Sam Sachdeva: Fittingly strange end to leak scandal
The cancellation of the inquiry into the leak of MPs’ expenses leaves Simon Bridges facing more questions than when it started. Despite Bridges’ protestations, it feels on balance like the right decision was made, Sam Sachdeva writes.
Comment: A strange scandal has had a fittingly unusual end - of sorts.
Speaker Trevor Mallard’s decision to call off an investigation into the leak of MPs’ expenses, following a text message from the leaker saying their health was at risk, has put an ellipsis rather than a full stop on “Limogate”.
As first reported by RNZ, the anonymous texter contacted National leader Simon Bridges and Speaker Trevor Mallard last week, urging an end to the investigation due to fears it would worsen their serious mental health issues.
The texter claimed to be a National MP, providing evidence which supposedly could only have been obtained if that was in fact the case.
The original decision to leak the expenses to the media only days before they were due for release was puzzling enough.
Then there was Bridges’ reaction, initially brushing off the media attention only to change his mind and call for a High Court judge to look into the matter (he got a Queen’s Counsel instead, with Michael Heron QC in the job for all of 24 hours).
The National leader may wish he’d stuck with his initial instinct, given all that has since unfolded.
A fraught issue
Dealing with the mental health issues raised by the leaker was undoubtedly fraught for Bridges and Mallard.
In a week where news presenter Greg Boyed’s death has put the spotlight on New Zealand’s high rates of depression and suicide, responding with anything other than sensitivity and care would have been cruel.
Yet as Bridges pointed out, there could have been cynical reasons for the leaker to raise the matter as the net was preparing to close around them.
On balance, you could argue both Bridges and Mallard made good decisions: Bridges in contacting the police so they could identify the person and provide support, and Mallard in deciding that the leaker’s wellbeing outweighed any benefits of pushing ahead with an inquiry.
Bridges disagrees with the Speaker’s call, but if there is any question of someone’s health being at risk then that is what should be the top priority.
As the National leader himself said, the leak of expenses due for public release anyway was hardly a Watergate-level scandal.
While Bridges suggests the integrity of Parliament is at sake, Mallard’s reading of the text has led him to conclude that it is almost certainly a member of National’s caucus or wider staff who is responsible.
Thus the main justification for the inquiry, that the impartiality of the Parliamentary Service had to be secured, is weakened considerably.
There are of course political ramifications, tawdry as they may seem.
Bridges, flanked by senior MPs Gerry Brownlee, Amy Adams, Mark Mitchell and Todd McClay in a show of solidarity, insisted he had the support of his caucus, but that is far from clear.
The leak to media of both the expenses and the text message’s existence would suggest there are some MPs who are prepared to make their dissatisfaction with their leader public.
Where we go from here is not exactly clear.
Mallard has told Bridges he can push ahead with an inquiry himself if he wishes, but presumably funded from National’s own coffers.
To do so would look heartless and seem pointless, given it now seems to be an internal party spat and not a security vulnerability.
Of course, it won’t take a formal inquiry for Bridges and others to dig around and attempt to uncover the source of the leak - and with the sharing of party details, the pool of likely suspects has shrunk.
Will they reveal themselves, will they be found, or will they keep their heads down and remain undetected?
Bridges had hoped the inquiry would draw a line under the issue. Now it feels like there are more questions than ever.