Ross v Bridges: Nothing to be won, and a whole lot to be lost

7:17 pm on 18 October 2018

Opinion - Many questions over the National Party's $100k donation still need to be answered, but the battle being waged is harmful for New Zealand Politics.

Jami-Lee Ross speaks to media after making a complaint to police about National Party leader, Simon Bridges.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

When Jamie-Lee Ross re-enacted the Joker's "everything burns" scene from The Dark Knight in his press conference at Parliament, much was promised. Simon Bridges, we were told, had instructed him to divide up a $100,000 donation from a businessman into smaller, non-disclosable amounts.

If established, that was not only the end of Bridges' political career, but also the basis for potentially serious criminal charges.

Then, yesterday, Ross' story changed at his press conference after visiting the police. This money had not actually been divided up by him personally (because, I should note, if Ross had done so then he would have been guilty of those potentially serious criminal charges). Rather, the donation had appeared in his electorate bank account already split into these smaller, non-disclosable amounts.

That raised the question, of course, as to who had done the splitting up. Because Ross had stated in his original parliamentary press conference that the businessman in question had done nothing wrong. Which would not be true if that businessman had been a party to the donation splitting.

Then Ross released his recorded conversation with Bridges, and things changed again. That recording showed that while Bridges clearly had knowledge of a donation being in the offing, he didn't seem to know much more about it than that. And in the recording Ross explicitly states this about the donation's source:

"The way they've done it meets the disclosure requirements - sorry, it meets the requirements where it's under the particular disclosure level because they're a big association and there's multiple people and multiple people make donations, so that's all fine."

To me, this reads as though the businessman has told Bridges that the association he heads would like to support the National Party. The members of this association have then come together and chipped in individual donations that in total amount to $100,000, but none of which individually exceed the $15,000 public disclosure threshold. And that is all entirely legal.

It also would be legal for Bridges to indicate to, or even instruct, the association that he'd like the donation given in this way. It's only if the businessman has funded the entire $100,000 amount himself, while getting friends and colleagues to transmit bits of it under their own name as "straw" donors, that the law will have been broken. But then the main party to that offending would be the businessman involved - whom, remember, Ross has said has done nothing wrong.

I assume that the police investigation will focus on which of these fact patterns actually is true. That may involve getting production orders to trace the flow of funds to the Botany electorate account, as well as where those funds originated. So, any final judgment on all of this has to await the outcome of that investigation.

But for now, a word about the politics of what we're seeing here. I don't mean "politics" in the sense of partisan battles over policy, or what will happen in the polls, or the like. For, as Bryce Edwards has so rightly noted, this whole saga is ultimately empty; "the meltdown has been about personalities, leadership and ambition."

And the way this small-stakes, nothing-of-real-significance, battle is being waged is harmful for our (capital P) Politics, in the sense of how we as a community collectively govern ourselves and decide what we ought to do as a nation.

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Photo: Youtube

Ross clearly is operating from the play book of Simon Lusk, whom he has admitted to taking advice from. Lusk is, of course, most well-known for his appearances in the pages of Dirty Politics where he is caught boasting:

"I'm just motivated to cut throats. Unfortunately the biggest buzz I get is when I wreck someone, only done it three times, but I was on a massive high"

The raising of serious accusations that, upon closer inspection, seem to turn out to be far less than promised; only to then be replaced by a new set of accusations. The recording of conversations to get "dirt" that can be used at a later, unspecified date. The slow, drip-feeding of information designed to keep the story running rather than establish what actually has occurred. All of these are designed to do nothing more than visit personal destruction on a political enemy.

While there's a certain irony in the National Party now being roiled by the tactics of some it held far too close for far too long, this episode ultimately is bad for us as a country. It's not what our Politics, or our politics, should be. There is nothing to be won (and a whole lot to be lost) through it but the office and egos of small and petty personalities.

So, based on what I've seen so far, I actually hope Bridges survives this onslaught and remains National's leader. I hope that he and his party are soon able to return to arguing for their view of what New Zealand ought to be. I then hope they lose those arguments, because I disagree with them on many issues in a quite fundamental way.

But I want them to lose on the arguments, not because of tactics designed to do no more than "wreck" someone.

* Andrew Geddis is a professor of law at University of Otago

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