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Kiri Allan’s struggles show ‘the real difficulties of politics’

A law professor and friend of Kiri Allan says he’s saddened by the unfolding of events that has now led to her resigning all her portfolios.

Allan was involved in a crash on Evans Bay Parade shortly after 9pm yesterday. She was taken into police custody and charged with careless driving and refusing to accompany a police officer.

She also returned a breath test over the legal limit but at a level considered an infringement offence but police have not pressed charges in relation to that. Allan said in a statement this morning she’s heading home to Gisborne to consider her future in politics.

She had taken several weeks off earlier this month to get professional support and returned to work last Monday.

“My mental health issues were to do with personal things that happened. Mental health is not an excuse for poor behaviour – I’ve been clear, where there are issues to answer for, I will,” she said prior to taking leave.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said today Kiri Allan was facing “extreme emotional distress” at the time of the crash.

Law professor remembers a young Kiri Allan

Mark Henaghan is a University of Auckland law scholar who has known Allan for many years.

He remembers her as a young bar worker who worked on Ponsonby Road.

“She had no thought of going near a university, she had dreadlocks and was someone really intelligent to talk to.”

He encouraged her to study for a law degree and he said she was the first one in the family to go to university.

Henaghan said he still keeps in touch with Allan and is aware she has “gone through a lot”.

Kiri Allan

“Politics is brutal and I think your whole life is in the news every day no matter what you do. She obviously had a lot of things she’s been dealing with lately with mental health and other things.”

He said “we shouldn’t make her [out] as a bad person. I think she’s a truly human person who shows the real difficulties of politics”.

“She’s done the right thing to step aside.”

“We know that Kiri Allan has had some mental health problems and that doesn’t help. And we know mental health is a much bigger issue than it was.”

Henaghan said he believes declining mental health in New Zealand is now the rule rather than the exception.

“That creates trauma in people’s system and I think trauma – and lots of people do get in difficulties with the law, end up with trauma. And trauma causes you to act in ways you don’t even expect.”

He said he hopes Allan will return to politics but acknowledged she needed “a good break”.

“You don’t get your wisdom from things going right, you get your wisdom from things going wrong so I do hope in the long run, she comes back strong.”

‘Some greater and broader reflection’

Green MP Chloe Swarbick said the Francis Review into bullying and harassment at Parliament showed the current environment wasn’t conducive to getting the best out of people.

“I do think, hopefully, this spurs some greater and broader reflection on how we build an environment that’s more sustainable and conducive to humanity.”

She said those who don’t look and sound like the “archetypal politician” have to work harder to be considered on the same level.

“We do a whole lot of swatting and a whole lot of work to not make any mistakes, and when those mistakes are made, a lot gets made of those mistakes.”

While not condoning Allan’s actions, she said it should be a “wake-up call” when considering the mental health of those in Parliament.

ACT’s Brooke Van Velden said Parliament was “a really robust place”, but “we do have to make sure people making decisions are in a good head space as well”.

Mental health and parliament

Allan is not the only politician to have struggled with mental health difficulties. In 2018, then Botany MP, Jami-Lee Ross was admitted to mental health care at Middlemore Hospital.

It came after a tumultuous period in politics, with Ross speaking out against then-National Party leader Simon Bridges.

He was also accused by several women of harassment and bullying, and admitted he had an affair with a fellow MP.

Former National Party leader Todd Muller has also spoken about the ‘brutal’ reality of politics.

Muller’s tenure as leader, just 53 days from May to July 2020, was a tumultuous one, having struggled mental health issues during his brief stint as the party’s leader. He has since spoken of the relentless panic attacks and anxiety that enveloped his life.

“I could tell it was impacting my performance so I was prescribed sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication if needed to get through the weekdays in Parliament. At least this would get me through to maybe five hours sleep a night, maybe enough to function.”

He says he was “increasingly fraught with the fight”, and his “family bore the brunt of it”, which is why he chose to step away from the limelight and his role as National Party leader.

When Muller became National’s leader after he rolled Simon Bridges, Paula Bennett was demoted from number two in National’s rankings as deputy leader to number 13.

“Politics is pretty brutal and it’s public so when you lose,” she said at the time. Bennett has now retired from politics.

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