Jami-Lee Ross conflict reveals a troubling system of power

11:20 am on 23 October 2018

By Danielle Moreau*

Opinion - We were so naive. At the beginning of last week, Jami-Lee Ross's conflict with Simon Bridges seemed initially sordid but simple: there were alleged irregularities in party funding, and Ross staged a reality show-worthy expert reveal of his plans to scuttle Simon Bridges' leadership.

Jami-Lee Ross speaks to media about his falling out with National Party Leader, Simon Bridges.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Social media lit up with swapped gifs of people eating popcorn and coolly walking away from flaming explosions. Ross called Bridges 'so inadequate' and 'more and more unlikeable' and Winston Peters addressed the press by playing a clip of the song 'Burning Bridges' on his phone. Pettiness was the order of the day. It was a refreshing distraction from high-stakes news stories like catastrophic climate change.

Sadly, things started to get uncomfortable very fast. First, there was the exchange from a secretly recorded Ross-Bridges phone conversation about the relative worth of MPs from different ethnic backgrounds to the National Party, as if they were interchangeable tokens. Then allegations of Ross's abusive behaviour to women, which had been swirling around the rumour mill, were substantiated by a long-researched Newsroom piece about four women he had mistreated, with others to follow.

It appears that some people in the National Party knew about the allegations against Ross for months or even years, and attempted to 'support' the women by, inexplicably, making him chief whip. A 'gentleman's [sic] agreement' was facilitated by National Party president Peter Goodfellow to make sure one woman never spoke publicly.

Finally, the distressing news broke that Ross had reportedly been admitted to a mental health facility, and the whole saga's transformation from schadenfreude-worthy political pettiness to a grim, multi-faceted expression of about a dozen things wrong with our political power structures was complete.

In retrospect, there was no way this could merely be a clean, trivial fight between two politicians, because that's not how this all works and it never has been. This whole dirty business is symptomatic of structural issues we as a society have ignored for a long time.

Powerful people - men, mostly, although a few women are allowed into the clubhouse if they make sure to follow the rules - exploit others to gain that power and protect each other from consequences. And then, once the club has expelled a member, the protection that person relied upon is well and truly over: no matter their situation, they can be thrown to the wolves of ill-informed punditry and exploitative clickbait.

Even if Ross is banished, those people are still working to protect their own. Many in the National Party knew about Ross' abuse, but didn't do anything about it, because mistreating women is generally something to be ignored or suppressed unless your institution is going to end up looking bad.

For the powerful people who subscribe to this version of toxic masculinity, collateral damage to the less powerful, like those women, isn't important to them. While politicians and all the other behind-the-scenes operatives do their worst, we as a society become entranced by their Machiavellian maneuvers and analyse the 'winners' and the 'losers' in this 'horse race'. We forget or ignore that they hurt people, and this isn't a race.

This saga began, just over a week ago, with the possibility of financial corruption in political party funding, and turned into several other things along the way. But of these aspects of the scandal are inextricably linked - we shouldn't just follow the money, but also cherchez la femme.

Because the people who have bought into this system use money and women (and probably a lot of other vulnerable people and things) almost interchangeably in their quest for power. Dominance and control take precedence over ethics and empathy, and our political landscape is poorer for it.

*Danielle Moreau is a part-time legal researcher and a full-time parent and feminist in Auckland. She tweets at @dimsie.

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