Mental health isn’t a political management tool

OPINION: Poor mental health is one of New Zealand’s biggest societal issues, it’s not a political management tool. Laura Walters on why the National Party's approach is not that of a government-in-waiting

Another day, another National MP gone.

In just two short weeks, the Opposition has lost a leader and five MPs. Add to that a senior MP stripped of the crucial health portfolio, and poll numbers that do little to inspire confidence.

This is not a government-in-waiting, this is a party in disarray.

The latest personal transgression by a National Party MP was deplorable, and the way it was dealt with adds to valid criticism of the party’s recent political management.

National’s attempt to use mental health as a shield was not only disingenuous (at best), it also undermined the progress New Zealand is making in talking about, and understanding, mental health and wellbeing. 

On Monday afternoon, Rangitata MP Andrew Falloon issued a statement saying he would not contest the upcoming election. 

The press release focused on Falloon’s mental health challenges. He spoke about friends who had died by suicide, the impact that had on him, and his unresolved grief.

One short line hinted there was more going on: “I have made a number of mistakes and I apologise to those who have been affected.”

Minutes later, a short press release from new National leader Judith Collins also spoke about Falloon’s “significant mental health issues”. She asked that his privacy be respected.

Collins’ statement also alluded to another reason for Falloon’s resignation: “The National Party was advised of an issue relating to Andrew late on Friday afternoon and we have dealt with it this morning,” she said.

Neither were upfront about what the first-term MP had done, or the severity of his actions. Instead, the weight was placed on his mental health issues.

In the following hours, Falloon received messages of support - a sign the country is coming to better understand the toll politics can take on MPs’ mental health and wellbeing.

This is something New Zealand witnessed last week when Todd Muller resigned as leader after just 53 days in the job, citing the pressures of the role, and the impact on his mental and physical health.

To New Zealand’s credit, Muller was commended by many for putting his health, and his family’s health, before his job.

It appears Collins saw the way the country supported Muller, and was tempted to try that approach for a second time. But Falloon’s situation was different. 

National first-term MP Andrew Falloon sent an unsolicited indecent image to a teenager, but rather than front up and say sorry, Falloon and the party used his mental health challenges to shield him from scrutiny. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

By Monday evening, the full story had emerged: Falloon (he reportedly claims someone else, using his phone) had sent an unsolicited sexual picture - not of himself - to a teenager. The girl’s parents told the Prime Minister’s office, which referred it to the National Party.

Police investigated, but said it did not reach the prosecution threshold.

These revelations showed the party had not been upfront with the whole story. No-one had signalled the nature of what Falloon - a 37-year-old MP - had done, or the severity of his actions.

Unfortunately, lying by omission is par for the course in politics.

But using mental health as a shield - a way to keep scrutiny at bay - isn’t.

This is not a question of whether Falloon is experiencing mental health issues, or whether he should get the privacy, treatment and support he deserves - that goes without saying.

But using one of the country’s biggest social and health issues as a tool for political management further erodes public trust in the party - something that’s already taken a dive.

Mental health issues are a very real problem in politics, but not something to be used as an excuse for bad behaviour.

It does a disservice to all New Zealanders who live with mental health issues, but continue to make the right decisions, and stand accountable for their mistakes like everyone else.

This serious misjudgment is the latest in an increasingly chaotic month for the National Party.

Just two weeks ago, first-term Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker announced his resignation from politics after leaking private health information of Covid-19 patients to the media. 

Since then, National has been bleeding MPs.

Two days after the Walker scandal, list MP Jian Yang announced he would retire at the election.

Then Muller announced his decision to step down as leader. 

This sparked an emergency caucus meeting, where Judith Collins was elected as leader, and it was clear the party would change, with beltway watchers expecting a surge to the right and the adoption of a Crusher Collins ‘win at any cost’ mentality.

Collins’ leadership resulted in the loss of two more MPs - Amy Adams and Muller’s deputy, Nikki Kaye.

The departure of the two senior, and more socially liberal, MPs was not a surprise to many, but it would be a loss to National. Both have experience as ministers, and are trusted and effective MPs.

The mass exodus of those before Falloon likely speaks to an unsettled and divided caucus. If it’s an attempt by Collins to clean house, she’s got the timing wrong. 

Cleaning house usually comes after an election loss - not before.

Right now, Collins needs to be doing all she can to mount a strong contest come September 19. Covering for an MP's bad behaviour doesn't achieve that.

Where to get help:

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) – or email or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825

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