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?

Comments (6)

by Chris Morris on October 30, 2018
Chris Morris

I believe that people's private life (even politicians) is just that, unless it is at variance with their public image. For example, a  married "Christian values" politician having an affair or  a state education for all proponent sending their children to a private school is newsworthy because of the hypocricy. Politicians volunteer for the job - they want to be public figures and aspire to high leadership. And they get very well paid for it. With that, does need to go the responsibility. In the old days, it used to be called leading by example. 

If those leaders were aware that their deceiving actions would be reported, then that might go some way to reducing the bad behaviour that does occur. Then the families of those involved would be one of the major beneficiaries. 


by James Green on October 30, 2018
James Green

In the past there were two major political sides. On the right the forces of capital and conservatism were joined together and on the left there was labour and, eventually, liberalism. Over time the right gave up conservatism and the left gave up labour, they became one hard to distinguish force of just liberals, business liberals and social liberals.

There is no longer any policies worth reporting on coming from these politicians, hence looking into personal lives to get something, anything to report on.

In the present and future there will be three major political sides. The discredited liberalists, the conservative nationalists, and the new old socialists. (Think Clinton/Trump/Sanders or Blair/Boris/Corbyn or Macron/Le Pen/Melenchon.) None of these new forces can get an enthusiatic 50% of the population on their side and none of them have the right answers so it is going to be a tumultuous time for a while. Of course in NZ we only have a uniform parliament of liberals at the moment so we have no drama yet.

By the way, if you want to know the best path it will be at the centrepoint between the liberal, nationalist, and socialist ideologies, i.e. a little bit of all three. At the moment we have entirely too much liberalism and not enough of the other two.

My advice is to start writing about the policies you (and the people) want instead of what we've got. It's time to stop reporting the news* and start making it.

*(well, not entirely of course)

by Lee Churchman on October 31, 2018
Lee Churchman

Well, everyone deserves privacy. I can't see that there's a good reason in most cases for delving into politician's personal relationships. No-one does this at my job, nor yours I'm guessing, Tim.

But character matters. What's bad is that politics is now a career and the people I've known who've gone into politics are the kind of hyperambitious people who would probably be better off doing something else. 

Plato famously argued that desire for political power should be an immediate disqualification for it. It's better when someone comes to politics from somewhere else, and from a sense of duty. That's one reason I think that all members of parliament should be paid the median wage. 

by Dennis Frank on November 03, 2018
Dennis Frank

Yes, I agree with Lee that paying MPs the median wage would produce higher-quality democracy for us.  It would motivate those who see the role as a vocation rather than a career.  It would select representatives who are authentic in seeking to enhance the common good via their contribution.

Instead, the current system gives us a selection of careerists, machine-politicians, with narcissists and robotic drones mixed in to create a semblance of diversity.  So yes, character and integrity does matter, to answer your question Tim. 

Play the ball ought to remain focus of the game, however.  The Ross saga throws a couple of dimensions of current politics into high relief.  First, the toxic effect that the culture of a political party generates, and the extent to which fund-raising fuels that fire.  Second, the switch that happens when a politician turns whistleblower to expose corruption in the public interest.

When I read the bio of Ross available online, and learned he left school early to campaign against corruption in the Auckland City Council, won a seat and forced accountability on Len Brown, I realised the effect this would have in his formative years.  It would have shaped his political identity, making it natural to see himself as a moral crusader.  Previously I had discounted him as merely another typical Nat - a view history has now proven invalid.  Explanation re utu, and a possibly abusive nature in personal relations with partners also apply, of course, but are less significant parts of the truth in my opinion.

I realise you deliberately framed your essay to avoid using him as the topical example, Tim.  However I believe his exemplary demonstration of corruption exposure indicates that he sees himself as serving the public interest.  I agree that MPs ought to see serving the public as their primary duty, even when parliamentary democracy works to force them to regard serving their party as their primary duty.

Conscience, I believe, ought to trump conformity.  So character and integrity prompting a politician to act in accord with his/her conscience rather than join sheep-like caucus unanimity is a sign of public service in action.  We, the public, like to see our politicians serving us rather than acting like sheep.

There's also this:  "State Services Minister Chris Hipkins has been working since February to review the Protected Disclosures Act and whether whistleblowers get enough protection. He is now looking for public feedback.  Suggestions include new reporting obligations for all organisations, whether they be public, private or not for profit.  Hipkins said it was important citizens who spoke up in the public interest had confidence that the law would protect them from punishment or reprisals."

I didn't notice Ross publicly identify himself as a whistleblower.  Neither did we get a single peep out of his lawyer.  Privacy & mental health seem to have combined to ensure that it was not possible for him.  That's a travesty.  If current law prevents a high-profile whistleblower politician using our whistleblower legislation, then the law is not merely an ass.  It's a terminally sick ass.  May it die soon!

by Pat on November 03, 2018

Hear hear James Green.....though I suspect its all too late

by Cushla McKinney on November 04, 2018
Cushla McKinney

As I see it there are three main reasons for hesitating to run character stories. As you point out, Tim, there is the problem of colateral damage to friends and family, and also that all of us are flawed in some respects. There is also the question of what count as as a character flaw (in the past being an unmarried mother or gay would fit this category, for example). I think that there ARE, however, genuine reasons for talking about areas in which a persons actions, whether personal or political, are hypocritical. We elect our politicians based in part on what they espouse to believe and thus ought to be held accountable for acting counter to these beliefs. It may well be that in certain situations pragmatism trumps belief (pun unintended), and we need to recognise and accepts that this is the case, but I think we are still entitled to ask for an explanation.

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