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Jami-Lee Ross' deeply ugly practice of taping could still snare Simon Bridges

Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges.

First it was: follow the money. Now it’s cherchez la femme. Wherever the Jami-Lee Ross conflagration takes us next, Ross will go down in history as the first to deploy a Dambusters bouncing bomb in the political theatre.

The weapon’s range and unpredictability is unprecedented. Ross launched the bomb on Monday and it’s still bouncing today. Lookout, Spotify: there’s a whole playlist of other secret tapings of National MPs still to release. And no one can yet rule out a full police inquiry into the disputed $100,000 donation the Botany desperado has been smiting his brow about. So there’s no telling where the next explosions will take place, or how far into the future.

As this is also unique for being a bomb deployed against one’s own side rather than the enemy, the first assured casualty is Ross himself. After today’s report of allegations by four women that he intimidated and bullied them – including in the context of affairs – it’s safe to say Ross is finished in politics. His disloyalty to his party would have done for him by itself, but he now faces the court of #MeToo as well. Even if none of these women speak publicly, anecdotage is accumulating. A male local board chair has already spoken out. More public testimony is bound to follow.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Experts may contradict this assumption, but there seems no way in which mental health problems, to which Ross confesses, could excuse serial bullying and abuse – even if it may help explain it.

But anyone who thinks the worst is now over for National and its leader Simon Bridges just because their rogue MP’s name is now mud rather than martyr is overly optimistic. Questions about the $100,000 donation from an Auckland-based Chinese businessman are far from settled. We have only the party’s word for it that the gift was accounted for appropriately. Ross’s credibility may have tanked since Monday, but his chief allegation is yet to be disproved: that the donation was manipulated so a donor or donors would not have to be publicly disclosed.

National says the donation was not received as a lump sum of $100,000, which would have mandated its public declaration, but was more in the manner of a whip-round by the businessman’s firm in which he and seven employees each chipped in a wadge. That’s an average of $12,500 per person. Wow, there’s a firm to work for: where so many employees can part with that sort of money for a political donation.

One donor, the firm’s office manager, just happens to be an aspiring National Party candidate. (He’ll get a shock at the pay cut if he succeeds.) It’s possible to infer from Ross’ first leaked tape that Bridges was uncomfortable about that donor assuming the donation might be relevant to his selection chances, so there’s another potential long-range issue. How clear are parties about donations coming with no strings? That’s without even getting started on the Canterbury academic Anne-Marie Brady, who says significant amounts of parties’ donations come straight from the Chinese administration, which may expect certain compliances in return.

So, we need to see the paperwork on those donations.

Notice, none of the other parties has dared gloat about this aspect of the Ross debacle. Threshold manipulation may not be uncommon practice. This may be an area overdue a clean-up.

And just because Bridges doesn’t say anything incriminating on the tape, as Ross alleged, that doesn’t mean nothing untoward took place.

That’s the other unknowable dimension to the bouncing bomb’s trajectory. However despicable it was of Ross to avenge his dissatisfaction by taping colleagues, the contents of those tapes could be horribly damaging to National. The first one has already put Bridges on the defensive, and obliged him to make a round of personal apologies to colleagues.

In legal circles, there’s a concept called “fruit of a poisoned tree,” which holds that evidence obtained in this unfair and potentially entrapping way is tainted and must be disregarded.

In politics, there’s no such concept. Not only is it legal in New Zealand for a person to tape any conversation to which they are a party, without the other party’s knowledge, but – let’s be blunt – people lap this sort of stuff up. Even while many voters tut-tut about the sordidness of secret taping, the contents of the tapes can’t help but affect their opinions.

It has been fascinating to hear how this party leader talks about friends and colleagues in private, to a (then) trusted lieutenant. Right at the start, Ross names two “mates” of Bridges he has just met with, and Bridges responds mordantly that, yeah, they’re his good mates, but they’ve never done anything for him.

He casually disparages colleagues, and as for language, if Bridges does not have a swear jar, it’s probably because the daily banking chore would be too much of a pain.

This is where the bouncing bomb has blasted a new low into the grub pits of our politics. In any workplace, people have to be able to talk frankly about other people, including behind their backs. It’s not only a vital part of management, but frankly, of mental health maintenance. If we can’t privately unload with the odd, “My boss/colleague/employee is a numpty” without fear of it being plastered all over the internet, we’ll have a pretty dysfunctional low-trust society.

Who among us could hold our heads up if our private conversations or emails were published?

It’s worth looking back on the infamous Rawshark-hacked Dirty Politics emails, in which National-linked political operatives exchanged some pretty ugly ad hominum observations – enough to supply researcher Nicky Hager with an explosive book. What stood out as much as the subjects’ willingness to try black ops, though, was their macho posturing. At bottom, this was a bunch of blowhards showing off to one another.

We’re all guilty of our own versions of that at times. That Ross is generally regarded as a massive rat for these tapings rather than a whistle-blower should be a relief to the entire country. This deeply ugly practice must not be allowed to catch on. Those on the Left who have championed recent years’ secret tapings and leaks against those on the right will soon rue their gloating the day it’s done to them.

A further lurking question is, will this finish off Bridges’ leadership? In a sense, having Ross as his accuser has turned out to be his biggest safeguard. That caucus isn’t unified about everything, but on the Ross Is A Rat question, you couldn’t get a cigarette paper between them.

If Bridges were to quit, or be rolled, as a result of fallout from this debacle, it would be as though Ross had triumphed from beyond the grave. This probably means Bridges is safe for now. But he has a lot to learn and atone for. His people-management skills are brusque; his crisis management, as shown by the untidiness of this saga, needs urgent improvement. That means reassessing not just his own judgment but that of his kitchen cabinet. Look no further than his reliance on Ross, whose shortcomings on the people-handling and judgment front turn out to be not some overnight bombshell, but a concern of several years' standing. Ross’ behaviour seems to have been tolerated, and worked around rather than confronted and curtailed.

What will help protect Bridges from the fallout over the first secret tape is that those most likely to be offended by the way he discusses ethnic candidates and disses colleagues are those also unlikely to be National voters. National-leaners are likely to take a more robust view, that no one should expect politicians to be sensitive petals. It’s a tough business, better to call a spade an #@$%! spade than worry about micro-triggers. And also, some MPs are a bit useless, and why didn’t he name … (insert useless MP name here).

As for poor Maureen Pugh – the especially disparaged List MP who, as far as is known, has not put an elegantly-turned court shoe out of step – she is a fan of natural and alternative therapies, and probably the only remaining MP who supports the use of homeopathy. As the homeopathic community is as entitled to representation as anybody else, her tenure is assured.

Whether Bridges ought to trust that bottle of Rescue Remedy she’s sent him is another question.