Wellington: New Zealand politics have taken a tawdry turn ahead of a September election, with two parliamentarians losing their jobs this week over allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday dismissed cabinet minister Iain Lees-Galloway after he admitted to an extra-marital affair with a former staffer. Yesterday, opposition National Party politician Andrew Falloon resigned from parliament after allegedly sending pornographic material to several women.
In both instances, the salacious information was given to the leader of the opposing party, indicating a desire to cause political damage. Ardern first passed the allegations about Falloon to National leader Judith Collins; Collins then passed a tip-off about Lees-Galloway to Ardern.
The scandals have the potential to influence voters in New Zealand, where dirty political laundry is rarely aired in public, and suggest the gloves have come off as the major parties prepare to kick their election campaigns into gear, said Bryce Edwards, a political analyst at Victoria University in Wellington.
“We’ve had a breakdown of political parties keeping to that unwritten agreement not to deal with the private lives of their opponents,” said Edwards. “So all bets are off I think. The honour amongst thieves has disappeared and it’s open season.”
While polls show Ardern is on course to comfortably win a second term in the September 19 vote, she is now up against a more formidable opponent in Collins, who became National’s new leader last week.
The allegations against Falloon continued a run of horror headlines for National, which has stumbled from one crisis to the next and changed leader twice in two months. Just weeks ago, the party was embarrassed when one of his junior caucus colleagues confessed to leaking sensitive COVID-19 patient information and was forced to resign.
Falloon is accused of texting an unsolicited, explicit image to a young woman, and several more women have come forward with similar complaints. He hasn’t commented on the allegations other than to say he was dealing with the recent suicide of a friend and apologizing for “a number of mistakes.”
While fronting the issue in local media Wednesday morning, Collins revealed she’d been tipped off about inappropriate behaviour by a government minister that she had passed on to Ardern. Hours later, Ardern gave a press conference announcing Lees-Galloway had been stripped of his ministerial portfolios and would not be standing for re-election. The minister for Immigration and Workplace Relations had admitted to a 12-month affair.
While the liaison was consensual and had ended several months ago, Ardern said the fact that it was with someone who had worked in Lees-Galloway’s office and been based in one of his agencies made it a sackable offence.
“The minister has shown a lack of judgment over a period of 12 months,” she said. “In undertaking this relationship he has opened himself up to accusations of improperly using his office. He has not modelled the behaviour I expect as a minister that is in charge of setting a standard and culture in work places.”
Lees-Galloway is the second minister to lose his job this month. Former Health Minister David Clark resigned July 2 after a series of missteps, including breaching New Zealand’s strict nationwide lockdown earlier this year to go mountain biking.
Still, Ardern’s slick handling of the pandemic - New Zealand has eliminated coronavirus within its borders - has boosted her popularity and put her in a strong position to win re-election. Ardern’s Labour Party was on 50% in a 1News/Colmar Brunton poll published last month, while National was on 38%.