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A post-mortem on Todd Barclay and Matt McCarten's fiascos

Todd Barclay and Matt McCarten. Photo/Supplied/Getty Images

In the catalogue of disaster, is a Todd Barclay worse than a Matt McCarten?

To grasp the complexities of the Todd Barclay affair, it is necessary, thanks to the Prime Minister, to acquire a working knowledge of the quantum mechanical paradox of Schrödinger’s cat.

The famous thought experiment posits a cat in a box that may or may not be dead depending on the rate of decay of an atom that may or may not trigger a flask of poison, with the fiendish corollary that the cat could be alive and dead simultaneously. Substitute a tape recording for the cat and you have the most accurate approximation of Bill English’s position on whether or not MP Todd Barclay has been a naughty boy.

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This doesn’t really make things any clearer. But after umpteen days of this Southlandic skirmish, reductio ad absurdum and advanced physics are our only hope of lucidity. Barclay has been forced to retire at the election because of a tape that English now says may not have ever existed, even though he says he’s been offered a listen of it and parliamentary officials are said to have been made aware of its contents. Police are now for a second time trying to find the tape/not-tape. They might like to talk to Stephen Hawking.

English’s peculiar hedging over aspects of Barclay’s electorate’s protracted squabbles have now damaged his reputation as a rock-solid leader. His seemingly needless hemming and hawing may be down to his uneasy conscience at the knowledge that he could have done more to stop the young MP’s plight becoming unsalvageable.

It’s easy, and rather satisfying given Barclay’s previous job as a tobacco company PR man, for people to see this as a classic situation of a smarty-britches young Nat being beastly to a group of blameless people over whom he had inordinate power.

Given his youth, affluence, career and party affiliation, Barclay was always going to struggle to get the benefit of the doubt in any political stoush. But the more that emerges about this affair, the more simplistic the popular media take on it seems;: that it’s all about Barclay abusing local staff and members. To refine something this column said last week, Barclay was probably more sinned against than sinning.

Local knowledge

Every inquisition bar a Spanish one has been held into the Clutha-Southland row over the past couple of years: the media, party officials and police have looked into it and it has been exhaustively canvassed over the beers, teacups and dinner tables of Southland. It’s in the latter discussions that people are most likely to have received the real oil in all its colourful, Chinese-whispered variations and exaggerations.

And that is – or should have been – the crunch point. After months of intense local parsing of gossip, factoid and eyewitness account, National Party members voted by a considerable margin to reselect Barclay as their candidate. Either they didn’t believe the half of what his detractors said or they reckoned it didn’t matter. Maybe, too, they made judgments about people’s motives. When a new MP moves in, the old guard in an electorate can suffer an attack of that age-old complaint called relevance-deprivation syndrome.

The kernel of the complaints was that Barclay lived it up a little too much, threw his weight around and paid more attention to townie business than rural folk. One could fairly ask, what twentysomething living in Queenstown wouldn’t party, and if not, what the heck was wrong with them? Tourism and property development are the district’s rocket fuel, so the local MP is obliged to prioritise them. And as MP, he’s the electorate boss. Staff have to do things his way, even if they reckon he’s wrong. These, at least, were the conclusions of the majority of Nats who reselected him.

That should have been an end to it. His foes relitigated their dissatisfaction with a slew of formal complaints to the party board, but these were rejected after an investigation led by lawyer and former Cabinet minister Kate Wilkinson.

Cartoon/Chris Slane

Bee-filled bonnets

To the layperson, the complaints seem remarkably petty. One alleges favouritism through Barclay’s name being in capitals on a ballot paper. Wilkinson’s (newly leaked) report, ever so politely, rebukes the complainants as “hyperbolic”. The executive summary of the report might read “too many bees in too few bonnets”.

More seriously, though, local and beltway tittle-tattle about Barclay has since made the dubious transition into print: that the tape contained reference to “matters involving sex and drugs” (though apparently not rock’n’roll; they stick to country and western in them-thar southern parts).

