Sarah Dowie and Jami-Lee Ross’s maiden speeches in Parliament revealed two very different people.
Jacinda Ardern made a telling remark at the beginning of her first speech in Parliament after being elected in 2008: “Maiden statements are a bit like words spoken in a heated argument — like it or not, they will come back to haunt one. Today I will share with members the words that I wish to haunt me: my values and beliefs, and the things that have brought me here. I do so in the hope that should I ever abandon them, I will have the good grace to leave.”
And so, as the Jami-Lee Ross saga lurches up a gear after the media finally named his former National colleague Sarah Dowie as his lover, it’s an opportune time to revisit their maiden speeches and assess them in the light of subsequent events.
One thing that Dowie’s speech in 2014 made abundantly clear was that no one would ever be able to accuse her — the first female MP for Invercargill and a graduate in both law and environmental science — of modesty, despite her mentioning the virtues of humility.
She began by congratulating herself on her decisiveness in seizing the opportunities that had come her way on her path to Parliament. “I am mindful of the journey that I have travelled to be here. I am reflective on the definitive decisions I have made, the key opportunities I have seized, my discipline, my faith in the end goal…”
She went on to speak in favour of self-determination and making your own luck. She believed that you “reap what you sow” and that you should “play the hand you’re dealt” as well as you can, and “with hard work and perseverance, eventually things must go your way”.
The clear message of her speech was that hard work and determination always pay off — with her own life as the prime exhibit. The equally clear corollary was that if you’re at the bottom of the pile in society you obviously didn’t work nearly hard enough to improve your lot.
She acknowledged the sacrifice of her husband and the demands of juggling the care of two small children with her work while maintaining “that all-important relationship with my family”, but her speech was mostly a paean to the core National Party virtue of personal responsibility (currently featured at number 5 on its list of values).
Above all, her speech appeared to be designed to show her parliamentary colleagues that she was a true-blue Nat. She was one of them. They could count on her.
Four years later, it seems that her emphasis on personal responsibility was merely a handy slogan used to impress her House mates and not a guide to live by.
We now know that she thought it was a good idea to launch an anonymous hit-job on Newsroom against her former lover and fellow MP Jami-Lee Ross, in which she implied she was a victim and that she was sucked into the relationship by a very bad man who had pursued and flattered her.
So much for personal responsibility and self-determination you might think — or her avowed principle of fighting “hard but fair”. A fair fight would have seen her identifying herself as one of the authors of the Newsroom mugging at the time it was published.
It would also have included the fact that she was, like him, a married MP with two children, and that she was 10 years older than him and an experienced lawyer.
How different that anonymous attack would have appeared if readers had been given all that information at the time the article was published. Her casting herself as a victim would have seemed to many to be far-fetched and extremely self-serving.
When commentators began demanding that the media name her — not least because of the abusive text she allegedly sent to Ross saying he “deserved to die” that may have breached the Harmful Digital Communications Act — she didn’t come forward.
As the Southland Times — which covers Dowie’s political base of Invercargill — wrote last November: “Where is the personal responsibility of the MP who reportedly sent the ‘you deserve to die’ text? Surely by now the MP in question would front up and take personal responsibility.”
As it turned out, Invercargill’s champion of self-reliance and personal responsibility never fronted up, although news media have finally named her after police said they were investigating the text.
Despite her fine words, Dowie doesn’t appear to have been very keen on reaping what she sowed after all.
Jami-Lee Ross’s maiden speech in 2011 was entirely different to Dowie’s in several key areas. Although he enthusiastically endorsed the standard National Party mantras — smaller government, tough on crime, taking personal responsibility — he basically warned his colleagues he was not one of them.
“I did not have an easy start to life. It is a common misconception that National MPs were all born with silver spoons in their mouths. That certainly did not occur in my case. My mother was young when she had me, and my father was nothing more than a faceless name that never stepped up to life’s responsibilities.
“Having just finished raising three girls on her own, my grandmother decided that it was her job to give her young grandson the best start to life that he could possibly ask for. She raised me in our small flat in South Auckland, where we lived from week to week as she looked after her own frail mother at the same time.”
National Party grandees really should have taken much more notice of the evidence Ross was offering that he wasn’t cut from the same cloth as them. Plenty of National MPs have grown up in families of modest means but few are society’s outsiders in the way Ross was from a very young age.
