Just when you thought the coalition Government was the biggest political shock of the past year, Hurricane Jami-Lee arrived.
It felt safe to say that this was as big a bombshell as politics could ever provide.
It seemed symptomatic that, just before Christmas, new Opposition chief whip Jami-Lee Ross threw a spectacular tantrum in Parliament, bellowing at the chair, stabbing his order paper about and complaining about lunch being late. At the time, it was put down to cruel disappointment. Like many Nats, he’d fully expected to be settling into his first ministerial office by then. Instead, he was consigned indefinitely to bandying footling procedural points.
Unbeknown to anyone, that was a just a puff from a very deep-rumbling volcano. A year on, the Botany MP has supplied the blockbuster of all “now I’ve seen everything” moments.
It’s another summer of PTSD all round – and the tectonic plates are still shifting, with no one, least of all Ross, having any agency over when or how it will end.
Normally, speculation such as that now hanging over Simon Bridges’ leadership would be the crowning sensation in any political kerfuffle. Here, it’s the least of it.
It’s hard for National to figure out which zone of fallout to triage first. The most arresting situation is Ross’ allegedly toxic behaviour to several women, including staff, which assumes a new urgency in the #MeToo era. But, in order to get there, National has to tread the eggshell path of Ross’ apparently fragile mental health. His commission to a mental-health facility for three nights put speculation on hold – save from some particularly inane “state gulag” ranting from the tinfoil truther fraternity.
Since then, further sensational and troubling private communications have seeped out and seem likely to continue to. These feed prurience and nothing else. They’re nigh impossible to justify airing on public-interest grounds; though they might be very interesting to the public, that’s not the same thing.
It’s impossible for this material to be viewed in its full context or judged with any degree of fairness. People talk and text nonsense, especially when they’re tired or upset. The material Ross has squirrelled away for his war on Bridges is dynamite, in part because it could give the impression it’s not just Ross who is guilty of extramarital dalliance, to which he admits, but that other Nats have been at the least somewhat licentious.
Duelling cries have gone up: “Is Parliament deteriorating into a 70s wife-swapping party? We demand to be told!” versus, “What business of anyone’s is an MP’s personal life? No laws have been broken.”
Until now, the line in the sand has been the hypocrisy test. Outside the old News of the World wilds, the journalistic orthodoxy has always been that such personal indiscretions as boozing or illicit affairs go unreported unless the public figure concerned is guilty of obvious double-standards. #MeToo shifted the public interest sand line to: was there an imbalance of power, and/or abuse? Ross does appear to have used his position to bully women, including those with whom he was in a relationship.
But the airing of Ross’ dirty laundry would affect, unfairly implicate or simply devastate not just those immediately involved, but their families and innocent colleagues. This makes the demands that it all be made public seem pretty reckless and heartless.
Ross vowed to spill it all, and even if he doesn’t, the depressing inevitability is that someone else won’t be able to help themselves. Then, others will relish being righteously disgusted about how “politics has hit a new low”.
Some have fairly called for better pastoral care in politics. Over decades, lone MPs have been left to eddy into serious, furniture-wrecking wig outs. All parties could do more to look after one another. But MPs are elected, not hired. They have autonomy beyond their caucus hierarchies.
Also, people are typically self-protective about their dysfunction and sly about their bad behaviour. From what has come out, it seems likely Ross was both. Perhaps the only simple truth about what has happened is that no one could have handled it well. Ross both behaved sackably – his public disloyalty has been monumental, whatever his private conduct – and was mentally ill. No leader could deal with the first without risk to the second – but no leader could leave the disloyalty unaddressed.
It’s also now clear Bridges’ use of the word “embarrassing” wasn’t intended as a crass comment on Ross’ mental health, but was his genuine, gobsmacked response to newly discovering how badly Ross had behaved. He may have made a bad situation worse at times, and the tape of him swearing like an old navvy and daydreaming about rinsing effing useless list MPs may yet prove unsurvivable.
Picking up the pieces
Given the enormity of what Ross has brought upon the party, Bridges’ fumbles are irrelevant for now. Whatever he, his deputy Paula Bennett or the remarkably inert party president Peter Goodfellow did or didn’t do, Ross was ready to self-detonate come what may.
“Pick up the pieces” would be a better motto than the current “Heads must roll!” The blame caravan is trundling towards Bennett and Goodfellow, but that’s the proxy paddywhacks exercise a party resorts to when it can’t punish the real offender. Ross is tragically self-punishing. National can only minimise further damage by staying unified until Hurricane Jami-Lee has safely passed, however long that takes.
There’s been a remarkably modest poll hit so far, and while Bridges’ personal numbers are rather worse, this is not the time to beat the jungle drums. Because one orthodoxy hasn’t changed: three times in four, swapping leaders in Opposition is just bolting from the frying pan into the fire – or another frying pan, if you’re lucky. Best stick with the fixer-upper leader and hope for improvement, or for a new marquee candidate like John Key or Jacinda Ardern to materialise.
Oh, and set the timer to take cover from another bumper “now I’ve seen everything” bunfight same time next year.
This article was first published in the November 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.