A matter handled badly

When a senior politician of a major party becomes the subject of a police investigation, that is news. When it is revealed the alleged incident over which the investigation has been launched took place in the home of the deputy leader of the same party, it raises the stakes. Throw in an allegation of sexual impropriety and it is a lay down misere: regardless of the rights or wrongs of the matter, regardless of guilt or innocence, the affair will out.

This may be construed as unfair, or unjust, but it is simply the nature of the politics-and-media beast - and while today this may seem more feral than ever, encouraged by the seemingly insatiable appetite of social and new media, it has always been thus. People who hold positions of high office can expect scrutiny over behaviour that might be said in some respect to impact or reflect upon the performance of public duty. And a police investigation certainly exceeds any objective minimum threshold for justifiable public interest, which is why the original handling of the Darren Hughes matter by the Labour Party leadership was, and is, inexplicable.

Former Labour Party chief whip Darren Hughes was this week cleared of any wrongdoing over a highly publicised incident in March in which an 18-year-old male student made allegations of sexual assault. After completing investigations into the incident, the police decided they would not press charges against Mr Hughes.

On Wednesday, announcing the police decision, Wellington District field crime manager Detective Inspector Mike Johnson said evidence had been properly considered, both internally and by the Crown Solicitor's office. "After this careful consideration, the allegations do not reach the evidential threshold required to bring charges," he said. "As a result, no charges will be brought against Mr Hughes."

Given this decision, it might be said the high-flying Labour MP has been harshly done by. It is not difficult to feel some sympathy for him. By all accounts, Mr Hughes is an extremely able and dedicated politician. That much is agreed, even by political opponents. He is said to have a firm grasp of issues, a degree of intellectual steel, but equally a non-confrontational manner in presenting his position.

He has, evidently, spent his entire adult life, and some of his adolescence, in pursuit of his chosen career. To have that derailed by allegations which "do not reach the evidential threshold" for action raises questions over the validity of the original decision to investigate, but, more critically, over how the matter was handled by his own leaders.

It will be recalled Mr Hughes, some days after the news of the investigation broke, stepped down from his position as senior whip; then, as the furore grew and details leaked into the public domain, he resigned from Parliament. Had his leader, Phil Goff, played a more decisive and firmer hand earlier, it is quite possible Mr Hughes would now be able to resume his place in the House; had Mr Goff, for instance, announced to Parliament and to the people of New Zealand, as soon as he became aware of it, that Mr Hughes was facing a police investigation over an allegation and was immediately standing aside until the investigation was complete, the way for his rapid rehabilitation might still be open.

This did not happen. The party was less than forthcoming on the matter, with the result it appeared guilty of intentional concealment - and a hamfisted approach to public relations. Arguably, the leadership's handling of the matter intensified the media storm and made Mr Hughes' fate inevitable. The list and electorate seats are now filled for the November election, so Mr Hughes faces at least three more years in the political wilderness.

This may, in fact, be no bad thing. Politicians are human; they do make errors of judgement from time to time, particularly in their personal lives. People understand this and will make concomitant allowances. But there is a perception that this is where the real damage to Mr Hughes' reputation has been done: in matters of personal judgement which have leached into, and contaminated, his professional life. It may take some time for that perception to be dispelled and for the way to be cleared for a return to the political fold.


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