Sentence first - verdict afterwards!

Defending Darren Hughes may well be a fruitless task. But here's an attempt to do so ...

First things first - I have no special knowledge of the events surrounding Darren Hughes' leave of absence from the House beyond what I've read in the media. And while I have met him on one or two occasions, at which he presented as a perfectly pleasant guy, I couldn't even claim acquaintance status with him.

But that said, I'm not exactly sure why the situation he finds himself in is so widely believed to raise "questions about whether Hughes' political career can survive the controversy."

Of course, if Hughes is charged and found guilty of committing an offence, sexual or otherwise, then I can see he would be (and undoubtedly should be) toast. It may even be that if charges are laid and a trial held at which Hughes is acquitted, the evidence presented still indicates behaviour that makes it more likely than not wrongdoing took place (while not proving beyond reasonable doubt that an offence was committed).

But that won't necessarily happen - and Mr Hughes appears adamant it won't. So it is just as possible that what we have here is a bad case of mixed-messages, or misread signals, or even confused sexuality resulting in a sudden change of mind. The point is, we just don't know what happened between Mr Hughes' and the complainant at that late hour. And until we do know more, any rush to judgment on the issue is not just premature, but unreasonable.

However, let's speculate that, after investigating this, the police conclude that there's insufficient evidence that any offence took place and that whatever occurred between the two parties was (at worst) a misunderstanding over why they each were at the house together at that time of the night. Even bloggers you might expect to be somewhat sympathetic to Hughes - see here, and here - still seem to think that his resignation will be required even on this "best case" scenario (and that's without going into the right-of-center blogs!).

I'm not so sure. On this set of facts (which I acknowledge are entirely as speculative as are claims that a criminal act definitely took place), what exactly is the wrong that demands the remedy of resignation?

Well, you might say, 18-year-olds are vulnerable to predation, and so any older man (and woman?) who seeks to have some sexual contact with a person of this age is taking advantage of that fact. Of course, even if this were true in the general case, it doesn't prove it in the particular - there exist 18-year-olds who are entirely secure in their sexuality and their choices around how to exercise it, while there are plenty of 30-somethings (and beyond) who haven't learned a thing from past experiences. And if it is true in the general case that 18-year-olds are vulnerable to predation, what does the age of the person engaging in sexual activity with them matter? Wouldn't a 21-year-old be equally guilty of "taking advantage" as is a 32-year-old? Or should we rework our consent laws to make the "half-age-plus-7" rule binding in some way?

Ah! But it isn't just Mr Hughes' age that matters here. He occupies a position of power, which means any relationship (or attempted relationship) with a significantly younger person is inherently suspect. And, you may argue, it's his abuse of that power that is the real issue here.

It seems to me we need to be careful what we mean by "a position of power" in this case. Sure, if it turns out Mr Hughes expressly (or even impliedly) promised something to the complainant - "I can help you move up in the Party, you know" - then obviously he's toast. But let's again assume nothing of this sort was said. What does it matter that Mr Hughes role as an MP imbued him with "power" vis a vis the complainant?

Sure, power is an aphrodisiac of sorts to some folk - being an MP with some status in Labour makes Mr Hughes more sexually attractive to some people than he otherwise would be. But so what? Having large breasts make some women more sexually attractive to some people than they otherwise would be. Being picked to play sport for New Zealand make some people more sexually attractive to some other people than they otherwise would be. Etc, etc.

The point is that people want to fuck other people for all sorts of reasons. So to say "Mr Hughes abused his power as an MP" seems to me to beg the question ... where is the abuse of power here? Or, are we going to have a rule that says "MPs only can try to score people who do not know that they are MPs, in case they get starry eyed and do things for the wrong reasons"? But what is the right reason for wanting to engage in sexual contact with a person - aside, of course, from true love and a desire to spend the rest of one's life as the other's true soulmate ... ?

Well, what about the fact Mr Hughes [was] the Labour Party's spokesperson on [Tertiary] Education? And that the incident took place following a debate at the Vic Uni campus? And that the complainant is a student? Surely this creates some form of conflict between his official role and his actions?

No, it doesn't. [...] The event was a comedy debate, not an official party-political one. But more importantly, what exactly are we saying about the limits Mr Hughes' role as spokesperson (not even Minister) on Tertiary Education put on his private life? Can he not have a relationship with a lecturer? Can he not date anyone who has a child at a University? Or is just people who currently are at University that are off-limits?

