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A Brief History Of Political Scandal In New Zealand - From Colin Moyle To Darren Hughes

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Today we are all digesting the news of Labour MP Darren Hughes being accused of sexually harrassing a  former Youth MP. I first began following politics as a young child in the 1970s during the Muldoon era. It was during the 1970s that New Zealanders became exposed to political scandal for the first time.

This is not a surprising observation. Prior to the mid-1970s salacious gossip about politicians was usually hushed up in this country. Nobody apart from the Wellington political classes knew about what MPs really got up to in the hours after the House rose (and even during sitting times). Illicit affairs, heavy drinking and questionable behaviour went on amongst MPs even back then. In one case, it was disclosed during the last decade that a Holyoake era Immigration Minister who had refused entry to a British nightclub singer in the 1960s on the grounds that her act was too sexually immoral had actually done so to prevent news of his own extramarital affair from leaking into the open. Further, the Press Gallery was a very all male affair until the mid-1970s and for this reason ran a virtual hush, hush policy with the mainly male inhabitants of Parliament. Also the media were hamstrung by very stringent libel laws which they knew that any MP would invoke the moment an allegation was made. 

However, international political scandals during the 1960s and 1970s meant that it was only a matter of time before the illicit sex lives and financial shenanigans of politicians began to be reported on openly in New Zealand. The first major overseas political sex scandal was the British Perfumo Affair of 1963 when Conservative Party War Minister Steven Perfumo was found to have slept with a prostitute who also was having an affair with a Soviet agent. The second political scandal that began to shift public opinion about politicians private activities was Watergate when U.S. President Richard Nixon was found to have engaged in underhand activities that enabled him to win the 1972 presidential election. While Nixon's domestic life was not questioned by the scandal, Watergate helped shift public perceptions about the moral fallibility of leaders. Accordingly, in the decades following Watergate, the historical extramarital affairs of former presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and, particularly, John F. Kennedy, came to light. 

The media's implicit hushing up of political scandal in this country lasted until a very nasty confrontation in the House one night in mid-1977.

This nasty confrontation was initiated by then prime minister Rob Muldoon. During an exchange on an un-related matter in a parliamentary debate, Muldoon brusquely commented on Labour MP (and potential leadership aspirant and former Kirk/Rowling cabinet minister) Colin Moyle's so called 'effeminate' giggle. Muldoon then went onto charge that Moyle  had allegedly been picked up by police for homosexual activities (which were then illegal) in Wellington. When this matter came to then Labour leader Bill Rowling's attention, Moyle was grilled by Rowling and changed his story several times. Upon that basis, Moyle quit parliament and through the ensuing by-election in Moyle's Mangere seat, the Labour Party gained its next leader, David Lange. But Muldoon, in his ugly and homophobic act, destroyed Moyle's hopes of ever leading the Labour Party. However, Moyle was exonerated of any illegal activity and returned to Parliament becoming a cabinet minister once more in the Lange Government.

But Muldoon was the subject of innuendo and rumour himself. During the 1970s, a group of feminist activists clandestinely spray painted for all to see  the rumours about Muldoon's own alleged affair with the wife of a close friend around Wellington. After Muldoon's death in the early 1990s, the Muldoon family and even the subject of the affair allegations herself vigorously denied them. However, stories of Muldoon's heavy drinking never made it into the public eye until after his death. Many closely observant New Zealanders may have suspected that Muldoon's decision to call the 1984 election had been a rather clouded one by the slurring of his words at the now infamous media conference announcing the election.

The media's decision not to disclose Muldoon's drinking or affairs signified its underlying fear of the man. But they probably chose to send a warning to Muldoon just before the 1984 election through a rather underhand act. This came in the form of a cameraman's clandestine filming of Muldoon ally and then Cabinet minister Keith Allen walking home (supposedly drunk) one night in Wellington. This was after Allen had made allegations about his being assaulted while walking home from the House. Tragically, it was later disclosed that Allen had diabetes and debate simmered as to whether he had actually been affected by the condition. In the filming of Allen, though, the media wanted to implicitly let Muldoon know that next time they might come looking for him after a drinking bout.

During the Muldoon era, the first political scandals of a financial nature also emerged. I remember the Fitzgerald Loans Affair back in 1980 where it was alleged that Lands Minister Duncan McIntyre and another Cabinet colleague Venn Young had applied undue pressure on the Marginal Lands Board to provide finance to McIntyre's daughter and son-in-law Audrey and Jim Fitzgerald. The allegations of impropriety were dismissed by the ensuing Royal Commission but McIntyre's and Young's actions were deemed 'unwise'. This scandal opened the way for all other political/financial scandals to come including the Maori Loans Board affair (raised by Winston Peters in 1986) and up to almost the present day when Peters himself was accused of not disclosing campaign funding from millionaire Owen Glenn.

Evidently, the disclosure of political indiscretions has tarnished the standing of politicians both locally and internationally. In the last three decades, New Zealanders have been subjected to the tales of former prime minister David Lange's affair with speechwriter Margaret Pope, former Act MP David Garrett's stealing of a dead baby's identity, and numerous spending indiscretions by MPs on all sides of the House. Still, due to libel laws and the fact that many New Zealanders don't care about what politicians do in their private lives (so long as it doesn't impact on their public duties), many potential political scandals have stayed inside Parliament's walls. Darren Hughes has simply been unlucky in that the allegations against him are now the subject of a police investigation. If they had not been the subject of a police investigation would we (the ordinary public) have been any the wiser? Further, the issue has been raised by many in the blogosphere and wider media that had the complainant not been male would this story have gone any further?

As ever though, politics is all about power and its potential for being misused or abused. Political scandal will always, unfortunately, be with us.


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