Week in politics: National's woes continue, tensions in chamber

7:21 pm on 7 December 2018

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - National springs more leaks, Maggie Barry's woes worsen, debating chamber tensions boil over and the controversial employment law changes are finally passed by Parliament.

Maggie Barry and Simon Bridges split image

It's been a tumultuous week for the National Party, including its MP Maggie Barry (left) and leader Simon Bridges (right). Photo: RNZ

National's leaks haven't ended with the departure of Jami-Lee Ross and the party could be facing an ongoing problem.

Details of National's internal polling were emailed to RNZ and other media organisations this week, showing its support at 41 percent compared with a published poll which gave it 46 percent.

The sender claimed to be an MP and said there was concern in the caucus over the internal polling results. This was denied by leader Simon Bridges, but RNZ then received a second email from the same anonymous source giving details of what happened at Tuesday's caucus meeting. The only people in caucus meetings are MPs and the party president, so the leaker must be an MP or someone who is being given information by an MP.

Either way, that means an insider is out to cause trouble and the party doesn't seem to have any idea who it is.

The Jami-Lee Ross meltdown began with the inquiry Mr Bridges ordered into the leaking of his expense claims, and he doesn't want a repeat of that fiasco. This time, there's no mention of an inquiry and the latest leaks are being played down.

Mr Bridges isn't disputing the information in the anonymous emails, and he'd rather not talk about the obvious attempt to undermine his leadership.

Meanwhile, accusations of bullying against one of his MPs, Maggie Barry, gained strength.

The former staffer who also claims she ordered party work to be done on taxpayer time - which would be a misuse of parliamentary funding - has laid a complaint with the Auditor-General. The Auditor-General hasn't yet decided whether there will be an inquiry, but it would be unusual if there isn't one.

Her accuser has given several media outlets recordings of conversations, texts and memos to support his allegations, and is clearly very aggrieved.

"She would swear at me she would call staff stupid, tell them she couldn't believe they had a degree," the former staffer told RNZ.

"It was Jekyll and Hyde stuff, it rocketed from absurd one moment to terrifying the next. She would be absolutely lovely and then a small thing would trigger her and she'd be absolutely furious, just red hot fury."

Ms Barry denies all the allegations and says an internal inquiry cleared her of the bullying allegations. Another former staffer has challenged the claims, saying they're untrue.

If, as expected, the Auditor-General holds an inquiry and releases a report, the issue won't go away for months. The aggrieved staffer also intends on laying a complaint with the inquiry into bullying in Parliament launched by Speaker Trevor Mallard.

Mr Mallard had issues of his own to deal with this week.

The Speaker, Trevor Mallard

Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard has been accused of bias. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Opposition anger over his perceived bias has been simmering for months and boiled over during question time. It began when Mr Bridges said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was "ducking and diving" as he tried to get answers out of her. That isn't an unusual complaint and seemed fairly innocuous, but Mr Mallard stood to intervene.

"Here comes the protection". Mr Bridges said. He must have known there would be retribution for that, because the Speaker can't be accused on the floor of the House of bias or favouritism. He was ordered to leave, and Gerry Brownlee was given the same order for saying "that struck a raw nerve".

Some MPs walked out immediately after Mr Bridges and Mr Brownlee left, and the rest straggled out within a few minutes. It clearly wasn't staged, or it would have been a more impressive mass departure.

What had made matters worse was something Mr Mallard had said the previous day - he described Mr Bridges as "a smartarse". Coming from the Speaker, that crossed the line by a long way and the Opposition knew it.

Mr Brownlee, interviewed by RNZ, was reluctant to talk about bias but there was a reference to an article written by the New Zealand Herald's political editor, Audrey Young. Here's what she thought about it: "Parliament's Speaker, Trevor Mallard, has an inbuilt bias against National Party leader Simon Bridges and a soft spot for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern."

Mr Brownlee suggested people should pay attention to Young's "astute" opinion.

Another astute opinion came from Chester Borrows, a former National Party deputy speaker who is no longer in Parliament. The public already had a fairly low opinion of parliamentary proceedings, he told RNZ on Friday, and if the spats continued it would worsen.

"Trevor already had a battle on his hands because he was seen as Labour's rabid attack dog and that meant he had to play it with a really straight bat," he said.

"He's done some really good stuff lifting the standard of debate. You can get all the wheels straight without appearing to be partisan."

Something that did go smoothly in Parliament this week was the passing into law of the government's employment law changes. The bill had been held up by NZ First's objections, and it's path was cleared after Labour agreed to make it much more business-friendly.

Winston Peters said it was a triumph for the democratic process but the real winner was his party, and he's doing a great job maintaining its high profile.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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