• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Has National weathered the Jami-Lee Ross storm?


Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges at their stand-ups as the storm began.

Simon Bridges would like us to think so, but the wind is picking up again after a brief lull.

When Simon Bridges leaves politics, it’s unlikely he will be offered a job in meteorology. In the wake of the release of the latest Colmar Brunton-TVNZ poll, he repeatedly referred to “the eye of the storm” when explaining to news media how well National had withstood the Jami-Lee Ross onslaught that began with accusations of electoral fraud before spiralling outwards.

The collateral damage included Bridges having to apologise for dismissing one of his MPs as “f***ing useless”, as well as questions being raised about cash for candidates and for royal honours, the relative value of different ethnicities to National, and how much Chinese money influences its policies.

RelatedArticlesModule - Jami-Lee

When the poll results appeared showing National had dropped only two points, Bridges jubilantly described surviving the previous week’s perturbations with his usual tortured syntax: “What you have seen, in the eye of the storm when that poll was done, we’re at 43 per cent.” 

Bridges presumably doesn’t know that the eye of the storm is actually the small area at the centre of a tropical storm where the sky is clear and the winds are light and everything appears calm. Surrounding it is the eyewall, which is the most violent part of a hurricane.

The eye of the storm can be very dangerous for the ignorant because they assume the storm has passed and they resume normal activities, not guessing that vicious gales will soon engulf them again.

National is, in fact, in the eye of the storm right now, when Jami-Lee Ross is away recovering at an undisclosed location after his brief stay in Middlemore Hospital and has gone silent. But the chances of him — or his allies — staying quiet for long are very small.

Once Ross recovers from his illness, he will still be in an unrivalled position to expose what goes on in National if he wishes to, given he was the party’s hitman and bagman. He knows where both the bodies and the treasure are buried. He knows all the tricks by which his former colleagues stifle dissent and rid themselves of mutinous MPs because he played that role himself for years.

Bridges is trying to persuade us that Ross’s bombshells were a passing thing and there is nothing to see here any longer. “Jami-Lee Ross is not my problem,” he bravely told news media, inasmuch as Ross is no longer a National MP.

But questions over the sequence of events that led to Ross becoming an ex-National MP and then sectioned to hospital care will mean that pretty soon Bridges will be battered by the howling winds of the eyewall again. In fact, the wind is picking up right now with evidence that National was involved in the events that led to Ross’s sectioning after he sent a distressing text to his former lover, a sitting National MP, who then alerted other senior party members. 

Bridges has previously said he knew nothing of the events of that night until much later, which seems implausible. If it is true, it raises the question of why, as leader, it took so long for him to be informed by his own staff or MPs.

There are also lingering questions of whether Bridges went against medical advice in publicly naming Ross as the likely leaker of Bridges’ travel expenses and thus helped to precipitate his unravelling. Bridges has been so keen to dispel that notion that he rang Whaleoil’s Cameron Slater to deny he had acted inappropriately. 

There is also the question of who authorised Paula Bennett to draw attention to the fact that she and Bridges had confronted Ross over what she said was behaviour “inappropriate to a married member of Parliament”, thereby bringing the delicate question of MPs’ extramarital affairs into play — and exactly at a time when National very badly needed to damage Ross’s credibility.

Bridges has said his deputy acknowledged she “didn’t get it all perfect” in the storm-lashed week but he wasn’t willing to say whether he knew of her move in advance. It’s difficult to believe, however, that he didn’t authorise such a dramatic break from long-standing convention.

Questions have also been raised over the timing of the Newsroom piece that gave four anonymous women a platform to air grievances about Ross’s alleged bullying, and whether Bennett had a role in facilitating that story.

Then there is the identity of the married MP who was one of the four anonymous interviewees and who has since been said to have had a long-standing relationship with Ross. One wonders whether Bennett has had time to visit her yet to ask if her behaviour is also inappropriate for “a married member of Parliament”.

In fact, the “Paula Bennett test” has already come into play in public on RNZ’s Morning Report, with Susie Ferguson asking Bridges if he had “done anything that wouldn’t pass Paula Bennett’s test of behaviour acceptable for a married MP”? He replied “No” but it’s clear that no one in National will be spared the question they have now brought into the open themselves. 

