Long days stretch on for National as Ross' allegations unroll

9:11 pm on 17 October 2018

By Brigitte Morten*

Opinion - The days in politics are long and the past few days for National have been some of the longest.

Jami-Lee Ross heads into the Wellington police station to make his complaint.

Jami-Lee Ross heads into Wellington police station to lay a complaint about corrupt practices by National Party leader Simon Bridges. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Looking back at the history of New Zealand politics, it is difficult to find such a public and vitriolic meltdown by a politician as what we've seen from Jami-Lee Ross.

Some may say Opposition Leader Simon Bridges brought this meltdown on himself - his commitment to an investigation into the travel expenses leak triggered Ross' tweets, press conference and resignation.

However, given the further allegations on Ross and his own admissions of trying to undermine the leader, it is likely that this all would have played out anyway - the leaks investigation just pushed it to the surface now.

Ross' behaviour is simply irrational. And it has shocked and angered many.

Ross was careful with his words to target Bridges with the allegations. But his actions damage all National MPs and put the chances of them holding on to the party vote, and therefore low-ranking list MP seats, at the next election much more unlikely. The willingness to throw into doubt the futures of Nicola Willis and Maureen Pugh, who occupy these seats, does not match with his narrative that he believes in his former colleagues.

Similarly, the decision to fling allegations of corrupt practices regarding campaign donations was simply bizarre. By his own admission, he was central to these arrangements. But while Ross sees Bridges' involvement as so bad that he cannot continue as leader, his own actions, he says, must be forgiven and he should be re-elected as the Botany MP.

Ross' behaviour may be a symptom of someone too busy listening to their own press to understand the bigger picture they are part of. The seat of Botany is a National stronghold. It returned a party vote of more than 61 percent at the last election - a number that has held pretty steady for the past decade, including before Ross became the MP in 2010.

Ross' personal vote is similarly high, but it is unknown how much is attached to his personal brand. And many National voters will feel betrayed by Ross' vengeance on the party. Had Ross not come out so strongly but held some cover for the coming months, he may have had a better chance at holding the seat.

If you compare Ross' situation to the last time a National MP - Todd Barclay - left parliament in difficult circumstances, the loneliness of Ross could not be more stark.

There was some sympathy for the complicated employment situation Barclay was in - colleagues stood behind him at press conferences and he was given support to transition out.

In comparison, Ross delivered a lone press conference, while his former colleagues several floors up decided what to do about him.

He printed his speech for the press conference at a stationery outlet - with no allies in Wellington to print it out for him.

Concern for Ross' wellbeing - especially from those closest to him - is clear. But it is difficult to rationalise this when he is being so reckless with the wellbeing of his former colleagues. We may see politicians as the people arguing on TV, but ultimately, they are people too, trying to do a job in a stressful situation. Betrayal like this hurts.

And it will continue for months. Ross has said he has more allegations to make, a by-election is tricky to schedule before Christmas, the government has no motivation to make it happen fast, all the electoral returns of National will be scrutinised in detail with donors put under the spotlight, and a police investigation will have to be undertaken on the electoral fraud allegations Ross has made.

This all adds up to months of distraction and pain for the National Party.

At the end of all this, it is likely Bridges will be cleared, but his leadership may be so tainted by months of uncertainty that he has to step aside. Delivering what Ross wants, but also destroying his own chances at holding the seat, taking a few list seats away with lower polling results, and letting the government get away with unscruntinised policy decisions as the Opposition is not able to hold them to account.

This is not just a bad day for Jami-Lee Ross, Simon Bridges and National. The ongoing mess of the next few months will further erode the community's trust in politicians and the democratic process.

* Brigitte Morten is a senior consultant for Silvereye. Prior to that she was a senior ministerial adviser to the Minister of Education in the previous National-led government, and an adviser and campaign director for Australia's Liberal Party.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs