National's hollow political scandal entertaining but insignificant

8:34 pm on 16 October 2018

By Bryce Edwards

Opinion - The extraordinary National Party scandal currently unfolding before our eyes is undoubtedly high drama. It has it all - leaks, anonymous texts, threats, secret recordings and explosive allegations, writes Bryce Edwards.

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

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

At its heart, however, the scandal is empty. It contains nothing of significance for democracy and society.

In fact, quite the opposite - it is devoid of any great ideological or policy dispute. Jami-Lee Ross does not appear to have gone to war with leader Simon Bridges over any point of principle.

The two politicians don't disagree about the political direction of the National Party, and few are suggesting the drama is representative of a deeper factional war going on within the party.

Instead the meltdown has been about personalities, leadership and ambition. Sometimes these scraps between individuals can have a significant political component, but not this one.

From what can be pieced together about the goings-on inside National, this is simply about one individual MP with thwarted ambitions, who has unwisely sought revenge against a leader he believed wasn't sufficiently appreciative of his talent and work.

Numerous insiders are portraying Ross' campaign against Bridges as being about sour grapes.

Such accounts - the best of which is outlined in Richard Harman's article today - How ambition brought down Jami Lee Ross - suggest that Ross turned against Bridges earlier this year, after helping him win the party leadership when Bill English stood down.

The key point from Harman's account states: "Ross wanted to be Shadow Leader of the House; Chief Whip and to sit on the front bench.

"Along with those posts he also wanted to be on the party board and to be in charge of party polling.

"In effect, he would have been a quasi-deputy leader with as much power as the leader himself. Bridges said no and thus appears to have provoked Ross's campaign against him."

If this account is correct then Ross' campaign against Bridges was all about vengeance and pride.

Yes, Ross has now supplemented his campaign against National's leader with allegations of electoral fraud (which Mr Bridges vehemently denies), but it's a stretch to believe this was what drove the rogue MP to take action.

The public may be forgiven for lowering their opinion of parliamentarians even further.

This episode has simply revealed the venality of many of those in power.

Not all MPs are like this of course - but too many are driven by personal power and financial reward. And that's all been clearly on display in this case, which has shown us the uglier side of political egos.

The absence of principled differences in this internal party dispute is also reflective of National's relative ideological emptiness at the moment.

The party is still struggling to find a purpose and reason to exist, after nine years in power. And when parties are empty of idealism and ideas, inevitably personalities and egos start to underpin internal fights.

So although this scandal is certainly colourful and fascinating, and therefore compelling viewing, it shouldn't be mistaken for meaningful politics.

- Dr Bryce Edwards is a Victoria University of Wellington academic whose main research areas are in political parties, elections and Parliament.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs