At a time when New Zealand faces serious questions about its place within the world, Parliament has been dealing with MPs’ misconduct and mud slinging – and that is to our wider detriment, Sam Sachdeva writes

In politics, and political commentary in particular, there is a tendency towards recency bias.

This minister is surely the most hapless one yet; that party is in as deep a hole as it has ever been; this must be the dirtiest campaign on record.

With that caveat in mind, it is hard to think of a time in recent memory where the gap between the serious policy matters our country must address, and the issues occupying MPs’ limited time, has been such a chasm.

The world is still in the grips of a pandemic that has infected over 15 million people and killed more than 600,000, but our Parliament is consumed by mud slinging and revelations about the sexual appetites of its politicians.

On the one hand, that is a reflection of the fortunate position New Zealand finds itself in with regards to Covid-19; on the other, plenty of unresolved questions remain around our re-engagement with the outside world, and they are not getting the attention they deserve.

Instead, Jacinda Ardern’s decision to dismiss her Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Iain Lees-Galloway over a year-long affair with a former staffer was at the forefront of proceedings on Tuesday.

Viewed in a vacuum, Lees-Galloway’s behaviour is far less serious than that of National’s former Rangitata MP Andrew Falloon.

The latter may yet face charges over multiple instances of sending unsolicited, sexually explicit images to young women; the former was in a consensual albeit extra-marital relationship which reportedly ended several months ago.

Iain Lees-Galloway’s behaviour was inconsistent with his ministerial position and heightened responsibilities. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

But as Ardern rightly pointed out, the wider context was critical to her decision to force Lees-Galloway from Cabinet.

First, the Workplace Relations and Safety Minister had a heightened duty to model appropriate behaviour in his place of employment, rather than skirting the rules.

Secondly, the woman was not a peer but someone who had worked for his office, before moving to an agency over which he had ministerial oversight.

It is that very real power imbalance that those wringing their hands about a slippery slope for infidelity seem to miss.

The issue is not someone’s marital status, but their ability to exert power over the other person in the relationship, whether or not they deliberately do so.

When allegations about Jami-Lee Ross’ treatment of women were first reported by Newsroom, the MP responded by warning about “lifting the bedsheets” at Parliament.

Nearly two years on, new concerns about his treatment of staff continue to come out, suggesting that lifting the sheets is the best way to get rid of the muck underneath.

The Francis review of workplace conduct at Parliament was meant to help lift standards of behaviour. Just over a year on, progress has been slow-going, with little in the way of obvious transformation on behalf of the parliamentary staff who so clearly want it to take place.

The manner of how Lees-Galloway’s activity came to light has also given cause for concern about how this particular election campaign will play out.

Like Ardern, National leader Judith Collins privately passed on information to her counterpart when it was sent to her office; unlike Ardern, she chose to effectively reveal the existence of the allegations (though not naming Lees-Galloway) during an interview on The AM Show, in response to a general query about whether she had received tips about any Labour MPs.

Collins protested that she was merely providing a direct answer to a direct question, but it is not hard to think of responses which would not have constituted a lie while still granting Ardern the ability to act on her own timetable.

Peters under the pump

Both the allegations and the ensuing squabble about how they entered the public arena had the unfortunate effect of distracting from a story which raised separate but equally serious issues of ministerial conduct.

RNZ’s Guyon Espiner revealed that Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters had “directed Antarctica New Zealand to give two highly-prized spots on a trip to the icy continent to two women closely linked to one of South East Asia’s richest families”.

The trip proceeded against the initial advice and concern of the Antarctic organisation, with one of the women telling RNZ she was good friends with Peters and his partner Jan Trotman.

Peters’ defence – that he was trying to help raise private funds for the redevelopment of Scott Base – seems odd given the women told RNZ they had never been asked for money.

Even if that were true, it is unclear why Peters did not simply pass their details to Antarctica New Zealand and recuse himself thereafter given the potential for, at the very least, the perception of a conflict of interest.

It was pathetic for the New Zealand First leader to label the story a “racist attack on innocent people”, given the ethnicity of the invitees was hardly at the forefront and Peters himself has previous resorted to race-based attacks.

His attempt to equate the visit in question to previous trips by – shock horror – journalists was also flimsy, given the rigorous, merit-based selection processes that take place for such visits.

Winston Peters’ claims about the alleged leakers of his superannuation payment were not accompanied by much in the way of evidence. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

ACT leader David Seymour, who Peters threatened to fight just this week, pressed Ardern on the propriety of the situation during Question Time.

Peters provided his revenge – and probably not coincidentally, a helpfully public distraction from his own problems – shortly after, using the general debate to allege it was Seymour who had leaked details of his superannuation payment to the media before the 2017 election.

Using the cover of parliamentary privilege, he laid out a byzantine conspiracy involving former National press secretary (and Seymour’s former partner) Rachel Morton, NZ Taxpayers’ Union founder Jordan Williams, and Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy to name just a few. Newsroom investigations editor Melanie Reid and Newshub had been tipped off anonymously in 2017 about Peters taking higher super payments than he was due.

Seymour, Morton, and Williams have all categorically denied the claims. Murphy said they were “wrong, made-up and sad.” Peters presented no evidence in Parliament to back up his allegations (nor did he repeat them to media outside the protection of the House).

But with the Antarctic questions not likely to disappear, and the Serious Fraud Office investigation into the New Zealand First Foundation due back before the election, it would not be a surprise to see the Deputy Prime Minister make similarly wild claims in the limited time before Parliament rises.

That, and the likelihood of further claims around MP behaviour, do not augur well for the standard of debate during the election campaign.

But for our own sakes, voters must demand a higher quality of conversation, media must help to facilitate it – and our politicians must live up to it.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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