A married MP’s name is currently being bandied about on social media as Ross’s long-term lover and it will be revealed in mainstream news sooner or later, not least because so many people will know (or think they know) that it will be pointless for media to pretend otherwise.

The MP named on social media represents a true-blue conservative electorate and its voters may well prefer not to have a married woman with that kind of duplicitous history to represent them at the next election. Especially given that she is a social conservative herself and might reasonably be expected to be a standard bearer for the family values she professes in public.

The word “hypocrisy” is quick to surface in matters of double standards, which sometimes conservative voters happily forgive and at other times punish severely. But they will certainly want to know — and will in time.

The public’s interest in who is sleeping with whom around Parliament will pass eventually, of course, with possibly more marriages, careers and reputations destroyed in the wash-up, but National will still be left to answer bigger and much more important questions.

Among them will be the influence donations have on our politics, which has flared into a major scandal. It was by drawing public attention to a donation of $100,000 allegedly made by a Chinese businessman that Jami-Lee Ross started the most recent phase of the firestorm that has engulfed the National Party. It has led to claims that National might even be allowing such donations to influence who is admitted to its ranks of aspiring MPs.

The Greens have now entered the fray by calculating that National received more than $3.5 million in anonymous donations in 2017, which was almost five times more than Labour received anonymously. 

Calling for reform of the law around political donations, co-leader Marama Davidson said: “This spells out powerful vested interests tipping huge amounts of money into the coffers of the National Party, hiding behind anonymity.”

She correctly points out that until we know more about who donates, Parliament is “ripe for influence by big corporations, and potential corruption. It needs to end. After this past few weeks, it is clearer than ever that New Zealanders want big money out of politics.”

She recommends any donations above $1000 should be declared, which will mean that raffles and sausage sizzles won’t be caught up in red tape but any sizeable sums will.

Jami-Lee Ross has been acknowledged by Bridges to be an “expert and experienced fundraiser”, and much of his expertise is in raising money from Chinese donors. Maybe Ross could do us a big favour by explaining how another very successful fundraiser among the Chinese community, Dr Jian Yang, has ended up sitting in our Parliament, as a member of National’s caucus.

Dr Yang is a former People’s Liberation Army intelligence official and spy instructor, who misled New Zealand authorities about his past. In his citizenship application in 2004, he did not mention the 15 years he spent as a student and employee at two institutions that are part of China’s military intelligence community.

He almost never answers questions from English-speaking journalists even though he is a sitting MP — but he does apparently speak to local Chinese media, which are said to be mostly under the control of the United Front, the main avenue for China’s soft-power push into other nations’ politics and universities.

Much mystery surrounds Dr Yang. We have never been told, for instance, why he was removed from the foreign affairs, defence and trade parliamentary select committee in 2016 where he had served since October 2014. Or why he was given a place on it at all given his background.

It is notable that Dr Yang never offers a single criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, of which he was a member, despite it being one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

Dr Yang’s position on National’s list is one of the most extraordinary aspects of the party’s cosying up to China and it remains a question that it never answers. Bill English’s best defence when confronted by journalists after the Financial Times broke the story alongside Newsroom last year was reminding them that Dr Yang is a New Zealand citizen, which hardly begins to answer the question.

Oddly, the FT thought it was a major scoop but New Zealand journalists — and all our politicians — are mostly happy to let the question lie.

Perhaps Jami-Lee Ross or his associates will be able give us some insight into how we have ended up with a former intelligence officer of a foreign power in our Parliament who is so close to the Chinese embassy that Charles Finny, a former diplomat, told TVNZ’s Q&A last year that he is always “very careful” about what he says in front of Dr Yang — and Labour’s Raymond Huo, who is also an active fundraiser.

Which is undoubtedly why neither party is willing to criticise the other’s reliance on Chinese money. So don’t expect to see Labour lending its voice to the criticism around Chinese funds fuelling National’s campaigns any time soon.

That will be at least one thing Simon Bridges won’t have to worry about as the fallout from the Jami-Lee Ross scandal continues to reverberate.