National Burns As Punters Roast Marshmallows

It’s dominated the news for the past week, now PAT PILCHER casts a critical eye over the Jami-Lee Ross/National Party fiasco and looks at some of the key outstanding questions.

What a week! The usual ‘he said’, ‘they said’ finger pointing and point scoring out of the Beehive was replaced with drama straight from a poorly scripted soap opera last week as National Party leader Simon Bridges geared up to announce his investigation had caught the person responsible for leaking his expenses.

Mere minutes before the press conference was to kick off, Jami-Lee Ross, former National government frontbencher tweeted that he was about to be framed and that he had evidence of crooked dealings within the party.

From there, it all went downhill fast, getting weirder by the minute and decidedly nasty. Ross accused Bridges of dodgy dealings, and Bridges and several other National party players accused Ross of sordid misdeeds.

Fuelling the media frenzy, Ross leaked a secret recording that he claimed showed Bridges was aware of a donation that breached electoral funding laws. The recording also contained a damning conversation where Bridges called several of his team ‘f*cking useless’, agreeing with Ross that the funding was because Chinese interests wanted a Chinese list MP and that two Chinese list MPs would be better than Indian MPs.

The media had a field day. The slanging match and recording got reported on a blow by blow basis in tones of near disbelief.

Things then stepped up a notch when one media outlet (Newsroom) rose above the ceaseless din of ill-informed opinion pieces and analysis-free reporting with an explosive story that detailed how several unnamed women had come forward to accuse Ross of abusive affairs.

The cogs of New Zealand media apparatus may have been sent into overdrive by the National Party soap opera, but these new revelations had National gears spinning white hot as things went nuts once details around this information got out.

It turns out that the National hierarchy had known about Ross’s activities for around two years and instead of doing the right thing and sacking/suspending Ross,  had chosen to hush up one of his victims up with a gag order and kept Ross on.

As horrible as the entire affair was, it also threw the mainstream media’s click-through driven ugliness into sharp relief. Where Newsroom did the digging and asked some hard questions, the usual pundits in most media outlets merely weighed in with their opinions as these media outlets parroted each other’s stories and endlessly re-hashed the situation. So much for the fourth estate…

Some hard questions need to be asked. First and foremost, why, if the National Party knew of Ross’s indiscretions for two years, did they keep him on and not sack him?

Doing the right thing and sacking him may have caused a flurry of media activity at the time and would have perhaps given Labour ammo to take a few cheap potshots at National (so far Labour has stayed quiet and wisely chosen to provide the Nats with all the rope they need to hang themselves), but it would have died down after a few days. Instead, after two weeks the media is still dining out on the sordid sorry saga.

Why did the National Party choose to gag Ross’s victims? That the National party senior executive saw fit to silence Ross’ victims speaks volumes about the contempt they must hold for the women in parliament. Victims of abuse and harassment need support, not silencing.

Either way, it is a fair bet that many female voters will be thinking twice about how much support they give National in the next election.

Most alarming of all is the fact that Bridges seemed happy to take a donation from a donor with the assumption being that the payback was to put a specific person chosen by the donor into a list MP position. This highlights just how corrupt things must have become within parliament. Not only does this open the National Party up to allegations of dishonesty, but the move also poses serious questions around the broader security implications for New Zealand’s democracy if foreign interests can buy seats and power in our government.

If there is a reason why Bridges needs to be replaced as leader, this is it. New Zealand’s reputation as a corruption-free country plays a significant role in our favourable trade position. Protecting our reputation and that of our political process is a must. Bridges must go.

Another damming part of the first secret recording made by Ross saw Bridges commenting on the relative worth of Chinese versus Indian MPs. There is no room for such racism in parliament – ever. This should never ever be negotiable. There has to be zero tolerance for anyone who mocks this, regardless of their seniority.

The jury is still out on whether Bridges broke funding laws. Ross has handed his evidence into the cops, and they’re investigating. Bridges is saying they should investigate away and that he has nothing to hide, so it’s going to be a case of wait and see.

The crux of the situation is that political party donations over a certain sized cannot be anonymous, yet Ross says Bridges split the $100,000 donation into smaller chunks so the donor could remain anonymous. Again this reeks of corruption. If it is proven to be true, Bridges will have to go.

So far, the National party caucus has stuck with Bridges, even though it came to light in an earlier interview between Bridges and Duncan Garner that someone had leaked Bridges’ dismal internal approval ratings.

The question on the lips of everyone is this: Will Bridges remain as National Party leader?

This is the big question of the moment. Predictably, the usual media pundits have weighed in. Depending on their own biases, they’re saying Bridges looks prime ministerial or is dog tucker.

The reality is somewhat more complicated. While public sentiment seems to have swung around in Bridges favour, many are expressing disbelief at how poorly National managed the situation.

Had Bridges been on his game as a party leader, he would have given Ross an out so he could have resigned instead of starting a shit-fight where there are no winners. Instead, Bridges blundered in with his planet-sized ego and treated New Zealand to a free fireworks display.

Then there’s the not so small issue of impacts to National at the next election. The lingering fallout from this fiasco could see several key groups of voters alienated. Many women are likely to think twice about voting for a party who prioritises the needs of the attacker and gags the victims. Then there’s the Indian community which has already expressed disgust at comments on the merits of Indian versus Chinese list MPs. With 3.7 percent of New Zealand’s population identifying as Indian and a further 12 percent as Chinese, that’s a sizeable amount of potential national voters who could now be voting for anyone but National.

Ross has refused to quit parliament, and speculation had it that he’d remain a thorn in the side of National. It was a prospect many in the media were relishing. As the former party whip, Ross knows where many bodies are buried and is well positioned to dish up dirt on National. Adding even more hype to the huge volumes of speculation and opinion, many said National were looking at the waka jumping bill (which they opposed) to eject Ross from parliament.

None of this came to pass however as Ross was admitted into a mental health care facility on Sunday. According to Newshub, police took Ross to Middlemore Hospital’s mental health care unit. Since then social media has awash with conspiracy theories that the National party had Ross committed to silence him. Speculation has been fuelled by reports that Ross was ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act, meaning he did not go into care voluntarily.

While media and social media noise around the whole mess continues, the Mental Health Foundation has waded in, speaking out against Bridges’ comments that the reason Ross went on medical leave earlier this year was ’embarrassing’  when it was subsequently revealed that Ross had suffered a mental breakdown.

There are no winners in this terribly sad tale. Perhaps the biggest loser is Jami-Lee Ross. Regardless of his misdeeds, he now needs support, not condemnation, if he is to recover. The National Party also appears to be a casualty. Events have shown that it appears to be riddled with a particularly foul rot and needs to re-build if it is to demonstrate any integrity before the 2020 general elections. Based on his actions to date, it is also probable that Bridges will need to be replaced if the party is to move forward.

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