Another week, another leak: Whaitiri joins Bridges in the spotlight

11:40 am on 27 September 2018

Power Play - There are now two investigations underway into leaks that have targeted the leader of the opposition and now the prime minister.

National party leader Simon Bridges and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

National party leader Simon Bridges and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The first of those of course was the leaking of Simon Bridges' travel expenses that were going to be made public a few days later. After intially shrugging it off as inconsequential, Mr Bridges ended up calling in PwC and Simpson Grierson to carry out an investigation, that involved all National Party MPs signing a privacy waiver.

Today's leak is of the draft report into an altercation between former minister and Labour MP Meka Whaitiri and her new press secretary at a Crown hui in Gisborne in late August.

This is a different situation because not all of the material that was leaked would have ended up in the public domain.

Jacinda Ardern sacked Ms Whaitiri last week when she received the report, commissioned by Ministerial Services.

But before making it public Ms Ardern ordered personal details about the press secretary be redacted - that process was expected to take two to three weeks.

Now while the NZ Herald chose not to publish those details, speaking from New York Ms Ardern said she was not exactly sure what was going to end up in the final public report, including the details of photos taken of the bruising on the press secretary's arm.

The draft report would have had limited circulation within senior Beehive offices, but all of the parties named in the report would have been given a copy as part of the process of getting the right of reply before the final report was presented to the prime minister.

If this leak came from Labour or the government that's a serious challenge to the leadership of Ms Ardern.

Another possibility is the draft report ended up in the hands of the opposition, who would not hesitate to get it out to put further pressure on the government, and Ms Ardern.

Just this week National MP Amy Adams used parliamentary privilege to talk about potential "violence" against the press secretary and in her speech referred to the bruising on the arm. She also decried the lack of transparency with very few details being made public after Ms Whaitiri was sacked.

It's important to note however that as prime minister, Ms Ardern primarily had to decide whether Ms Whaitiri was fit to stay on as minister - she clearly came to the conclusion she was not.

Not so straightforward however is Ms Whaitiri's position as an MP.

As we've seen with other MPs under a cloud, the decision to stay on in Parliament - or not - is for the MP themselves.

A party leader can choose to go through a protracted and messy process of expelling a member from the caucus (the former New Zealand First MP Brendan Horan is a case in point) but even then that still leaves them in Parliament as an independent.

That of course is under the current law which is on the very cusp of being changed under the so-called waka jumping legislation, awaiting its third and final reading.

Once that passes any MP who quits the party under whose banner they were elected to Parliament, or is expelled from the caucus, loses their seat.

As an electorate there is a way back, through a by-election, but for list MPs it's the end of the road.

Ms Whaitiri is the MP for Ikaroa-Rāwhiti and by all accounts retains strong support.

Also not to be underestimated is the strong support she still enjoys from members of Labour's Māori caucus, who were in regular contact with Ms Adern in the weeks leading up to the sacking of Ms Whaitiri.

National has been pushing hard in Parliament, questioning why someone who most likely had become physical with a staff member was still getting that support, and furthermore remaining on as an MP.

Wherever the leak came from, it gives National even more ammunition to keep coming after Ms Ardern, and Ms Whaitiri herself.

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