Pol­i­tics Jane Clifton

Ditch­ing their em­bat­tled leader is not in the Nats’ best in­ter­ests.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - JANE CLIFTON

One thing you should never say about pol­i­tics is “now I’ve seen ev­ery­thing”. This time last year, the po­lit­i­cal fir­ma­ment was in a state of post-trau­matic shock over the for­ma­tion, against all ex­pec­ta­tions, of a Labour-New Zealand First Gov­ern­ment with the Greens in sup­port. It went against decades of elec­toral ortho­doxy and the coun­try could hardly have been more stunned if Win­ston Peters had joined The Wiggles.

It felt safe to say that this was as big a bombshell as pol­i­tics could ever pro­vide.

It seemed symp­to­matic that, just be­fore Christ­mas, new Op­po­si­tion chief whip Jami-Lee Ross threw a spec­tac­u­lar tantrum in Par­lia­ment, bel­low­ing at the chair, stab­bing his or­der pa­per about and com­plain­ing about lunch be­ing late. At the time, it was put down to cruel dis­ap­point­ment. Like many Nats, he’d fully ex­pected to be set­tling into his first min­is­te­rial of­fice by then. In­stead, he was con­signed in­def­i­nitely to bandy­ing footling pro­ce­dural points.

Un­be­known to any­one, that was a just a puff from a very deep-rum­bling vol­cano. A year on, the Botany MP has sup­plied the block­buster of all “now I’ve seen ev­ery­thing” mo­ments.

It’s an­other sum­mer of PTSD all round – and the tec­tonic plates are still shift­ing, with no one, least of all Ross, hav­ing any agency over when or how it will end.

Nor­mally, spec­u­la­tion such as that now hang­ing over Si­mon Bridges’ lead­er­ship would be the crown­ing sen­sa­tion in any po­lit­i­cal ker­fuf­fle. Here, it’s the least of it.

It’s hard for Na­tional to fig­ure out which zone of fall­out to triage first. The most ar­rest­ing sit­u­a­tion is Ross’ al­legedly toxic be­hav­iour to sev­eral women, in­clud­ing staff, which as­sumes a new ur­gency in the #Me­Too era. But, in or­der to get there, Na­tional has to tread the eggshell path of Ross’ ap­par­ently frag­ile men­tal health. His com­mis­sion to a men­tal-health fa­cil­ity for three nights put spec­u­la­tion on hold – save from some par­tic­u­larly inane “state gu­lag” rant­ing from the tin­foil truther fra­ter­nity.

Since then, fur­ther sen­sa­tional and trou­bling pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions have seeped out and seem likely to con­tinue to. These feed pruri­ence and noth­ing else.

They’re nigh im­pos­si­ble to jus­tify air­ing on pub­licin­ter­est grounds; though they might be very in­ter­est­ing to the pub­lic, that’s not the same thing.

It’s im­pos­si­ble for this ma­te­rial to be viewed in its full con­text or judged with any de­gree of fair­ness. Peo­ple talk and text non­sense, es­pe­cially when they’re tired or up­set. The ma­te­rial Ross has squir­relled away for his war on Bridges is dy­na­mite, in part be­cause it could give the im­pres­sion it’s not just Ross who is guilty of ex­tra­mar­i­tal dal­liance, to which he ad­mits, but that other Nats have been at the least some­what li­cen­tious.


“Is Par­lia­ment de­te­ri­o­rat­ing into a 70s wife-swap­ping party? We de­mand to be told!”

Du­elling cries have gone up: “Is Par­lia­ment de­te­ri­o­rat­ing into a 70s wife-swap­ping party? We de­mand to be told!” ver­sus, “What busi­ness of any­one’s is an MP’s per­sonal life? No laws have been bro­ken.”

