Simon Bridges must wish he never launched an inquiry into the leaks issue, but Labour are making sure he's in good company.
By now the Nats must wish they’d never launched this interminable pursuit of their own damned elusive Scarlet Pimpernel because it’s clear they’d be better off leaving him/her tactfully masked.
Their quarry is more of a Blue Pimple than the dashing saboteur of literature. The leak of data about National Party leader Simon Bridges’ travel costs – which was about to be made public anyway – was so feeble a feat of derring-do that pure embarrassment, rather than the implied disloyalty against the leader, is probably what’s keeping the Blue Pimple from owning up. Bridges could have shrugged the whole thing off as someone playing silly-buggers, but instead mounted the highest of horses to run the culprit to earth. He convinced himself, against a pile of evidence, that the leaker wasn’t from his own caucus or staff.
Now, this ludicrous affair has generated a potentially devastating cliff-hanger: what if the traitor is someone at the very heart of Team Bridges?
The Opposition leader’s handling of the abrupt leave-taking of frontbencher and close ally Jami-Lee Ross this week has all but outed Ross as the mole. To the explanation that Ross is taking several months off to deal with a serious personal health issue, Bridges added that it was of a “potentially embarrassing nature”.
This one horribly tactless blurt brings him down off his high horse with a thud. It wasn’t said in spite, but it may as well have been. It pasted a big fat exclamation mark on to Ross’ mystery problem, licensing endless prurient speculation.
Bridges made the announcement with the boggling ingenuousness of a teacup-rattling gossip. “You think you know your colleagues very well …” he exclaimed, “but you don’t always know what’s going on.”
No, you don’t, which is why the leak fatwa was so unwise. If Ross is not the leaker, then this is the most almighty coincidence. An MP off work indefinitely for deeply personal reasons, weeks after the police confirmed that the anonymous leaker – who purported to be a National MP – was suffering from mental-health issues, and with the leak inquiry report due inside a fortnight: they’re Lotto Powerball odds.
One lame bridge
Never mind Ross’ future, the bigger question now is whether Bridges might soon find himself “spending more time with the family”. The leadership sap takes a while to stop rising in first-term Opposition caucuses. The polls show Bridges has yet to enthuse voters personally, and colleagues might see his ineptitude over this affair as a serious liability. What might a future Prime Minister Bridges blurt after sensitive bilaterals with someone like Donald Trump? “You don’t realise until you get up close, but man, is he orange!”
And what of his judgment in making a federal case out of a trivial affair, which had the potential to blow up in his face from the outset? “Ban our apple exports, would you, Australia? Our frigate is on its way!”
National thought it had a leaks issue, but the real plumbing emergency is the leader’s own filtration system.
Whatever the Blue Pimple’s fate, he/she will have company. Meka Whaitiri, too, lost her job through a pathetic display of pique and vanity. Leaked details show the Customs Minister was sacked after she grasped, abused and frightened her press secretary because she had missed a photo opportunity with the Prime Minister. She should have given the young woman a pay rise. If only MPs realised how desperate and, frankly, unimportant these photo ops make them look, especially on television. It’s called doughnutting – squeezing in around the main event so as to get “face time” for oneself. It makes ministers, especially, look like utter noddies. “Ooh, look at me, I’m here, too, with the leader. Hello, Mum!”
The leader-and-deputy combo, or the PM and finance minister fronting up jointly, can make a credible statement. But unless you’re baby Neve, lurking in shot during a prime ministerial interview only draws attention to your handbag status.
Off the piste
Still, you have to hand it to our MPs – the reasons for which they come a cropper are never predictable. Even when, as in the case of Clare Curran, they actually repeat themselves, you never see it coming. The Derek Handley affair is the gift that keeps on giving – to the Opposition.
Having made one mistake as a minister and been let off, who would have dreamt Curran would make the same mistake almost immediately? Her failure to disclose her meeting with putative new Government technology tsar Handley showed Curran still hadn’t a clue about the proprieties ministers need to observe.
To the Opposition’s disappointment, there seems no evidence of a stitch-up or power play in either of Curran’s off-piste encounters. The banal fact of both was she was stupid and careless. But the echoes have lasted extra weeks because Handley – seemingly out of naive enthusiasm rather than any manipulative intent – brought the Prime Minister into the email/text/document trail of discoverables. Jacinda Ardern, in turn, failed to be frank when her involvement was first raised, so the affair became more of a shemozzle than necessary.
Ardern’s golden glow, burnished by a sunny and assured performance at the United Nations, has acquired a little too much gloss with her admission to having paid a New York film crew to record the trip to provide fodder for social media. This leaves a bad taste in “don’t get up yourself” New Zealand, without necessarily bringing any political benefit.
This may be the ultimate in selfie sticks, but prime ministerial publicity and clicks abroad don’t convert into New Zealand currency. And years of research have so far failed to find a link between online exposure and votes – even “likes” and votes.
If there were one, cats and those adorable Australian quokkas would run the world. Which, come to think of it, is what our mad politics often feels like already, only much less cuddly.
This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.