The perils of being Darren Hughes

The case of the latest MP in trouble shows once again how perilous it is to risk becoming an MP -- and how party selection processes militate for MPs who are 'safe', to the detriment of democracy

The breaking story that one of Labour’s young high fliers is currently subject to police investigation has been top of the New Zealand news over the last 24 hours, notwithstanding a new war, earthquakes and nuclear alarm.

Regardless of the actual circumstances surrounding the police inquiry, I cannot help but feel tremendous sympathy for Darren Hughes, who has always struck me as an intelligent, competent, courteous and hard working MP.

He has a wicked sense of humour too, something much appreciated by fellow MPs – and I’m sure the press gallery as well – during the longueurs of the average sitting day.

I have no more idea than anyone else in the public arena about what happened on the night of March 2.

However, I think this sad incident – because it will be sad, whatever happens, for the young man involved, and for Darren – is also an object lesson in how hard it is to become – and remain – a member of Parliament and retain any sense of reality and connection to ordinary life.

There is a two-stage process in operation here.

The first step lies with your own party’s selection procedures. I imagine most parties are the same, in attempting to weed out people who have unfortunate backgrounds or predilections before they ever hit the party list or electorate selection processes.

Mistakes of various sorts do happen, the strange case of Act’s David Garrett perhaps being the most visible in recent times – but on the whole, some fairly stringent gatekeeping occurs, even among that most liberal-thinking of parties, the Greens.

It’s true that a few of us with what one might call visibly ‘interesting’ backgrounds snuck through in the watershed 1999 election – Georgina Beyer for Labour, and Nandor Tanzcos and myself for the Green Party – but looking back, I think we were the exception, rather than a sign of even more progressive things to come.

While parties have made some rather odd selections in the period since then, and have had to live with some rather bizarre outcomes, on the whole, I think safety and respectability are once again the norm.

The second stage in the process happens as new MPs gradually realise and try to come to terms with the constraints of a life lived under the public microscope.

From drinking, spending and sexual mishaps through to one’s family life or lack of it, through to the wilder exploits of one’s children, journalists await with interest anything which will break the tedium of reporting on the complexities of legislation, select committees and budgets.

Even worse, the interest continues even after you leave Parliament, depending exponentially on how well known you are.

Having lived in the fishbowl for some time myself, and in the light of Darren Hughes’ current predicament, I’d like to offer just a few reflections:

  • I believe democracy would be better served if wemedia, public, and political partieswere a little more tolerant of peoples’ foibles and imperfections. If we only want people who have never deviated from a safe ‘norm’ to represent us, most of the population will in fact be unrepresented.
  • Next time you attack the level of MPs’ salaries, give some thought to the very real tradeoffs they make in terms of risk to their own and their family’s privacy and wellbeing.
  • One of the reasons women are often less willing to seriously stand for Parliament than men is that we are less confident than our male counterparts that things we’ve done (or have happened to us) in the past won’t come to light in a way that will impact harmfully on ourselves and those closest to us once we’re out there in the public arena.
  • For people who deviate from perceived ‘norms’ and are in a less privileged position, whether through gender, sexuality, disability, ethnicity, economic background or anything else, Parliament can be a place of great vulnerability. The fact that media attention can follow you even after you leave only extends the risk – Georgina Beyer’s story is an example of this.

It is human nature to have a prurient interest in the lives of others, especially when those people are in positions of comparative wealth and power.

I don’t blame the media or anyone else for this – it’s part of what we are as humans.

However, I would ask for a little more reflection and empathy at times from those who are the first to criticise those delectable falls from grace among our elected representatives.

If we expect only perfection, we will end up only with MPs who do not understand the reality of the muck and murk in which most of us actually live our lives.