Why Len Brown will still be Auckland's Mayor (and that's a good thing, too)

Len Brown's mistake was in making it impossible for us not to know he made it. We need more from our politicians.

So there's been a (shock! horror!) revelation that a late-fifties man who fills an office of some power and public attention has had an affair with a (much) younger woman who felt a frisson of excitement at the relationship's illicit nature and was flattered by the attention that he lavished on her. Then, after the affair ended, she apparently has become somewhat bitter about the whole experience, and has chosen to layout its details in a somewhat sordid fashion. And now we're all sharks feeding off that chum, whether we like it or not.

In other words, the thing that has happened countless times before has happened again. So is there anything really new or interesting we can say about it?

Probably not. But seeing as everyone else is talking, here's my ten cents worth.

First, the very fact that this story is such a cliche ought not to lead us to deny the very real human hurt behind it. Living in the reflected glare of a man who (albeit for good intentions) seeks the public spotlight must be hard. Having to suffer through the pain of famial betrayal and exposed lies whilst that spotlight continues to shine must be near intolerable. And for all I know, the behaviour of Bevan Chuang may also be covering a deep hurt at the loss of a relationship she actually treasured.

These are real people, not just names in the newspaper. That matters. 

Second, Len Brown has fallen short of the standard of behaviour I'd like to see in a public official, in that he gave way to temptations he ought to have been able to resist. I don't by any means think those in public power ought to be ascetic saints, who turn their backs on all the delights the world has to offer. For instance, the regular tut-tutting over Ministerial travel bills and parsing of expense claims often degenerates into  puritanical silliness. And sure, the heart wants what the heart wants, so we shouldn't be too quick to judge other people's sexual peccadillos.

But for all that, when you're the mayor of New Zealand's largest city and have the added responsibility of being a husband and father, to pursue a lengthy affair in circumstances where it's almost inevitable that your actions will become general knowledge displays either an unattractive hubris or a disappointing lack of plain common sense. Serving the public means being able to think through the consequences of your actions and sometimes saying "no" to things that you really, really want. 

With those caveats in place, here's why Len Brown will stay on as mayor of Auckland.

The most important reason is that he wants to. Whatever damage the affair (and its subsequent revelation) have wrought in his private life, he isn't even saying that he'll take time to consider his public position. So there will be no voluntary stepping down to spend more time with the family in this case.

Furthermore, the Council that he leads is not going to push him out - either by formal means (although there's probably no way that it could do so, anyway) or through an informal removal of confidence and support. On nine-to-noon today, Katherine Ryan canvassed the views of a number of the Council's heavy hitters: Penny Hulse, Penny Webster, George Wood and Arthur Anae. The closest she could get any of them to saying that Brown should step down was George Wood's claim that it was a matter for Brown to consider himself ... but the affair wouldn't stop him doing the job of Mayor. The other three were unhesitatingly supportive of Brown continuing.

If that's as harsh as the criticism of Brown gets (and remember, as the titular leader of the old Citizens and Ratepayer's bloc, Woods is one of Brown's main opponents), then he's going to be able to stay on.

And that is a good thing, too. For all Brown's actions were dumb at a public level and sad at a private one, this shouldn't be a sacking offence. Len Brown as a political figure isn't any different today than he was yesterday morning, before the story started getting reported.

So what, then, if anything do we learn from this sorry saga?

Public figures need to understand that the way things work in New Zealand has changed. Now that blogs can set the news agenda, and bloggers of limited ethical capacity control those blogs, the portals of publicity have been considerably widened.

As such, the "what will this look like if it's on the front page of the paper?" question needs to be asked in a whole lot more situations. Which means that public figures need to start being even more discreet and calculating than they were before.

That isn't (just) a call for greater hypocrisy on the part of our political leaders. It's a recognition of a new rule of political life. We want you to have private lives, in which you can be human beings (with all the foibles and missteps that that brings). But the walls around those public lives are now a lot lower, with a whole lot more people trying to peer over them. 

So, please - for your sake and ours - make it possible for us not to know.