Comment

Losers abound in a bad week for NZ politics

Simon Bridges claimed vindication in the aftermath of Jami-Lee Ross’ secret recording release - but while there was no damning evidence regarding a donation cover-up, remarks about Asian candidates do damage to our political system, Sam Sachdeva writes.

There are no winners from a week like this.

Jami-Lee Ross’ claims of moral comfort have been shredded by the accounts of four women, first published by Newsroom, about the former National MP’s treatment of them in personal and professional relationships.

The Botany MP’s professed ignorance regarding the claims made against him seem impossible to comprehend given the gut-wrenching level of detail provided by the women about being “destroyed as a person” and “intimidated, threatened and abused”.

His former National colleagues have expressed shock at the allegations, saying they had no idea of the degree of what occurred.

But precisely how much they did know, and who knew it, is still an open question, with National officials Peter Goodfellow and Greg Hamilton among those who were approached by at least one of the women who spoke to Newsroom.

One of the women says she approached National Party President Peter Goodfellow (pictured) about Jami-Lee Ross. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

When Ross was granted personal medical leave earlier this month - what now seems like a lifetime ago - Bridges said there was a path back to Parliament for his MP - something which seems inconceivable given what we now know, even disregarding his subsequent actions.

There is reason to believe the National leader may well have had little idea of the scale of Ross’s offences, but it is fair to expect a more thorough accounting from the party about what exactly was done once the first hints of problems raised their head.

While Bridges’ fiery response went some way towards redeeming him after an initially tepid reaction, the National leader is not out of the woods.

Bridges came out swinging after Ross released the recording of a conversation the pair had about a donation from Chinese businessman Zhang Yikun, proclaiming the renegade MP had been “utterly discredited”.

While he is right there was no smoking gun, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and it will take a more thorough investigation from police - complete with a forensic examination of National’s accounts - to reach a more categorical position on whether laws were broken and if so by whom.

While Bridges’ fiery response went some way towards redeeming him after an initially tepid reaction, the National leader is not out of the woods.

In the immediate aftermath of the recording’s release, most media jumped on Bridges’ description of his West Coast-based MP Maureen Pugh as “fucking useless” - in large part because it was easy to report, and an unusually candid remark to be made public.

Cruel as it was - and Bridges has apologised unconditionally - it’s near-certain that most politicians (and other professionals, including the media) have expressed similar sentiments about their colleagues in what they assumed were private conversations.

Asian remarks damaging

National list MPs Jian Yang, Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, Maureen Pugh and Parmjeet Parmar on the way to caucus. File Photo: Lynn Grieveson

It’s the comments for which Bridges has not apologised, about the merits of Asian candidates, which seem more likely to have a lasting impact.

Reminded by Ross of a discussion at the Zhang dinner about another Chinese candidate, Bridges quickly responded, “Two MPs, yeah” - seemingly creating a link, implicit if not explicit, between the cash and candidacy.

National MPs have been quick to defend their leader: Maggie Barry suggested he had been set up by Ross, describing the Botany MP’s line of enquiry as a “full toss down the legside question” - yet Bridges could still have let it go through to the keeper.

He hardly swung for the boundary, but his casual comments about the merits of two Chinese candidates versus one Chinese and one Filipino will sit poorly with many who feel MPs should not be reduced to the value, symbolic or financial, they bring to their party.

The publication of the comments put Bridges and National in a bind regarding any new MPs it wants to bring in. Approve the candidacy of an Asian candidate and they will be subject to accusations, fairly or otherwise, of tokenism and “pay for play”; shy away from doing so, and the party could be accused of racism.

The publication of the comments put Bridges and National in a bind regarding any new MPs it wants to bring in.

Approve the candidacy of an Asian candidate and they will be subject to accusations, fairly or otherwise, of tokenism and “pay for play”; shy away from doing so, and the party could be accused of racism.

Simon Bridges has not apologised for his comments on Asian MPs, with his colleagues claiming he was 'set up'. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

National’s existing Asian MPs would also have cause to feel put out, although they are not saying as much publicly.

It is a hugely unfair situation for New Zealand’s Asian community, who make up nearly 12 percent of the population yet have less than half that level of representation in Parliament.

They deserve better than to be pigeon-holed as sources of campaign cash or a cheap way to win votes, and an apology from Bridges would not be out of order - even if he feels he was entrapped.

Public also losers

Other parties should not be revelling in any schadenfreude, however: it’s almost certain they have had the same conversations around their own candidates, even if they were fortunate enough not to be taped.

Apology from Bridges or not, there will be flow-on effects beyond candidate selections: a review of our electoral funding seems like a necessity, given the issues that have been raised around public disclosures and the possibly outsized influence of donors.

The public deserve that much, given they are also losers here: Ross’s implosion is not the only instance of MPs failing to meet the standards we should rightly expect from them, as Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri demonstrate (albeit for very different reasons).

Since the resignation of Metiria Turei last year, it feels like there has been a non-stop cavalcade of political scandal and in-fighting at the expense of more important issues.

With a Botany by-election, the prospect of further information dumps from Ross and the results of the police investigation lying in wait, Christmas can’t come soon enough.

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