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Wednesday 08 April 2009

Scandal and Politics in New Zealand

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 12th March 2009

In New Zealand, we've had relatively few scandals of note within our political scene. Let's analyse what applicability recent American research has on those that do exist.

When she reviewed two recent books on the subject in Harpers Magazine, feminist critic and academic Laura Kipnis presented a political anatomy of scandal which is useful to frame current events of this nature. Someone commits either an ethical transgression or criminal act, is exposed, and there are consequent public expressions of surprise, outrage or nonchalance, depending on the magnitude or scale of unethical conduct, financial corruption or sexual peccadilloes- or criminal wrongdoing.

What does this mean for our own political hi-jinks? We don't have all that many scandals down here, as New Zealand scores highly when it comes to transparency and freedom from political corruption amongst our elected representatives and officials. Still, here are several examples.

Don Brash had an extra-marital affair. Ho hum. He survived the exposure of his moral turpitude as Leader of the Opposition, but it was Brethrengate that really brought him down. Helen Clark committed misdemeanours involving signatures on paintings and premiers convoy speed. Again, ho hum. Not so ho hum, though, was the Owen Glen donation saga, which ended up irretrievably sinking New Zealand First and dogging the Clark administration, which had campaigned for its Electoral Finance Act after the Brethrengate scandal back in 2005. Brash was dumped by his caucus, left Parliament and his marriage ended in separation. In New Zealand, marital infidelity is regarded as a private indiscretion, and one can shrug one's shoulders at the furore that Bill Clinton's similar escapades with Monica Lewinsky aroused amongst repressed social conservative tabloid hacks and prurient right-wingers in the United States.

By contrast, Capillgate and Logangate were far more serious scandals. In the first case, Graham Capill was exposed as a multiple child rapist, convicted of his offense, and is now serving nine years at Paparua Prison. His pedophilia ended up destroying his long-time political vehicle, the Christian Heritage Party, which could not survive the disgrace of the man who had led it for fourteen years. It might have even tainted the downstream fortunes of the Kiwi Party and Family Party at last year's general election. As for Logangate, it severely damaged the Maxim Institute, which was forced to accept Logan's retirement, the closure of Evidence magazine and its Christchurch offices when Logan was found to have plagiarised the work of others without adequate attribution after Paul Litterick exposed this malfeasance. Logan was banished from public life, and is nowadays restricted largely to the webpage of right-wing populist ex-ACT List MP Muriel Newman.

Compared to Britain and the United States, New Zealand's tabloid media- Truth, Radio Pacific and Investigate- are mostly segregated from upmarket demographic groups and are rubbished almost universally as low-credibility, biased and marginal media outlets. When significant magnitude scandal breaks, mainstream media or the blogosphere weighs in and analyses it, certainly in the case of Graham Capill. Here was a fundamentalist homophobe who had committed severe criminal offenses against three female children. In the case of Graham Capill and Bruce Logan too, it was our would-be guardians of public morality that fell from the self-anointed moral heights, as well as their core constituencies and allied organisations.

In any case, who are the primary interpreters of scandal? Here, I part company from Kipnis. She tells us that there are two- objectivists point out that there is real and significant misconduct involved. In the case of Graham Capill, that was certainly the case. In the case of Bruce Logan, there were questions of copyright and intellectual property ownership that could have been invoked, which led to his downfall. Constructivists view the proceedings as instances of moral panic and cultural divisions. In the case of Capill and Logan, social liberals became objectivists, while social conservatives have either mostly avoided or downplayed the moral significance of both men's conduct or criminality. It would be almost amusing to note social conservative hypocrisy in this context when they keep denouncing sexuality as public discourse, only to indulge themselves and get caught out.

It would be, except innocent children suffered from Capill's predatory paraphilia and at least one contemplated suicide.

New Zealand is clearly a different society from the United States when it comes to political scandals. We are more blase about mere marital infidelity and watched aghast as the media circus slushed around Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky, his indiscretions and public confession of moral turpitude. Kipnis thinks this demonstrates the influence of evangelical Christianity in public affairs. Incidentally, she notes, Catholicism isn't doing well in this moral environment, given its clergy pedophilia epidemic and apparent tolerance of anti-Semitic "Bishop" Richard Wellington of the Society of Saint Pius X.

Scandal happens. If it is of significant magnitude or seriousness, consequences follow for the perpetrator. At least our real political scandals tend to be of that magnitude, rather than Ted Haggard's meth-fuelled sexcapades, Senator Larry Craig's bobblefoot problem in a Minneapolis airport toilet cubicle, or Clinton's oral encounter with Ms. Lewinsky.


Ari Adut: On Scandal: Moral Disturbances in Society, Politics and Art: Cambridge University Press: 2008.

Susan Wise Bauer: The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America: Princeton University Press: 2008.

Laura Kipnis: How to Become a Scandal: New York: Metropolitan: 2009.

Laura Kipnis: "School for Scandal" Harpers 318: 1906: March 2009: 73-77.

Craig Young - 12th March 2009