The National Party's recipe for defeat

by Graham Adams / 23 January, 2019
National leader Simon Bridges and deputy leader Paula Bennett

National leader Simon Bridges and deputy leader Paula Bennett. Photo/Getty/Hagen Hopkins

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The opposition’s internal wrangling — and its fractious former MP Jami-Lee Ross — is a gift to the government that keeps on giving.

In February last year when Bill English stepped down as leader of the National Party, he warned his colleagues that the stability they had enjoyed over the past decade was “not normal in politics” and they should strive to maintain it. He said tearing the party apart was “a recipe for staying in Opposition”.

English was a victim himself of the factional fighting already bubbling under the calm surface of the party — discord that he and John Key had successfully suppressed as they won three elections back to back. But barely a year later, it is woefully apparent that his fractious former parliamentary mates have not taken his advice.

As the political year lurches into gear, it is unfortunate for National that many onlookers are much more interested in the party’s internal ructions and how long Simon Bridges will remain as leader than any policy initiatives he might propose.

How could they not be? After months of silence, Jami-Lee Ross — the dissident former National Party bagman who is now an independent MP — has roared back into the media spotlight with interviews and commentary broadcast on all the major news media sites.

His reappearance completely upstaged Bridges’ minor reshuffle of his shadow cabinet, including his appointment of Paula Bennett to lead the marijuana debate for the party.

Ross says he is no longer interested in utu against Bridges and Bennett but his account of the events that led to him being sectioned to a mental health unit at Middlemore Hospital last October doesn’t cast the opposition leader or his deputy in a very favourable light. In fact, the details he has provided look very much like a further attempt to settle old scores.

At the beginning of the week, Magic Talk’s Sean Plunket asked Bridges how he planned to deal with Jami-Lee Ross this year. Bridges’ assertion that he would “scrupulously ignore the guy because I’ve got bigger fish to fry” was a triumph of wishful thinking over reality. 

It remains a melancholy fact that the big fish Ross still wants to fry is undoubtedly Bridges himself, even if Bridges is willing to dismiss his former offsider as very small fry.

“Bluntly speaking, Jami-Lee Ross is no longer my problem,” Bridges told Plunket. “We expelled him from the caucus. It took up a month or two of time, my time as leader of the Opposition. It was a distraction.”

A distraction! A man who was Bridges’ close friend and confidant accused him of breaking electoral donation law and said he was a “corrupt politician” — and went to the police to offer what he believes is evidence. This hardly constitutes a distraction in any reasonable interpretation of the word.

Bridges has strongly rejected Ross’s allegations but the Botany MP can only be legitimately described as a “distraction” if Boris Johnson is similarly seen as a “distraction” to Theresa May or John A. Lee a minor annoyance to Michael J. Savage.

Furthermore, Ross has given us extremely valuable information about how Chinese money influences our politics, including the possibility that political candidacy can be bought. This is a sore that is going to continue to fester whatever Bridges and Bennett profess publicly about “moving on” and Ross is well placed to tell us much more.

As the party’s former chief whip, he can expose how our politics actually works and a lot more than the media could ever get from repeated OIA requests. In fact, it’s a wonder the media haven’t put him under a witness protection programme yet.

Unfortunately for Bridges, the “distractions” among his current MPs don’t end with the ousting of his former lieutenant. What is most extraordinary is that after he mounted his disastrous inquisition to find the person who leaked his travel expenses from his national meet-and-greet tour and fingered Ross as the most likely culprit, the leaks have continued

It speaks volumes about the lack of loyalty and unity in the National Party that several of its top-ranked MPs are frequently mentioned as likely sources for them.

Even if that is not true, public perception is that National is riddled with dissension and backbiting at its highest levels, which makes it impossible for the party to present itself as a cohesive government-in-waiting.

That problem points to yet another problem inasmuch as the most likely rivals to topple Bridges are hardly more appealing — and at the moment there is no clear front-runner among the candidates who could convince his or her caucus colleagues that they could do better than Bridges.

Bridges is also going to have to confront the fact that one of his MPs is being investigated by the police for a text she sent to Ross some months before his suicide attempt that he has said incited him to kill himself. 

The Harmful Digital Communications Act was passed by the National government in 2015 — and all the National caucus voted for it, including Bridges and Bennett, as well as presumably the married MP Ross has said he had a relationship with over several years.

And there is no possibility of excusing the text as something many people might do thoughtlessly in the heat of the moment because that is exactly the sort of behaviour the act was intended to counter.

If police charge her, she could have to resign her seat. Even if they don’t, the media will be bound sooner or later to reveal who she is with all its damaging publicity about her role in Ross’s downfall and their extramarital affair.

It was never meant to be like this, of course. A Labour-led government was expected to provide the most compelling political theatre in town — featuring an unsteady administration under a rookie Prime Minister who would struggle to manage the wily Winston Peters and the naive and dopey Greens. Meanwhile, a large, boisterous and cohesive opposition would be raking it with withering fire inside Parliament and out.

The three parties in government were predicted to be constantly at each other’s throats as they battled for supremacy and recognition within their cobbled-together union. It was expected to be a circus act of the politically impaired — quickly dubbed The Coalition of Losers by opponents — with pitfalls and pratfalls at every turn.

And the government has been a circus act, in part. In less than 18 months, two Labour ministers have left Cabinet over instances of bewilderingly poor judgment; the abrupt announcement of an oil and gas prospecting ban was one of the most bizarre political acts in living memory (perfectly captured by Shane Jones’ crestfallen face during the announcement); KiwiBuild is looking like a deeply quixotic enterprise as immigration continues at nosebleed levels, making it impossible for Phil Twyford to catch his own tail even if he does succeed in building many more houses, which seems unlikely. And this despite the campaign promises by Labour and NZ First to slash the inflow of immigrants… And so the list goes on.

What is truly remarkable is that the National Party has made itself even more of a circus act and a more compelling spectacle for political observers than its opponents on the Treasury benches. That takes quite some doing but National under Simon Bridges has somehow managed it.

Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters and James Shaw should be very grateful. It’s common for parties to engage in the politics of distraction to hide their own failings, but when your opponents provide sideshows as reliably as National is, it’s a gift from the political gods.

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