The dangerously escalating Bridges-Ross wars

The extraordinary National Party war between Simon Bridges and Jami-Lee Ross looks to be spiralling dangerously out of control. According to Dr Bryce Edwards of Victoria University of Wellington, the current hostilities could change the long-established reluctance of politicians to enter the “no-go zones” of sexual impropriety and political finance corruption. 

Some of the most scandalous and explosive elements of the current National Party saga involve allegations of corruption and sexual impropriety. These issues are not new. They have long bubbled beneath the surface of parliamentary politics, with rumours and secrets discussed and usually safely guarded, not often seeing the public light of day. This is mainly because the politicians all know there is dirty laundry on both sides, and it’s in no-one’s interests to have a war in which it all gets aired publicly.

The most common analogy used is that of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which in political terms has meant an informal pact or handbrake that has tended to keep sexual impropriety or corruption allegations out of the public arena. As with the nuclear standoff of the cold war period, in New Zealand politics both Labour and National have known that the danger of firing a major missile (involving allegations of corruption or sexual impropriety) at their political opponents, meant the likelihood that a missile would be sent straight back from the other side. Both Labour and National keep track of the alleged misdeeds of their opponents, but they’re normally careful not to push “the nuclear button”. 

At times the unspoken agreement has threatened to break down over escalating tensions, but cooler heads tend to prevail, and the Labour and National parties find ways of de-escalating battles over scandals. For example, when Don Brash was leader of the Opposition things became very tense between Labour and National, with strong allegations traded more freely. 

Brash at one stage made the claim that Helen Clark’s Government “has no legitimacy” due to Labour’s misuse of taxpayer funds in the 2005 election. He went on to label it “The most corrupt government in New Zealand history”. Possibly in response, Labour MPs made numerous allegations of marital infidelity on the part of Brash. 

The situation got so bad that TVNZ reported at the time: “MPs across the political spectrum are calling on each other to pull back from the brink of what’s being seen as a descent into the kind of tabloid exposure of politicians’ personal lives seen in Britain and the United States”. 

During John Key’s time as Prime Minister, Labour was also becoming more aggressive in drawing attention to alleged National Government misdeeds, which led Key to issue a warning to Labour MPs in 2013 that he kept informed about opponents’ misbehaviour and had “written it down and put it in my top drawer”. 

The following year, Key spoke out again, warning Labour to be “careful” about allegations involving political donations to National, saying: “I have quite a long list. If Labour members really want to invite me to table all of those, they are welcome to do that, but I just make one little warning to them: do not go there. But if you want me to, I am more than happy to”. 

The problem in this scandal is that the allegations aren’t coming from the Opposition, but from within. Jami-Lee Ross politically has nothing left to lose, and is currently pushing the “nuclear button” with allegations about Simon Bridges, and the party leadership has been pushing some very negative lines about the rogue MP. 

It makes it harder for the usual de-escalation process to kick in, given this current situation is more akin to a brutal civil war than a cold war between superpowers. It’s yet to be seen whether Ross can be dissuaded from continuing to dish damaging dirt on Simon Bridges and National, and the party will be reluctant to give Ross a free pass now that he has betrayed them so spectacularly. 

A further problem is that scandal mongering about party finance and personal lives can become contagious. The media follow the tone set by the politicians. And if personal and financial allegations are being freely thrown around in the public domain, then they will report on all of this in more detail. If other political parties attempt to capitalise on these allegations – which they are normally very tempted to do – then those parties also become vulnerable to additional allegations being thrown their way. So, Labour, New Zealand First, and the Greens will want to tread very carefully before making any statements at all about what’s going on in National. Ardern has certainly been very measured in her public statements so far and, while Peters is clearly enjoying the show and indulging in some schadenfreude, he isn’t directly getting involved.

Given some of the sensational allegations arising in the last couple of days about illegal party donations, sexual harassment, and “inappropriate behaviour by a married MP”, the situation looks like it could get a lot worse, very quickly. When one side is already on a path of self-destruction, “MAD” becomes completely ineffective. Jami-Lee Ross was a close confidant of Simon Bridges and had the role of National’s Chief Whip. If he has been planning his resignation and a by-election for any length of time he could have amassed quite an arsenal. These might be only the opening shots. Bridges successfully isolated Ross within National, but now he will need to destroy Ross’ public credibility fast.

Some of this might be good for politics and democracy. After all, they say that sunlight is the best disinfectant. The donations issue is substantive and needs to properly investigated, but the rest of the scandal mongering may cause serious problems for the people involved, and might actually threaten to turn the political process into something of a sad circus. In the end, we need to all be discerning consumers of political scandals, with an eye to detecting what are the meaningful allegations and exposures, and what is just gutter politics. In fact, perhaps we should all be demanding “better quality political scandals”.

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