Although it’s hard on Barclay that this suggestion is now public, it does supply a useful context. How would anyone, let alone a novice MP, feel if they believed people who were supposed to support them – including some who were being paid to do so – were accusing them of criminality and licentiousness?

Let’s hastily say that trying to catch one’s accusers out with illicit bugging would not be a correct or proportionate response. But it’s now clear that, to whatever extent bullying took place, it went both ways.

Despite those rumours having swirled for a couple of years, Barclay has never been investigated for anything other than the taping allegation, so this tattling has to be seen as spite. If anyone genuinely thought the MP was involved in such illegality, the correct thing to do would have been to tell the police. Whether or not Barclay sought to psych out his foes by bugging or a bluff of bugging, it’s now pretty clear some of them had first sought to psych him out by slanderous rumour-mongering. They might count themselves lucky that defamation is a civil rather than criminal matter, or police might be investigating them as well.

A further fact that Barclay’s foes must confront is the amount of political firepower arrayed in his defence, particularly within the National caucus. That support appears to remain solid, despite – and possibly because of – the suggestion that not all MPs are happy with English’s handling of matters. Ambitious, experienced MPs with big careers ahead of them have openly supported Barclay throughout his tribulations.

That’s not to say that ministers including Jonathan Coleman, Maggie Barry and Judith Collins and rising stars like Chris Bishop and Todd Muller have not told Barclay he’s been a blithering idiot. But they wouldn’t have telegraphed their support – several attending the selection meeting to back him – if they believed he’d been the primary menace in this mess. Nor would they risk their reputations if they thought he was a useless MP or a liability.

In any caucus, loyalty comes second to self-preservation. Few MPs in big trouble get that level of overt endorsement from colleagues. National’s Aaron Gilmore and Richard Worth didn’t get a sniff of it on their way out the door. Collins herself, when she was in shtook last election, would have welcomed a fraction of the ballast Barclay has had. English can’t be in any doubt that many of his MPs now feel he let Barclay down rather more badly than Barclay let down the party. Once English started hinting at the tape’s non-existence, the question hovered: if there is no tape, or if there even may be no tape, why the extra payout to the supposedly bugged staffer and why was Barclay bustled into retirement?

A further key difference – indeed, a Key difference – is that the MP-overboard outcome has not made the Prime Minister look strong. When John Key disciplined or dispatched errant MPs, he always emerged looking like someone who would not stand for any nonsense. English, by contrast, made himself look part of the problem rather than the guy who put a stop to it.

Even before all his damaging havering about the tape, he could be seen in an unflattering three-wise-monkeys light. As Deputy PM when the bunfight began and the one person in the whole of New Zealand who personally knew and had the respect of all the parties involved, he cannot easily shake off the perception that he could have sorted things out but chose not to. He could see a young colleague in over his head and his very own former staff and delegates getting hurt, yet considered it good enough to remain, as he puts it, “a bystander”.

It’s also fair to ask what party president Peter Goodfellow thinks his role is if it’s not personally to attend to potentially incendiary ructions. Such brush fires never put themselves out. Even after the monsoon bucket of Barclay’s resounding re-selection, it shouldn’t have taken Smokey the Bear to remind the Nats about the danger posed by losing parties left to smoulder on. At such times, you need a party grandee or two to tend to the disaffected – make them feel heard and sympathised with so they don’t carry on agitating. In this case, all it took was for a single smoulderer to show a journalist a text linking the Prime Minister to the business end of a confidential settlement and the blaze instantly flared.

Cartoon/Chris Slane

Labour on the Matt

With a synchronicity that’s downright corny, Labour’s leadership has fallen down on the job in exactly the same way, in a shemozzle that’s erupted at exactly the same time. Party leaders and officials failed to keep tabs on an identifiable risk – the mercurial party organiser Matt McCarten. He’s the closest we have here to a Boris Johnson – a perennial naughty teddy of politics. He’s roguish, adorable and smart. Everybody loves him. But he causes So. Much. Trouble.

At issue here was his grandiose scheme to bring nearly 100 young politics students to New Zealand to work for the Campaign for Change, a movement he has set up to motivate perennial non-voters and vote-shy youngsters to get to the ballot box.

