Don't give me culture - the question of character

As a practical people we have been well served by a focus on policy and outcomes. But the Jami-Lee Ross controversies raise the question, 'how much does character and integrity matter?'

I'm a big believer in the maxim, 'play the ball, not the person'. Indeed, it’s the golden rule of behaviour on Pundit and has helped keep this site a pretty respectful place for over a decade.

In politics, as we’ve seen this past few weeks, the personal and political are interwoven. Heck, they are in all walks of life. But the call often rings out to focus on the policy, not the person. Is the policy sound and affordable? Is it thought through and consistent? Is it sustainable and how many people does it hurt? As Helen Clark and especially John Key used to like to ask, what’s the counter-factual?

Overall New Zealand politics has probably been a better place for this attitude. We are a practical people in this country. So we ask, ‘does it work?’ before we weigh into ideological debates. As a fan of politics as a contest of ideas and a few first principles, that sometimes chafes me. I get frustrated at times by this Clark-Key era of political management by leaders devoted above all else to polls and the middle-ground.

Look back a century and you can see the value of practical politics, as the country has prospered and been mostly stable. We have had our economic highs and lows and we have had social upheaval. We have done things we’re not proud of and put up with things we shouldn’t have. But we have not fallen into revolution or hyperinflation. We have avoided putting demagogues in power. We had adapted and tinkered away in what Matthew Palmer so wonderfully called out “constitutional toolshed” and kept things ticking along quite nicely with a political system most countries would envy.

Which makes the rotten behaviour exposed by Simon Bridge’s spending leak investigation and Jami-Lee Ross’s breakdown and revenge play all the more stark. And it raises the question whether a focus on policy is a sufficient measure when we run the rule over our politics and politicians.

Despite criticism that we don't do enough, lots of policy stories get done, especially at election time. In our under-resourced newsrooms, the easiest alternative to the policy stories are the little scandals of everyday political life. The missteps and the fumbles. The inconsistencies and excesses. Most are worthy of coverage and discussion, if perhaps not in the proportions they are served to us. So far, so fine.

But going against our own national grain, do do we need more ‘character’ stories? Do we want to start judging our politicians not just by the policies they enact, but by ‘the cut of their jib’, as my parents’ generation would say. It’s an open question, and I'm not entirely convinced it needs asking. I recoil somewhat at raising the point for all the reasons laid out at the start of this piece. New Zealand journalists have drawn a line at MPs’ personal lives. Are they anything to do with the MPs’ public service? If it doesn’t affect the running of the country, why should voters need to know? And why hurt the innocent families just because one person is behaving badly?

But I'm curious. Is it a discussion worth having?

Politicians have mostly treated each other’s personal lives as off limits. That way lies mutually assured destruction. On the odd occasion the line has been crossed – Trevor Mallard and Don Brash has been the most oft quoted one that I’ve seen in recent days – but it’s been rare.

Nevertheless I’ve started to see comments on websites and social media suggesting voters may value more information on that front. Comments such as: If an MP can’t be trusted to stick to their marriage vows, why trust their election promises? If a person treats staff so badly, why would we want them representing us? Morality matters, some have said. And we’ve had a senior MP in Paula Bennett raise the moral spectre of “appropriate behaviour for married man”. So let’s talk about it. Do we want to go there?

The argument may be that the means are as important as the ends. We want people of integrity leading us and we want to know if behaviour that can reasonably be called harassment and bullying is going on. We have seen it called out in other workplaces. We are tired of the ‘I only do this because of the weight of responsibility in this job’ line. If bullying is going on at a school, we want it challenged. In this #metoo era we are less patient of excuses and more demanding of respectful behaviour. Maybe we just want the right to know what our leaders are really like and for it to be up to us whether or not we want to vote for them – flaws and all.

On the other hand, very flawed people can make great leaders. Winston Churchill, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Richard Seddon, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Alexander the Great… insert just about any name you want. These are complicated people who knew how to bully and cheat and abuse. So maybe character is less important than outcomes. We are all flawed and there is no perfect leader out there. Indeed, a saint may be the very worse person to make the sometimes necessary lesser-evil decisions and compromises required by politics.

Anyway, as much as we long for sincere authenticity these days, it can be faked. And let’s be honest; we also crave the theatre of power. As long as they leave the country better off than they found it, does it matter what any leader is like at home, around the office or in private?

I don’t have answers. But the sort of behaviour that the Ross saga has revealed as almost normal in parliament has certainly made it reasonable to ask the question.

It may be a passing squall that quickly evaporates and soon leaves little sign of it ever have clouded our skies at all. But I’d be interested in what others think about the rules that have operated for so long. Are they still fit for purpose? Or is it time for a re-think?