Len Brown: sex, lies and mandates

Len Brown is seriously damaged as Auckland mayor, but he's not the only one to have had his flaws laid out in public today. Problem is, his abuse of power puts his job at risk because of Bevan Chuang's council role

It was a woeful today for the two men to have most recently worn the title of Auckland Mayor. Len Brown was this afternoon exposed as having been having an affair with Bevan Chuang, a member of the Ethnic Peoples Advisory Panel and a local board candidate in the Auckland elections, but this evening said he intended to stay on as mayor.

Just a few hours earlier his predecessor John Banks had been in court facing allegations of electoral fraud, again reminding us that he accepted a $50,000 donation to his 2010 mayoral campaign from Kim Dotcom, but only on the condition it was anonymous and split into two $25,000 payments.

In both cases we see an electorate's trust betrayed, but the most damning line of the day came from Dotcom, when he repeated under oath what Banks said to him when he received the "anonymous" donation:

"He [Banks] said 'Kim, if I help you in the future it's better if nobody knows about your donation'."

It was a reminder of just how dodgy that deal was, but was superceded by the new shock and scandal of the Brown revelation. And let's address that, because this post is by no means an attempt to hide Brown's failings behind Banks'. Politically, this is hugely damaging and rightly so.

The initial story on WhaleOil said the affair was with a "council employee", which is a bit of a stretch. As one of 12 on the Ethnic Peoples Advisory Panel she is a representative rather than a staff member. If she had been a staff member the issue would have been much worse for Brown, because employment law would have come down on him like a tonne of bricks.

Even as it stands, his claim that this is an "entirely" private matter is clearly nonsense. It goes to trust. It goes to character. And most of all it goes to his use of power. Or rather, his abuse of power.

Chuang is an adult who chose to have an affair with a married man and then make the details public, so any depiction of her as a victim in this only goes so far. Her own political aspirations, whatever they might have been, are now in tatters. But she's brought that on herself. Having said that, Brown has clearly abused his power over her and failed in his duty of care as mayor.

You only have to look at the FAQs on the Ethnic Peoples Advisory Panel's webpage to see why he has every reason to be worried about how voters might judge him. The page says:

"The Local Government Act required the Mayor of Auckland to appoint the Panel
 no later than 31 March 2011.
The Panel was established and appointed by the Mayor of Auckland following a three-stage selection process..."
It goes on:
"The Panel operates up to 1 November 2013. However, the decision to
continue or re-establish the panel in the same or modified form is within the
power of the Mayor’s authority."


So Chuang – a perfectly pleasant woman I met earlier this year – was the mayor's own appointee (even if the recommendations came from a selection committee). Worse, he has the power to re-appoint her – or not – in the next two to three weeks. To compromise himself, Chuang and the Auckland Council this way clearly is unacceptable. The question is whether it is politically untenable and cause for resignation.

On Campbell Live tonight Brown said he was committed to Auckland and would be staying in the job. He said he's just won a strong mandate from the people of Auckland, but in a clear out-clause said he would be listening to the people.

There has to be a serious question over that mandate. No-one can confidently argue one way or the other whether he would have won if voters had known about the affair. It certainly would have been closer, but we can't know what never happened. So he can't claim any sort of mandate with confidence, leaving him severely compromised in any political endeavour he attempts in the next three years.

I voted for Brown last week, but I don't know how I would have voted if I had known about this. Brown reasonably told Campbell that people will "judge me in the whole". And perhaps I would have seen the work achieved and the important goals to come and voted the same way anyway. Perhaps many would have felt that. But I don't know and Brown can't know either. This is just one reason why trust and transparency matter so much. Voters have the right to know exactly what – and who – we're voting for.

I used the phrase "political endeavours" above. Brown used those words to discuss why the story was released today. Chuang stood for the Albert-Eden Local Board on the Communities and Residents ticket – essentially the National Party. Apart from the insanely stupid act by Brown to have an affair with an opponent, the fact that it comes from a C&R candidate and was revealed by Cameron Slater – whose father John was involved in leading the campaign of Brown's chief opponent John Palino – suggests that the telling of this story is politically motivated. It casts that crew in a very tawdry light.

Clearly this story could have been told pre-election. The fact it comes after the election raises fascinating questions. Was Chuang only willing to speak having failed to get a seat on the local board? What would have happened had she won? Is the timing a reflection that the Slaters figured Brown may well have won even with this story in the public arena? And that this timing ensures maximum damage with minimal risk? Tawdry is right.

But none of that excuses Brown's betrayal. On Campbell Live he spoke just of the pain caused to his family. It's understandable that they are his focus, but it was poor that he did not accept responsibility for his mistake and acknowledge that he had failed voters as well. He lied by omission. It took until his final sentence for him to even apologise to us.

We still don't know about the threatening text sent to Chuang last week from an anonymous number warning her not to talk. That does not reflect well on Brown as well.

Really, this is a man who had united a city where much could have gone wrong, moved National on a major policy plank (the rail loop), won a second term and had more power than ever. He had a fine legacy in his grasp – the man who finally delivered functioning public transport to Auckland where so many had failed. All that tarnished because of... what? Lust? Stress? Boredom? Ego? It's tragically pathetic.

His political life hangs by a thread tonight. His determination to stay in the job may wilt – or be undermined by circumstances and further revelations – in the days to come. A personal failing is one thing, but the woman involved, details revealed and her role take him perilously close to the edge.

But consider this, of the two Auckland mayors who had their dirty linen aired today, which one has committed the greater sin? I've got to say that if Banks can stay in public office while Brown is forced out, our moral and political compass is pointing in a direction that no longer makes much sense to me.