Lapse of judgement made Hughes' resignation inevitable

Darren Hughes' resignation from Parliament was inevitable from the moment it became public knowledge that he was under police investigation.

That inevitability was because Mr Hughes suffered a major lapse of judgement from which he could probably never have recovered.

Regardless of what did or did not happen in Annette King's house, Mr Hughes never should have put himself in the position of taking an 18-year-old male fresh out of school back there in the early hours of the morning after a night out drinking in Wellington.

Regardless of what is said, or not said, in court, if Mr Hughes faces charges, people will draw their own conclusions from his actions. These conclusions are unlikely to be positive.

Torn between loyalty to a friend and colleague and serving the wider interests of the Labour Party, Phil Mr Goff tried to roll back the inevitability of Mr Hughes' resignation.

It was futile, but Mr Goff's insistence that loyalty is a two-way street may temper some of the caucus unhappiness about the way he has handled this messy business.

The net result has been three days of bad headlines for Labour, while Mr Goff looked indecisive and not totally in control of events.

In order to try to save Mr Hughes, Mr Goff made belated decisions, which he should have made a day earlier.

For example, he failed to strip Mr Hughes of his caucus responsibilities as chief whip and Labour's spokesman on education after the police investigation first became public knowledge. Caucus pressure forced him to do exactly that the next day. There was no way that Mr Hughes could ever return to those particular roles. The chief whip is required to uphold standards.

The revelations this week totally compromised Mr Hughes' ability to do that.

In showing concern for one of his senior MPs, Mr Goff is unlikely to face any public criticism for what many people will consider to be pretty rough justice.

Mr Hughes himself revealed a degree of bitterness in his statement last night saying he had been forced to resign to uphold his right to clear his name.

Even if the police inquiry comes to nothing, the floodgates holding back torrents of rumour and innuendo regarding Mr Hughes meant he could never recover. With Labour's list ranking committee meeting in two weeks' time, his exit from the party will avert a lot of angst over where he should have been placed on the list, given he was ranked eighth in the caucus.

Had Mr Hughes stayed, he would likely have had to go to the backbenches for a long period of penance prior to any rehabilitation.

The great boon for Mr Goff is that Mr Hughes, utterly loyal to the Labour cause, is going without fuss or rancour.

It is not Mr Hughes' behaviour per se that has necessarily damaged Labour, however.

Come November, it is most unlikely that voters - unless they come from Levin and surrounding areas where Mr Hughes comes from - will even recall which party he belonged to as an MP. They will be consumed with more mundane matters such as the cost of living and the state of the job market.

These are the very things Labour wants to talk about.

It is Mr Goff's bad luck, however, that two of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - Death and War - should ride across the horizon in election year, barging him and his colleagues off the news bulletins and relegating them to the least-read pages of the newspapers.

This is the stage of the electoral cycle when the Opposition could normally expect to get some recognition as of right - rather than having to scrap for every morsel of media coverage.

Instead, Labour has found itself a bystander.

Mr Goff has tried to make the best of things with frequent appearances in Christchurch.

However, although it was probably inevitable, the consensus not to be seen to be playing politics with the earthquake has been only to National's benefit.

National has not reciprocated by suggesting an all-party group either as the driver of the rebuilding or as a watchdog to ensure that things are happening as they should.

Nothing quite underlines the frustrations of being Leader of the Opposition.

All Mr Goff could offer is sympathy for people's plight and words of encouragement. Meanwhile, the weeks have just kept slipping by.

Worse, no sooner had the media's focus finally started to become less concentrated on Christchurch, Japan and Libya, than Labour found itself leading the news bulletins and plastered across the front pages in a manner it would hardly have wanted.

Given the time he had to prepare a strategy for handling the Hughes affair - it had been two weeks since the now-former MP had told his leader about the police investigation - Mr Goff's management of the crisis has been lacking.

Why didn't he temporarily stand Mr Hughes down from his responsibilities when first told of the police investigation?

And if not then, why not once the police inquiry had become public knowledge?

That is the norm in such circumstances. It could hardly be interpreted as implying guilt on Mr Hughes' part and prejudicial to a court case.

Given he had been placed on leave by Mr Goff, Mr Hughes was hardly in a position to do those jobs anyway.

That point was conceded by Mr Goff when he finally did remove him from his caucus responsibilities.

The blunt truth is that voters take the view that a leader who cannot run his own party efficiently and effectively is not going to make a good fist of running the country.

That is ever more reason Mr Hughes had to go. Mr Goff could not afford to have someone hanging around who only reminded voters of his mistakes.

Labour's much bigger problem, however, is that three months into election year, the party is no further forward than it has been for the past two years.

In short, time is running out for Labour to make an impact before the election. And distractions such as the Mr Hughes affair only waste more of the little time it has left.

Mr Hughes' fate illustrates just how brutal politics can get.

But for Labour, it brings the matter to an end.

Now perhaps, it can start talking about the economy. The question is whether after this week's mess, anyone is listening.

• John Armstrong is the The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.

 

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