There is still much to learn, and little of it concerns the mayor.
On the afternoon of the council election result, I snuck into Len Brown’s victory party to see what was what. No balloons, no streamers. Not much excitement at all, really. At the time I thought it might be because Brown had lost councillors Richard Northey and Ann Hartley, two of his key supporters. But I did ask one of Brown’s associates about the rumour that blogger Cameron Slater had his hands on a scandal about the mayor.
“Yes,” they said. “It’s true.” I asked what it was. They wouldn’t say.
I’d first heard the rumour about 10 days earlier, and was also told “The National Party caucus” knew about it too. The word was that Slater was going to publish in election week, but because he didn’t, I had assumed the rumour was false. Duh.
A few things now seem clear. One is that Brown is an idiot. Another is that the stench of depravity emanating from this affair comes largely from Slater and his little gang, not from Brown and his erstwhile lover Bevan Chuang. A third, following the golden rule of gossip, is that if I heard there was a scandal in the wings, and if some National Party MPs knew, then a great many people on the centre-right of Auckland politics probably also knew.
First, the idiot Brown. It displays remarkably poor judgment to initiate an affair with a woman who is not politically loyal to you and can charitably be described as confused, let alone to consummate it in the town hall building. I mean, you would have to know you’ll get caught, right?
Poor judgment like that is disappointing in those we admire or trust, and in politicians it deserves ridicule, but on its own it should not be a resignable offence. On the simple question of whether Brown should have had an affair, there is no public issue at stake.
It’s a different kind of poor judgment if you have an affair with someone you have power over, especially when you are in public office, and especially when you use your power on their behalf. Brown should not have written a reference for Chuang, and though he did not appoint her to the Ethnic People’s Advisory Panel, he was in a position to affect her status on that panel.
Those were transgressions. Not mere foolishness, but inappropriate behaviour. But again, are they big enough to warrant resignation? On their own, I would have thought not. Brown did not, to our knowledge, secure any advancement for Chuang, and he has not been accused of sexual predation. (We can be very grateful, in that regard, that he is not cut from the cloth of his famous predecessor Dove-Myer Robinson.) If the independent inquiry by Ernst & Young reveals Brown has engaged in corruption, that would change.
Second, there is Cameron Slater. On TV3’s The Nation, he said, “Politics is a dirty, disgusting, despicable game and it involves dirty, disgusting, despicable people.” Was he saying he knows those things to be true of himself, and therefore revealing a wretched need to believe they are true of others too?
Len Brown is not despicable. Nor is he a hypocrite who uses his family as props for political advantage. His wife and children have appeared with him on a few official occasions, but only at such times when it would be extremely odd if they did not show up. Largely, they stay out of the public eye.
In politics there is much that is unpleasant, and all journalists who follow it closely learn things the public might salaciously love to know. But we judge that politicians have a right to privacy — it’s not absolute, but it exists. We judge that their families, friends and other loved ones have that right too.
There are sometimes reasons to breach that privacy. But should infidelity be one of them? Yes, say those who believe it points to unreliability or a distracted mind. In truth, it might do that, but so what? Many things in the private lives of politicians can affect their competence in their jobs: a marriage breakup, dealing with a child in trouble with the law, illness of a loved one… We don’t insist we have a right to know about all that.
Conversely, what if having an affair put a spring in Brown’s step and made him better able to face the day? The world is full of people who will tell you an illicit sexual liaison is very good for your state of mind.
The fact is, most of us, including Len Brown, live more complicated lives than the harbingers of easy moral righteousness would have us believe. If Brown transgressed a moral code in having an affair, that is for him and his loved ones to sort out. It is not helpful to the workings of democracy or the private lives of the people concerned when the rest of us rush to judgment.
Which brings us to the third issue. The rumours appear to have started with Luigi Wewege, Chuang’s more recent boyfriend, who until recently had high hopes of a future for himself inside the National Party. When he discovered Chuang had been sleeping with the mayor, he told Cameron Slater. But who else did he consult — who did he try to impress — in an effort to further his political ambitions?
That question links to another: who stands to gain from the whole sordid mess? Cameron Brewer does: he’s the councillor best placed to run for mayor at the next election, whenever that happens. Slater has blogged recently that Brewer is a “long-time mate”.
Maurice Williamson does: he’s the MP who wanted to become mayor this time but discovered in private polling that he could not win. Williamson, not Brewer, is still the leading centre-right contender for the job.
Judith Collins does: she has ambitions to lead the National Party and she is close to Cameron Slater.
If any of them knew anything at all, they will have done their best to ensure that events played out, not just to the advantage of their party, but to their own political careers. Not surprisingly, as we went to press, accusations were flying about who orchestrated what.
Brown got caught with his pants down. What’s also at stake, now, is control of the National Party in Auckland. Reputations are being made and broken.
From Metro, November 2013
Len Brown photographed by Jane Ussher