I guess I can summarise the above by saying that the ethics of this just doesn't seem all that clear to me. I mean, even my institution, the University of Otago, does not absolutely prohibit staff-student relationships - it merely "strongly discourages" them (whatever that means!) on the basis that such relationships "risk taking advantage of the intrinsic trust, power and status differential implicit in the staff-to-student relationship". So if a University recognises that it's not absolutely wrong for a lecturer to sleep with an undergraduate, but that context matters, I'm loathe to say that it's clearly wrong for an MP to try to do likewise.

Which brings us back to the question of "power" - is the mere fact that Mr Hughes is an MP and the complainant (reportedly) a young party member enough to say that making a pass (or whatever happened) was clearly wrong? Why? Because the complainant just couldn't say "no" to anything? Because the complainant just couldn't know what he or she really wanted? Those seem to me to be specific conclusions on particular facts, rather than general truths that apply in every case. And without really knowing the facts, no conclusion can really be drawn yet.

But perhaps it isn't an ethical issue at all. Perhaps it's a moral one. Maybe Mr Hughes sin (I use that word deliberately) was to put himself in a compromising position with a younger man, an act that reveals a default in character that makes him unfit to be an MP at all.

If you believe that then there isn't much I can say to change your mind. But I just don't buy it. Quite frankly, I don't really care who an MP wants to have sex with - it's not an issue that I think has any bearing whatsoever on their ability to do their job.

Of course, having laid down such a strong line, I'll now qualify it. The sex life of a politician who publicly preaches morality is fair game on the basis of hypocrisy - just as any gap between public utterances and private behaviour is. And obviously criminal behaviour, or actual misuse of office, with regards an MP's private life is a relevant matter.

(That, to me, potentially separates Mr Hughes' case from Richard Worth's. Even given that we don't know exactly why Mr Worth was driven out of National, there were sufficient allegations of not only criminal activity but also repeated conflicts of interest to clearly justify tossing him from the boat. So it weren't the sleeping around that was the real problem there.)

But aside from that, I'm pretty much laissez faire when it comes to what (and who) MPs do in their private lives. I don't want to vote for a saint or a role model for my children. I want to vote for someone who will give me the sorts of policies I support and will make hard decisions in a way I can respect (and, ideally, also support).

But perhaps I'm an outlier. Perhaps the real problem Mr Hughes faces is the "optics" of his situation. Or, to put it another way, the wrong he has committed is purely political in nature.

For one thing, Mr Hughes should have known that certain members of the Labour Party are, how to put this, more likely than other MPs to have their behaviour scrutinised in the media. That in itself ought to have counseled a measure of prudence before drinking to the early hours and then asking someone back home without having ... reached a certain understanding as to what might follow thereafter.

(Note: I'm not claiming the only reason the media are all over this story is because of Mr Hughes' sexuality. I've no doubt this would be just as much a story if it were (say) Simon Bridges and a young lady involved. Rather, the media's past appetite for "news" regarding gay Labour MPs is a fact that such MPs need to be aware of when living their lives.)

Furthermore, as Labour's chief whip, Mr Hughes' is in the position of Caesar's wife. That's not just because he's got some public profile - it's also because his job inevitably creates enemies who will be happy to stick the boot in, if given the chance.

And finally, the way that this has been handled by Mr Hughes and his leaders has been downright abysmal. They should have front-footed the issue two weeks ago, "outing" the police investigation themselves and taking a leave of absence straight away. Trying to keep it under wraps, assumedly in the hope that once no charges are laid it will go away, was never going to work.

So Labour can spit and wail about "the Beehive" leaking this issue to the media, but really they brought the problem on themselves to some extent. Which is why focus has now turned to Phil Goff's decision making on this matter.

I guess what I'm fumbling towards is the conclusion that I'm not necessarily bothered by Mr Hughes' behaviour (provided, I reiterate, that no criminal wrongdoing is proven, at either the "beyond reasonable doubt" or "balance of probabilities" level). However, I have the bad feeling that his future may be decided not so much on the basis of "did he do wrong?", but on the basis of "did he do something that we think lots of other people else thinks might be wrong, even if we (and they) can't really say what it was, and perhaps it'd be safest just to cut him loose?"

Which isn't much of a defence, I know. But it's the best I can do ...

[Postscript: This is one of those topics where commentators may wish to exercise a degree of circumspection ... because if you don't, those of us with the power of editing will do it for you.]