But he had the street smarts and mongrel that were very useful to his political masters and they appeared only too willing to ignore or cover up incidents when he overstepped the bounds of civility and bullied others, including political rivals.
He was no doubt also indulged because he was a very successful fundraiser for the party, particularly among the Chinese members of his Botany electorate in east Auckland.
When Bridges promoted Ross to his front bench in March 2018, he indicated that his elevation was intended to replace the strategic skills of Steven Joyce who had announced his resignation a few days earlier.
Unfortunately for Bridges, and his deputy, Paula Bennett, in the time since that promotion Ross’s superior strategic skills have been actively employed against his former masters. And they don’t seem to have any idea of how to deal with him effectively. Every time they imagine they have delivered a killer blow he ducks and weaves and — look! — there he is, bloodied, but still standing.
They clearly underestimated him and, like much of the media, appear baffled by someone who doesn’t play by their rules. In fact, his difficult background may be the best way of understanding his kamikaze response to Bridges and Bennett deciding to muscle him out.
As one Facebook commenter wrote: “Never underestimate someone who has ostensibly been brought up parentless and unwanted bar a Nana. Clearly he learnt to survive with the same kind of ruthless street-kid cunning as Dickens’ Artful Dodger… To get where he has, by his age, means he is truly a force that many in [the] National Party and beyond will never have reckoned with.”
Politicians of all stripes like to dwell on the difficult periods in their own lives as evidence that they are one with the common folk, but there is a world of difference between someone who grew up in Ross’s circumstances and, say, Paula Bennett. She makes much of her time as a teenaged sole parent but she grew up in a secure family, the daughter of shopkeepers, and next door to the home of National’s long-serving prime minister Sir Keith Holyoake in Kinloch, on Lake Taupo. She has recalled her childhood fondly as mostly “freedom and sunshine”.
People are often dismayed that she pulled the ladder up behind her after her time as a beneficiary but she was never one of them, except briefly. She was simply slumming it on the DPB, and quickly proved once she had power over beneficiaries that she had little allegiance or sympathy for them.
Bennett likes to present herself as a scrapper but she and Bridges don’t stand a chance against Ross if he decides to take them down — unless of course he cracks again under the pressure of being a pariah. He is obviously willing to risk everything rather than be bullied. His character was forged in an entirely different fire.
In his maiden speech, Ross didn’t credit his own hard work and determination for having risen above his difficult circumstances (which he could have easily and believably done), but rather credited the love of two women in his life — his wife and his grandmother — and thanked the latter for preventing him from becoming a “statistic”.
It’s a tragedy therefore that he so thoroughly betrayed his wife with his multiple infidelities and made a mockery of the gratitude he said he owed her.
He also devoted a chunk of his speech to his gratitude towards his alma mater, Dilworth School, a charitable institution in Auckland that houses, clothes and educates boys from “straitened circumstances” for free.
Ironically, Dilworth’s motto is “Firmiter et fideliter”, which the school translates as “Strong with purpose, and faithful”. He hasn’t exactly lived up to the second part of being faithful — either to his wife or his former party — but he is certainly “strong with purpose” even if that purpose has not always been noble.
In his speech, Ross also quoted the school’s aim to produce “good and useful citizens”. Most people will conclude he isn’t good but he has certainly been useful already if you look beyond the narrow interests of the National Party to the wider interests of the nation.
Ross has given us insights into our political life that only an insider could know, including how donations are handled and how much influence some donors expect (or hope) to have over candidate selection in the National Party.
His disclosures about wealthy Chinese donors has also sparked increased interest in Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s research into how United Front activities run by those close to the Chinese Communist Party have infiltrated our political life.
And Ross could prove himself to be even more useful if he told us much, much more about how our politics are entwined with the push by the CCP to influence perceptions of China overseas and policy towards it.
For starters, he might enlighten us on the role of Dr Jian Yang — that mysterious figure in National’s caucus who was part of China’s intelligence community and a member of the Communist Party, and who refuses to speak to journalists (or at least English-speaking ones).
It would be entirely appropriate for Ross to perform this service, not least because in his speech he declared himself to be passionately opposed to socialism.
He should be very happy then to expose the deep links between National — the party purportedly of “individual freedom and choice” (number 4 on its list of values) — and the communist regime in China that is one of the most repressive and repugnant on the planet.
Some will think it’s the very least a man who professed in 2011 to be devoted to “individual freedom” and who in 2018 dedicated himself to exposing the “rot within the National Party” could do.