Self-immolation: the loneliest road

Written by:

Written by:

The act of political self-immolation is not particularly unusual. It might be argued, in fact, that it is common. Certainly, for example, more than one MP per term is likely to come to a poor end. No, I do not have exact figures, but it would make a good research project for someone, perhaps even an interesting book.

As far as I can see, and I am working from memory only, there are two sets of circumstances in which politicians come to destroy their careers.  The first set might be called internal.  These may include the result of illness, alcoholism, mental health issues or simply a poor personality.


The Keith Allen affair was a sad one.  The Minister in Muldoon’s government had diabetes, was receiving incorrect medication and probably had some drink issues too (many of them did in those days?).  He wanted out of politics. The details are sketchy but the general view is that he made allegations that he had been robbed to hide the fact that the was filmed staggering through Wellington’s streets. Sadly, he died suddenly just weeks before the 1984 election. Hugh Templeton noted: “I observed many casualties of politics, but none more obviously a victim of Muldoon’s desire for power”.

An early-ish example of self-immolation that I remember was the career of John Kirk (L).  When his father, the revered Norman Kirk, died in office as Prime Minister in 1974, son John won the nomination (apparently against the wishes of the father) for the Sydenham electorate.

John Kirk was a lazy, feckless bloke whose contribution in Parliament was small for the ten years he was there. He was into property speculation too, becoming somewhat of a slum landlord. He was passed over for promotion by Bill Rowling and eventually walked away from the Labour Party in 1983. Jim Anderton was selected for that seat in 1984, which he held for many years. Kirk stood as an independent in the Miramar seat in 1984, and was soundly defeated (Anderton, Prebble and Peters are, I think, the only ones to have won Parliamentary seats after leaving their own party, all of which happened around the transition to MMP).

John Kirk was an example of a person who ruined his own career.  The final example here – and there are many to choose from as a result of National’s propensity in recent years to select ‘born to rule’ twits – is Aaron Gilmore, who, according to the media, is standing again for political office in this year’s local body elections.  A number of the aforesaid twits destroyed their careers by one set of events, but none in a more spectacular style than Aaron Gilmore. Gilmore went out for dinner with some friends at Hanmer Springs and, on being refused more alcohol (the alcohol theme raises its head many times through these accounts), allegedly told the waiter “Don’t you know who I am?” and threatened to get him sacked. He initially ignored calls to resign but was pressured out.

In the scheme of things, it might be argued that Gilmore’s sins were minor (although his wikipedia page tells further stories). But we kiwis have particular dislikes, and at the top of the list is born-to-rule entitlements, whether imagined or real. For this reason, I expect that Gilmore will fail in his bid for election – possibly ever again.  Many people in this situation find a strategic move to Australia helpful.


The second set are triggered by external events.

Colin Moyle was more the victim of an attempted political assassination. Muldoon, then Prime Minister, accused Moyle of homosexual activities, then illegal.  It was widely viewed as a stitch-up to keep Moyle from the Labour leadership (it may also have been true, but generally such things were not weaponised in politics, even back then). Moyle resigned but then re-entered Parliament, resigning for good in 1990. He is still alive and in his 90s.

The Jami-Lee Ross saga was an extreme example of external events triggering a meltdown.  There are so many competing facts in this case (and, of course, a current court case to make matters more complicated) that it is hard to unpick them.  But it appears that Jami-Lee, a trusty supporter and bro-in-arms of Simon Bridges, had a meltdown when he was promoted from his whip’s job to a shadow minister position (leading to a small decrease in pay) and accusations flew. In one of the more bazaar political pairings of all time (that topic would require yet another book), he combined with Billy Te Kahika, conspiracy theorist supremo, to form the Advance NZ Party at the 2020 election.  Naturally, it did not ‘advance’, winning 1% of the vote.

There are also cases when a combination of external and internal factors destroyed people’s careers, or at least acted as a significant check on their progress.  I will have to leave these for another time, though.  Just to say that MPs can be sensitive souls, and probably for good reason.  It is 20 years since I left Parliament, and I was only an MP for 6, but I am still referred to as a ‘former MP’ whenever I get in the news for something or other.

If ever I were to do anything wrong, break the law, get caught up in a scandal, it is in the sure knowledge that (a) it would make headlines, however small in the scheme of things and (b) that the headline would be ‘Former MP gets arrested’, not ‘hardworking woman, researcher, lawyer and community worker…..’.

The implosion of my party, the Alliance, was at least over policy matters – namely whether or not we supported sending troops to Afghanistan (I was a NOT).  It was spectacular enough, though, and quite heart-breaking. As I am sure it was for each of the many MPs whose careers were ruined by their own hubris or the intentional actions of others.

You may have noticed my slightly compassionate tone. The reality is that, whether caused by the person’s own flaws or political circumstances, these meltdowns fall like a ton of bricks on the persons concerned and their families.  The consequences are larger, the stakes higher, they are played out among a mostly sneering public and sensation-hungry media and have whole of life effects.  I noted I am sorry for Sam Uffindell in an earlier post, and am just as sorry for Gaurav Sharma.  Even if people bring things on themselves, it is hard to watch the excessive reaction in media and society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

About Insight Aotearoa

Most of the blogs published here will either respond to initiatives elsewhere or will be ‘newsmaking’. Some will also be reflective in more general terms. The blogs will be topical and interesting. I like to inject some humour into my blogs.

Recent Posts

Sign up for our Newsletter

Get updates about recent posts and trending blogs!