred to and we accept that."
Plenty of personal and family stories have become public, but they have usually been related to the MP's job: Former Attorney-General Sir Douglas Graham's son, Carrick, crashed his father's ministerial car in the Auckland Domain in 1994; Health Minister Annette King's daughter, Amanda, was involved in a car accident in her mother's ministerial car, and later had a related conviction for possessing Ecstasy overturned; a teenage son of the Transport Minister of the time, Mark Gosche, was involved in a car crash in Auckland.
Helen Clark had a "row of rows" with husband Peter Davis when it was revealed he used an email to someone in his wife's office to recommend a friend as a health reviewer.
But the following week she accused National of "scumbag tactics" for questioning a $750,000 taxpayer-funded grant to Davis and other researchers to investigate the effects of Labour's health reforms.
In the heat of all that, one of Labour's recognised dirty players, Trevor Mallard, made accusations in Parliament about the wife of then National MP Max Bradford, for which he later apologised.
Despite the occasional slip, and his rich training ground, Tamihere believes the code is largely respected and observed.
"I'll scrap anyone. But I have never ever had a go at anyone's family. That's where you don't go because the wife or the children can't protect themselves. I have been very robust in the House. But you can't shift that attack to their personal domain.
"Every human being needs solace and the protection of going home to a relationship."
And as if to prove the point - the worst that he can say about Brash, a some-time orchardist, and his affair?
"Who would've thought he was into passionfruit, not kiwifruit?"