One of the key trends in modern parliamentary politics is a fixation with the personal behaviour of our politicians. Partly this is driven by the perception – which is largely-correct – that politicians are increasingly untrustworthy and self-serving. It’s certainly healthy to have some focus and scrutiny applied politician behaviour, and the growing public mistrust of MPs is also apt. Yet unfortunately a number of negative consequences also arise from this increasing obsession with the foibles, flaws and misdemeanours of political personalities. Not only does it perpetuate the transfer of attention from political substance to the superficial, it also creates a demand for greater state or parliamentary control, regulation or monitoring of the personal lives and backgrounds of public representatives (or candidates for office). This could have all sorts of democratically unhealthy ramifications – such as turning the political milieu into an even more narrower bunch of professional politicians with bland and conventional backgrounds. [Read more below]
Should politicians have to declare their past histories and misdemeanours?
The public seems to generally expect those standing for political office to possess a certain ethical standing. And while it’s no doubt fair enough to want a high level of human material in our political system, that shouldn’t mean that we narrow down the diversity of politicians so that that the only people representing us are those without criminal convictions or past misdemeanours.
Of course the public rightly expects a degree of transparency about such things, and this demand will only increase as a result of the David Garrett debacle. But there’s a difficult question of where to draw the line about disclosure. What criteria is there for what should be declared? There are lots of grey areas. It’s not clear that a conviction per se needs to be admitted publicly – surely it will depend on the nature of the conviction.
But the Garrett case does nicely help clarify that if a politician is seeking to advance a particular public policy agenda, then they should be careful to either not be advancing anything that contradicts their own lifestyle or past, or at least they should to be totally up front about it and let the public judge whether its hypocritical or not.
Should there be some sort of regulation or law about politician backgrounds?
It would not be wise, practical or desirable for the state or parliament to regulate these things. It’s hard to imagine there could be some sort of parliamentary register of misdemeanours or convictions in the same way that MPs and Ministers have registers for their financial assets and procurements. Certainly if such a system could be set up, it would be pretty scary. Where would it end? A register of the personal relationships and sexual partners of politicians?!
The alternative solution is to leave the responsibility for regulating politicians ethics and behaviour in the hands of civil society. Ultimately the electoral process is the best way of punishing a candidate or party that offends the public’s sense of ethics. The media needs to be scrutinising candidates and politicians constantly (and arguably they’ve been doing a better job of this in recent times). Opponent political parties, too, need to apply this scrutiny too. Similarly, the public are likely be asking a lot more questions about the backgrounds and political beliefs of candidates at next year’s election, precisely because of the David Garrett scandal.
But more than anything, this ‘civil society’ approach to dealing with politician ethics and personal behaviour means that the responsibility lies in the hands of the political parties – they need to be self-regulating. Generally parties have a recruitment process whereby all candidates have to declare anything in their backgrounds that might be a potential scandal or problematic. Most political parties have requirements for potential electoral candidates to disclose to the party any possible embarrassing details about their past that could cause controversy in the future and therefore bring the party into disrepute. In Act’s case, the party constitution apparently requires that any candidate fill out a candidates form, and the candidates form specifically asks the question 'Have you any convictions?'.
In the David Garrett debacle, it seems that these procedures were ignored by leader Rodney Hide (or perhaps the whole Act board). Essentially, Hide’s considerable opportunism overrode proper procedures. With the Act Party in the opinion poll doldrums, Hide was looking around for a popularity quick-fix and he seized on the Sensible Sentencing Trust as the bandwagon to ride. He thought that his party could benefit from the trust’s social conservative brand by promoting it’s lawyer, David Garrett, into the top 5 of the Act party list – despite the fact that Garrett had never even been a member or supporter of the party. The problem was that Hide didn’t want David Garrett warts and all – he wanted the neophyte’s personal baggage left behind. So despite Garrett apparently telling Hide that his past passport fraud would rule him out of political life, Hide seems to have suggested to Garrett and his Act colleagues that they just keep the secret covered up. Two years later Hide’s blatant opportunism has come back to bite himself, Garrett and the Act Party as well. Hence the self-regulation appears to be working to some extent, and the Act Party is paying a high price for its opportunism.
Should an amnesty be declared for all MPs with dodgy pasts?
The dodgy pasts of other politicians seems to now be the issue of the week. Should the rest of them fess up about their misdemeanours? This appears to be happening to some degree already – with Transport Minister Steven Joyce admitting his previous traffic-related convictions. And new Act MP Hilary Calvert is confessing that she owns a property used as a brothel. Surely there will be plenty more confessions to arise. It would certainly be interesting to see all parliamentarians make declarations of their misdeeds. And while a ‘clean slate’ might be an ironic way to move forward, the effect of this would be more negative than positive.
Is politician behaviour getting worse?
We are currently seeing more politician indiscretions and misdemeanours being publicised and scandalised. Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that more scandalous activity is actually occurring, but perhaps it’s just being detected and reported more than it used to. Hence we have a lot more media coverage of politicians misusing parliamentary perks, and the public wants to hear more about politician bad behaviour, and relationship breakdowns.
It could be argued that politician behaviour and ethics are indeed getting worse, and this is mainly because modern politics is less ideological than it used to be. The political differences between the parties has narrowed in recent years, and most of the MPs going into parliament these days are professional politicians. They become MPs as part of a career, and they’re a lot more individualistic than they used to be when they came into parliament at an order age after having proper careers as teachers, farmers, or whatever. Now being a politician is a full-time career that you go into and you expect all the perks and career stepping stones that lead you into personal trouble (for more, see: Credit card scandal – why they spend our money).
All of this can be seen within the Act Party, whereby a decline in ideology also means that politics is less about principles and more about personal pragmatism and ambition (see: Act Party loses its soul).
Clearly the answer to reducing poor politician behaviour doesn’t lie in keeping out candidates that might have misdemeanours in their past. Instead the answer lies ultimately in having more democratically healthy political parties. Unfortunately this answer doesn’t look much like happening in the near future. What we need is a shake up of New Zealand politics and the party system. Despite the shift to MMP, the current party system and democratic system has ossified and become fairly empty of genuine and significant political debate and differences.