There’s nothing wrong with – or uncommon about – bringing foreign volunteers into a campaign: Labour and National folk from here routinely volunteer for overseas election campaigns, and vice versa. It’s great experience and people can trade useful ideas.

Foreign volunteers typically pay their own way and get billeted. That was the deal for McCarten’s intern army. But the plan was both over-egged and underprepared: he didn’t have enough money committed to look after the students properly; many found their marae accommodation inadequate; some had the wrong visas; others felt they were being exploited; one couple even caught the next plane back home.

Just days after Labour’s general secretary, Andrew Kirton, had flown to Auckland to sort out the mess, someone close to either Labour or the marae leaked the brewing row to journalist Richard Harman’s Politik news site. From the rare joy of having the PM personally on toast for days on end, Labour found itself slipping on the melted butter alongside him. And just like National’s Barclay issue, the problem had hatched right under the party’s nose.

McCarten was hardly the covert field marshal. Since at least last Christmas, he’s been telling anyone in proximity how he saw his new job – “I’m gonna raise an army!” – and until recently, he was still in Labour’s part-time employ, while prepping the Campaign for Change. That alone merited careful watching: electoral law and parliamentary funding rules mandate strict boundaries between such projects.

And while keeping an eye on that, party officials should have noticed that despite having been told Labour did not support his intern scheme, he was still doing it in Labour’s name. Anyone who has ever worked with McCarten knows very well that he’s congenitally incapable, when around a meeting table, of hearing the word “no” in so much as it might apply to him.

Yet somehow, he was left to carry on, plastering Labour’s brand and reputation all over a scheme that might have been tailor-made to contradict the party’s core messages. This is the Chinese-sounding-names fiasco to the power of 10.

From now on, anytime anyone mentions sub-standard housing, the living wage, student-visa manipulation, the perils of immigrant labour, exploitation of workers and dubious electoral expenses, Labour’s opponents will have this almighty compound hypocrisy stick with which to beat the party. Had McCarten secretly been a National Party sleeper all these years, he could hardly have conceived a more devastating depth-charge to Labour’s electoral chances.

Electoral spending

Then there’s the ticklish matter of electoral law. McCarten part-funded the scheme with money from a donor whose identity and donation size he won’t disclose, even to Labour. The party risks being deemed to have benefited from that as electoral spending, though it did not want, authorise or control it. It was also misleading that McCarten used the term “fellowship” for the scheme, a term that connotes at least a quasi-formal tertiary-studies orientation, when it was nothing of the kind.

Now, Labour is morally obliged to reimburse the disaffected students’ expenses and pay for those still working here, which could badly dent its campaign war chest. Labour’s donors are entitled to be hopping mad that some of their money will be used not for campaigning but to mitigate McCarten’s folly. Lord only knows what the party will face if the scheme proves to have broken labour or visa rules. And there’s the narky question voters could fairly ask: couldn’t Labour get enough local volunteers?

But the most damaging aspect of this affair is what it strobes about Labour’s competence to govern. If it can’t control one known excitable within its ranks, what chance would it have of wrangling New Zealand First and the Greens in a putative coalition?

For the Government, the Barclay fiasco is also proving damaging, but more in the way of storing up internal trouble for later. It may make voters re-examine their assumptions about English’s steadiness at the helm, but it’s unlikely to be a game-changer. The major damage is the doubt and resentment he’s seeded within the caucus and party. When one day National’s polling falters, he’ll pay for the Barclay affair.

For Labour, on the other hand, there may be no delay button. The polls are already suggesting that voters don’t think it’s ready to govern. The intern fiasco risks adding a big dump of concrete to the weight of that perception. Its only stroke of luck is that in embroiling the Prime Minister, the Barclay row has hoovered more oxygen than its intern mortification.

We may never know what happened to the Barclay tape, if tape there was. Or the poor cat, for that matter. The best investment both parties could make right now is a job-lot of posters of Smokey the Bear.

This article was first published in the July 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.