11 Jul 2020

Southern scandals: Is there something in the water?

10:57 am on 11 July 2020

First published on Otago Daily Times

Hamish Walker's privacy leak debacle dominated the news this week, but it's not the first time a southern MP has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Daisy Hudson reports for the Otago Daily Times.

Hamish Walker, National candidate for Clutha/Southland speaks to residents in Winton.

Hamish Walker. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Secret recordings, lockdown jaunts and privacy breaches.

When it comes to scandal and intrigue, southern MPs have far outstripped their northern counterparts in recent years.

This term alone has seen Dunedin MPs Clare Curran and David Clark and Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie face a public backlash for various misdemeanours.

Two of the three will step down from politics at the election, and Clark, if returned to Parliament, may be lost in the wilderness of the back benches for some time.

The unfortunate trend continued when Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker imploded in spectacular fashion this week, announcing he too would step down at the election after admitting he leaked the private details of Covid-19 patients to media.

You could be forgiven for thinking there must be something in the water down here.

Political commentator and former University of Otago politics academic Bryce Edwards says there is an element of coincidence about the slew of scandals.

But a rise in politicians being driven by personal ambition rather than ideology may also be a factor.

"I do think we need to reflect on whether having career politicians is healthy for democracy," he said.

"If you look at all of these MPs who have had a downfall in the South, in my mind they've tended to be some of the more ambitious, but less idealistic, politicians in Labour and National."

Curran and Clark, for example, were hard to place on the ideological spectrum of Labour, he argued.

"I would definitely say the same for Walker and [Todd] Barclay."

It is certainly true that some seats have more chequered histories than others.

The most glaring example is Clutha-Southland, where Walker's downfall was preceded by Todd Barclay's.

Barclay stepped down at the last election after revelations he secretly recorded a staff member in his electorate office.

Even Sir Bill English had his share of negative coverage, paying back $32,000 after claiming a housing allowance for his Wellington home after saying his primary residence was in Dipton, despite spending the majority of his time in the capital.

Another southern National MP, Sarah Dowie, was embroiled in the Jami-Lee Ross saga after it emerged the pair had an affair, and she sent him a text that included the words "you deserve to die".

The message led to an investigation by police, but no charges were laid.

And Dunedin-based list MP Michael Woodhouse faced a backlash after posing with a blue-painted toilet seat featuring a photo of Curran on it.

Labour's issues in its Dunedin stronghold have also been well canvassed.

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Clare Curran announces her resignation with David Clark. Photo: RNZ

Dunedin South MP Clare Curran came under pressure after failing to declare two meetings and for using her private email account for ministerial business.

She resigned from her ministerial roles which included, ironically, the role of Minister for Open Government.

Her Dunedin North colleague David Clark resigned from his Minister of Health role after repeated lockdown breaches during the height of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Later, ill-judged criticism of his ministry's popular chief executive Ashley Bloomfield went down like a lead balloon with the public.

Going back a few terms, current Dunedin City councillor David Benson-Pope resigned in 2007 as environment minister in Helen Clark's government after admitting telling Environment Ministry head Hugh Logan that he doubted he could work with the ministry's newly appointed communications adviser, because her partner was then-National leader John Key's chief press secretary.

It followed his 2005 controversy over allegations he had bullied pupils during his tenure as a teacher at Dunedin's Bayfield High School.

Members of the two major parties are not the only ones to have faced public oustings.

Metiria Turei's admission that she had committed benefit fraud 20 years earlier led to the then Dunedin-based Green Party co-leader leaving politics prior to the 2017 election.

All of the southern electorates have traditionally been safe seats for their respective parties, and a lack of strong competitiveness may also play a part in some bad behaviour developing, Edwards says.

"Both Labour and National have a problem with their safe seats, where they end up with MPs that simply have too much power, are a force to themselves, and the central party doesn't have enough control over them frankly."

- This story first appeared in the Otago Daily Times.

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