Un­til now, the line in the sand has been the hypocrisy test. Out­side the old News of the World wilds, the jour­nal­is­tic ortho­doxy has al­ways been that such per­sonal in­dis­cre­tions as booz­ing or il­licit af­fairs go un­re­ported un­less the pub­lic fig­ure con­cerned is guilty of ob­vi­ous dou­ble-stan­dards. #Me­Too shifted the pub­lic in­ter­est sand line to: was there an im­bal­ance of power, and/or abuse? Ross does ap­pear to have used his po­si­tion to bully women, in­clud­ing those with whom he was in a re­la­tion­ship.

But the air­ing of Ross’ dirty laun­dry would af­fect, un­fairly im­pli­cate or sim­ply dev­as­tate not just those im­me­di­ately in­volved, but their fam­i­lies and in­no­cent col­leagues. This makes

the de­mands that it all be made pub­lic seem pretty reck­less and heart­less.

Ross vowed to spill it all, and even if he doesn’t, the de­press­ing in­evitabil­ity is that some­one else won’t be able to help them­selves. Then, oth­ers will rel­ish be­ing righ­teously dis­gusted about how “pol­i­tics has hit a new low”.

Some have fairly called for bet­ter pas­toral care in pol­i­tics. Over decades, lone MPs have been left to eddy into se­ri­ous, fur­ni­ture-wreck­ing wig outs. All par­ties could do more to look af­ter one an­other. But MPs are elected, not hired. They have au­ton­omy be­yond their cau­cus hi­er­ar­chies.

Also, peo­ple are typ­i­cally self-pro­tec­tive about their dys­func­tion and sly about their bad be­hav­iour. From what has come out, it seems likely Ross was both. Per­haps the only sim­ple truth about what has hap­pened is that no one could have han­dled it well. Ross both be­haved sack­ably – his pub­lic dis­loy­alty has been mon­u­men­tal, what­ever his pri­vate con­duct – and was men­tally ill. No leader could deal with the first with­out risk to the sec­ond – but no leader could leave the dis­loy­alty un­ad­dressed.

It’s also now clear Bridges’ use of the word “em­bar­rass­ing” wasn’t in­tended as a crass com­ment on Ross’ men­tal health, but was his gen­uine, gob­s­macked re­sponse to newly dis­cov­er­ing how badly Ross had be­haved. He may have made a bad sit­u­a­tion worse at times, and the tape of him swear­ing like an old navvy and day­dream­ing about rins­ing eff­ing use­less list MPs may yet prove un­sur­viv­able.


Given the enor­mity of what Ross has brought upon the party, Bridges’ fum­bles are ir­rel­e­vant for now. What­ever he, his deputy Paula Ben­nett or the re­mark­ably in­ert party pres­i­dent Peter Good­fel­low did or didn’t do, Ross was ready to self-det­o­nate come what may.

“Pick up the pieces” would be a bet­ter motto than the cur­rent “Heads must roll!” The blame car­a­van is trundling to­wards Ben­nett and Good­fel­low, but that’s the proxy pad­dy­whacks ex­er­cise a party re­sorts to when it can’t pun­ish the real of­fender. Ross is trag­i­cally self-pun­ish­ing. Na­tional can only min­imise fur­ther dam­age by stay­ing uni­fied un­til Hur­ri­cane Jami-Lee has safely passed, how­ever long that takes.

There’s been a re­mark­ably mod­est poll hit so far, and while Bridges’ per­sonal num­bers are rather worse, this is not the time to beat the jun­gle drums. Be­cause one ortho­doxy hasn’t changed: three times in four, swap­ping lead­ers in Op­po­si­tion is just bolt­ing from the fry­ing pan into the fire – or an­other fry­ing pan, if you’re lucky. Best stick with the fixer-up­per leader and hope for im­prove­ment, or for a new mar­quee can­di­date like John Key or Jacinda Ardern to ma­te­ri­alise.

Oh, and set the timer to take cover from an­other bumper “now I’ve seen ev­ery­thing” bun­fight same time next year.

Three times in four, swap­ping lead­ers in Op­po­si­tion is just bolt­ing from the fry­ing pan into the fire.

Pub­lic dis­loy­alty: Jami-Lee Ross.

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