On shaky ground

What is it about an election looming that seems to bring out the worst in politicians?

In the past few weeks, New Zealanders have been treated to conduct ranging from the bizarre, banal and bewildering to the belligerent and downright bad.

Labour leader David Cunliffe can't stop apologising for everything he has or hasn't done, including being a man (as sexual offending is committed predominantly by men) and having a short holiday with his family.

As if its poll ratings weren't bad enough, Labour MP Trevor Mallard's ''bring back the moa'' comments left the party wide open to unfavourable comparisons about its own longevity.

In reality, the two examples are minor in the scheme of things, more a matter of misjudgment and ill-timing, rather than any serious transgressions or abuses, but damaging, nonetheless, in terms of perception.

National's recent mistakes are more serious, and the mounting number of them is baffling, two months out from the general election.

Neither Prime Minister John Key or Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully handled the Malaysian diplomat rape allegations well and, although both managed to escape scrutiny in the subsequent review into the case, it is far from over and there could be further fallout.

While Mr Cunliffe's apology put him offside with males, Mr Key's flip-flop on his promise to apologise to the alleged victim over the handling of her case (albeit yet to be proven), may in comparison do him few favours with many women.

Revelations of National MP Claudette Hauiti's unauthorised spending on a Parliamentary charge card put paid to her political aspirations - sped up with a nudge from the Prime Minister -

and Chester Borrows' latest speeding fine is far from a good look for the Courts Minister, who didn't really do himself any favours by acknowledging it wasn't his first speeding ticket, and assuring the public he always pays his tickets promptly.

Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee's bypassing of Christchurch airport security this week (like Mr Borrows, his explanation was he was running late) is inconceivable, particularly in the aftermath of the Malaysian Airlines' and other recent aviation disasters, when the minds of travellers worldwide are on safety and security.

His apology and offer to resign, which was (unsurprisingly) rejected by the Prime Minister, has been viewed by many as a cynical ploy to take the heat out of the situation, but still leaves questions about any penalty which may in fact be meted out by the Civil Aviation Authority. (It has launched an investigation into the security breach.)

Added to the above list are other recent high-profile incidents involving ministers such as the Judith Collins' Chinese dinner scandal and Maurice Williamson's intervention on behalf of Chinese businessman Donghua Liu regarding his citizenship and a domestic violence incident, which led to Mr Williamson's resignation.

While his apparent ''Teflon John'' invulnerability seems to keep him high in the popularity stakes, Mr Key is increasingly leaving himself open to uncomfortable accusations.

It is hard for many not to wonder whether what is on display is simply arrogance, whether it is a more sinister contempt for the law, abuse of power, privilege and process, or honest mistakes/dumb decisions made in a pressure-cooker pre-election environment.

In the wake of such incidents, criticism is often unfairly heaped on the media, who can be accused of focusing on personalities, not politics.

The debate will always rage about whether the personal transgressions of political figures is really in the public interest, but when it comes to matters of public money, of process, of power and influence, and of the law, the ''free press'' would be at fault if it turned a blind eye in its role as watchdog.

In our free and democratic society, politicians have clear roles, too. Honesty and transparency are vital in keeping the corridors of power corruption-free.

No-one can be seen to be above the law, for that makes the ground on which we all walk shakier. It's simple, really. Someone should tell that to the politicians.


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