The principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ does not apply in parliamentary politics. Members of Parliament do not have the luxury of simply requesting that all legal avenues be followed before public and political judgements are made. In just this one parliamentary term, politician scandals involving law-breaking or otherwise have been abundant – leading to resignations and serious demotions involving Richard Worth, Pansy Wong, Phil Heatley, David Garrett, Shane Jones, Chris Carter, and now possibly Darren Hughes. It’s too early to be sure what is likely to happen to Darren Hughes, but there’s a significant chance of resignation from the list MP. Ultimately what will determine Darren Hughes’ fate is whether any criminal charges are brought against him and whether he faces a conviction. If so, he will surely resign, and his political career will almost certainly be over. [Read more below]
But even if no charges are eventually brought against him – and if he is cleared of the allegations – then although it’s less likely that he’ll resign, resignation is still a possibility. Quite simply, he might be declared innocent in the 'court of law' (or whatever) but still be guilty in the eyes of the public and therefore his own party too. It’s not a good look to have a senior party whip being seen to 'go wayward', and ultimately he’ll have to pay some sort of price for ‘bringing the party into disrepute’.
We saw this sort of outcome with the recent Pansy Wong mini-scandal. No wrongdoing was found by the Parliamentary investigation, yet the MP decided that she didn’t want to be continually subjected to the immense pressure. Although the MP was officially deemed ‘innocent’ by the report (or ‘whitewash’?) Wong continued to be seen as guilty by many. The National Party clearly did not appreciate the opprobrium that Wong brought on it.
The fact is that political parties are now so extremely sensitive to scandal and negative public perceptions of politicians that they fear might rub off onto the party itself that they treat scandal-prone MPs as lepers. Therefore in this election year there might be significant internal Labour Party pressure on Hughes to 'do the honourable thing', to 'fall on his sword' in the same sort of way that the Government minister Phil Heatley did last year. Such resignations have an effect of isolating the embarrassment and helping ensure that the MP’s party is protected from the embarrassment.
In 2009, Richard Worth – the National MP and Minister outside of Cabinet – faced a similar scandal to Darren Hughes – that is, similar in a sense of there being all sorts of allegations, police investigations, and general confusion floating around about his personal behaviour, and although no charges were eventually brought, his political leader decided to sack him as a minister and then Worth eventually resigned from Parliament as well. In that case there was a very high 'embarrassment factor' involved due to the involvement of sexual allegations. So this case proves that an MP can’t always rely on the old maxim of “innocent until proven guilty” – that principle just doesn’t apply in parliamentary politics.
It’s yet to be seen what the truth of the allegations are against Hughes, but although 'mud sticks', it also can’t be assumed that Hughes’ political career is over. Despite the examples of Wong and Worth, there are also other recent politician scandals that have caused large public concern without it ending their political careers. For example, Labour list MP Shane Jones was subject to considerable embarrassment over the expenses scandal involving hotel pornography he paid for with a Ministerial credit card, and many commentators assumed and pronounced that his political career was effectively over and that he would now never fulfil his ambition to lead the Labour Party. Less than a year later, it seems that such a judgement was far too hasty. Jones handled that personal scandal very well, and people are already starting to forget about his personal misdemeanours.
The trend seems to be that unless the alleged offence is simply ‘beyond the pale’ – such as with David Garrett – then the politicians’ reputation can be harmed, but if they are seen to be contrite enough – regardless of their sincerity – then they can eventually resurrect their political career. Ultimately, memories are relatively short in politics. An MP’s reputation might be tarnished by scandal, but their career isn’t necessarily entirely killed off by a scandal.
However, the Labour Party brand has now been tarnished a little bit more. And so has leader Phil Goff’s brand. It was no surprise that Goff pursued Richard Worth strongly in 2009 when that scandal broke, but Goff might come to regret trying to target National leader John Key so strongly. Goff’s main criticism was that Key had known about the allegations for sometime before acting on them. Now it’s become apparent that similarly, the Labour leader knew about the allegations against Hughes for about two weeks and similarly did nothing and only acted to put Hughes on leave once the media picked up on the story. Hence, in the end it might actually be Goff that is hoisted by his own petard. (Hence, it should be no surprise to hear numerous rumours around that many MPs are unimpressed that Goff and King didn't tell anyone else in the party about the Hughes problem - including the party president - and as a result a coup is being discussed that will promote David Cunliffe with Shane Jones as deputy).
Increasingly New Zealand parliamentary politics and competition revolves around negative politics and the pursuit of dirt and allegations about political opponents. Quite suitably, all politicians are being dragged down by this.