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National's extraordinary anniversary gift to the government

Photo / Jami-Lee Ross Facebook

As the coalition marks its first year in office, the opposition’s main attack lines of instability and economic incompetence have suddenly disintegrated.

October 19 marks a year since Winston Peters elevated Jacinda Ardern to the office of Prime Minister on national television. While the coalition government has had a patchy year, National has ended up having a much worse one, thanks to the bitter fight between Simon Bridges and Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross that is a result of Bridges’ ham-fisted attempt to find who leaked his travel expenses in August.

As far as anniversary presents go, National has been extremely generous to the Labour-led government. In fact, Labour can probably not believe its good luck. Just as it was coming under intense pressure over petrol price rises, National has erupted in an extraordinary scandal that makes any internal differences between the members of the coalition or any recent policy blunders seem inconsequential.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The government doesn’t have to do anything now except sit back, hand out the popcorn and watch journalists across the media dissect the various strands of Ross’s allegations as they play out over the coming weeks and months. As Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said, quoting Napoleon, “Never interfere with an enemy who is in the process of destroying himself.” 

Not only has Ross alleged electoral fraud by Bridges over a $100,000 donation from a Chinese businessman, and in connection with $10,000 from the Cathedral Club, he has also said he was falsely accused by Bridges and his deputy, Paula Bennett, of harassing four women — with the result that he had a mental breakdown.

Bennett has rejected Ross’s account of accusations of sexual harassment and says they approached him about “inappropriate behaviour that is unacceptable from a married Member of Parliament”. Neither she nor Bridges has elaborated on exactly what this means but it does raise questions of why National’s hierarchy suddenly took it upon itself to cast itself as the morality police for an MP’s presumably private behaviour (if indeed there were any grounds at all for such criticism).

And Bennett’s inclusion of the phrase “a married member of Parliament” has brought a politician’s family into the fray, which is a breach of the long-standing convention that puts them off-limits. This is a reckless move that may well backfire on Bennett. Melanie Reid's interviews with four anonymous women who felt they were bullied or taken advantage of by Ross - including sexually - has well and truly opened the gates of hell for politicians and the media. Ross has not responded specifically to the Newsroom allegations but he had warned in an earlier interview against anyone in politics trying to “lift the bedsheets” — including “even those that are throwing allegations now”.

Ross’s extensive plaint against his political masters has also drawn attention once again to the role of Chinese business interests in National’s funding, as well as internal polling that he says shows public opinion of Bridges is deeply negative (ie, that many more people disapprove of his leadership than approve).

To compound National’s injury, Ross’s allegations have come hard on the heels of a whopping $5.5 billion surplus which helps neutralise — for the time being at least — National’s contention that the coalition government is economically and fiscally flaky.

The announcement of the surplus a week before Ross’s bombshell interviews and inflammatory tweets has forced National’s grandees onto the back foot. Steven Joyce, who helped reverse some of Ardern’s gains during the election campaign with his widely debunked claim of an $11.7 billion hole in Labour’s finances, has asserted lamely in the wake of news of the surplus that the fiscal disaster only he could see will nevertheless become apparent to everyone in the next few years. 

National’s assumption that it is the natural party of government has long rested on a reputation for strict internal discipline coupled with its self-proclaimed economic and financial superiority over Labour but the events of the past week have blown both these claims out of the water.

In the past two election campaigns, it heavily promoted itself as a lean, sleek, co-ordinated machine, with television ads showing a blue team of rowers in action on the water in 2014 and as a squad of runners in 2017 — contrasted with shots of bumbling members of Labour, the Greens and NZ First.

At the same time, it crowed about its economic management by highlighting growth in GDP — while neglecting to mention that most of that growth had been due to its mass immigration programme and that per capita GDP had been flatlining for years.

Within the space of a week, the two major prongs of its attack strategy — Labour’s instability and economic incompetence — have been severely blunted. Now, National is the one floundering in the water and hobbling from self-inflicted wounds.

Losing its ability to poke fun at the coalition’s stability is the more obvious blow of the two and National has been keen to have the public believe Ross’s allegations don’t reflect widespread dissatisfaction among MPs with Bridges’ leadership.

Bridges says Ross is a lone wolf who is lashing out but Ross says he is speaking for other MPs as well. Unfortunately, the fact that Bridges claims the entire caucus is united behind his leadership only serves to raise the question: for how long?

If Ross is correct and internal polling does show Bridges’ popularity is deeply negative, it seems likely that his tenure as leader won’t continue for much longer. In fact, it’s quite possible National will have its fourth leader in little more than two years — a turnover that Labour took five years to achieve after Helen Clark’s defeat in 2008.

A fortnight ago, left-wing commentator Chris Trotter told The AM Show that Bridges had the “smell of death” about him after his clumsy attempts to explain why he had put Ross on leave but that smell has quickly become a stench after Ross’s latest accusations. (It should be noted that Bridges vehemently denies Ross’s allegations of electoral fraud.)

Jami-Lee Ross’s claims of caucus dissatisfaction with Bridges’ leadership has also underscored an even more unfortunate question for National. If Bridges steps down or is forced out, is there anyone better to replace him?

Many people’s minds will turn immediately to Judith Collins but she has little support in her caucus and she would be electoral poison to a big chunk of voters. She comes with a lot of baggage over her links to Cameron Slater and his Whaleoil blog that were exposed in Nicky Hager’s 2014 book Dirty Politics and the distinct possibility that more unedifying detail would emerge about her if National were foolish enough to have her replace Bridges.

Hager warned during the leadership contest after John Key stepped down in 2016 that she would be an “incredibly risky” choice for National and said there might be more damaging material to come. Hager is a sober and careful commentator and it’s unlikely he was asserting anything that he couldn’t back up. 

Given that National gloated for years over Labour’s self-destructive tendencies after 2008 when the party had a revolving door of leaders, Ardern and her MPs will have great difficulty hiding their schadenfreude at their opponents’ plight.

Winston Peters has already made it clear he has no intention of hiding his own glee by playing a recording of a song, Burning Bridges, to reporters gathered at Parliament. But political scandals of this magnitude have a tendency to spin out of control and engulf bystanders as well as the main players so the coalition would be well advised to indulge its schadenfreude privately.

The most obvious question that has implications for Labour is our politicians’ links to Chinese money and influence. The problem is not confined to National, which is presumably one reason the coalition has stayed quiet on the question of why we have Jian Yang — a former People’s Liberation Army intelligence official and spy instructor, Communist Party member, and successful fundraiser from Chinese groups — sitting in National’s caucus. Or the question of why so many former senior politicians — particularly from National — have ended up working for Chinese companies after they leave politics.

If our political system — on both right and left — is effectively bought to any degree, we really should be told. Certainly, the recording that Ross released of a conversation with Bridges seemed to imply that donations from wealthy Chinese might mean more Chinese candidates being selected.

Also, in the National Party calculus, “two Chinese” apparently are “more valuable than two Indians”. It’s impossible to know from the conversation whether this statement reflects the greater number of Chinese than Indians living in New Zealand, or that the Chinese are more generous donors.

It’s a dirty fight between Bridges and Ross but as it continues a major benefit would be discovering how profoundly political donations influence our politics.

The saga is likely to run at least until a by-election is held in Botany, which may be months away. Unless a serious scandal emerges on the government’s side, it has been granted a gift that will fixate the media and deflect attention from its own failings onto National’s long beyond its first birthday.

It may well continue long enough to be a Christmas present as well.