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The demise of Todd Barclay and all the Gor-r-rey details

PM Bill English and Todd Barclay. Photo/Getty Images

The Todd Barclay debacle says more about the PM than the tyro MP.

It’s a wonder we’re so behind with big infrastructural projects when some of our MPs are such engineering titans. They can make a mountain out of a molehill and then transform that into a massive pit in just a few days.

At press time, the Barclay debacle had progressed to being a long, dark dead-end tunnel via a failed sewage-treatment plant.

What began as an unexceptional employment dispute has been allowed to grow into such a fiesta of fear and loathing that it engulfed Prime Minister Bill English and placed his honesty in question on the cusp of the election-showcase National Party conference.

Things had gone way past Resign O’Clock on the trusty old Allegations Swirl-O-Meter before the embattled Todd Barclay finally succumbed, quitting his candidacy this election, though not resigning from the ultra-safe Clutha-Southland seat. It was a shabby end to what might have been a lifelong career. Barclay had heavyweight caucus and electorate support until the end and may have been as much sinned against as sinning.

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As with most political bonfires, the problem here wasn’t the original problem but the mishandling of the original problem – not least English’s absurd claim to have forgotten the most memorable of its details.

It all started in Gore (remembering always to roll that R). As MP for the Clutha-Southland area since 1990, English had been a light-handed and largely absentee boss for those staffing his electorate offices. His long-time Gore agent liked to joke that she was the MP, so often did she deputise.

Come 2014, however, English went list-only. Enter young Master Todd, 23 and hands-on, wanting to run things differently and so disjointing noses. Especially in Gore. This is a common situation, hence the clause in Parliamentary Service rules: an MP need simply formally advise loss of confidence in a staffer and that person automatically gets severance pay and compensation. It’s not ideal or pleasant but a necessary no-fault solution.

For reasons still mysterious, Barclay didn’t use it. Instead, he either accidentally or deliberately made one or more recordings, without the knowledge of staff, which he later proffered as evidence of the Gore agent’s disloyalty. He also reported her to the Parliamentary Service alleging complaints about her from members of the public. Two problems: the recording was not legal and the Parliamentary Service couldn’t find evidence of any complaints. Worse, if proven deliberate, the bugging would constitute a criminal offence of a magnitude to mandate Barclay’s expulsion from Parliament.

Todd versus the old firm

By now, local Nats were vigorously polarised into a brawl locally shorthanded as Toddites versus the “Evil Six”. The Gore agent laid a police complaint.

The untidiness was relayed to Wellington, where then PM John Key enforced a “No surprises” regime. Whether he wished it or not, English remained in loco parentis to the electorate by local fiat stretching back to the tremendous party influence once wielded by his redoubtable mother, Norah. He was thus kept vividly informed from all quarters of the ruction, willingly or not. A party-board grandee was dispatched south to referee, but this only escalated hostilities. One account of the official’s less unctuous entreaties to the warring parties bordered on an attempt to pervert the course of justice. Thus there were sighs of relief when the police closed the file – though this was only because Barclay refused to give a statement.

But in the process, he did confess the taping to English, who, as Deputy PM, was then obliged to act. The Gore agent’s ensuing severance was arranged through the Parliamentary Service, with a sneaky top-up from the Prime Minister’s discretionary (and handily confidential) fund to atone for the taping. All perfectly legal – but arranged with continued secrecy in mind.

From there, the sepsis might have petered out by about Lumsden but for one simple thing: people talk – especially when they’re aggrieved. For the disaffected Nats, it’s been Dolly Parton meets Samuel Taylor Coleridge all the way to Wanaka: choruses of He Done Me Wroaaannnggg alternating with lots of beady-eye-fixing à la “He stoppeth one of three. Unable to stop the ferment, Barclay tried to stare it down, repeatedly publicly denying aspects of the affair, including the secret taping. It’s those denials that goaded forth the fresh eruption of allegations this week, including delegate-stacking and secret filming.

Open and shut case

The case against Barclay is sturdy. He badly mismanaged an employment issue and may have broken the law. He then so obfuscated details of his doings as appears to amount to flat-out lying. As an MP who was once deputy chair of the law and order committee, he should have found co-operating with the police as natural as breathing. And to say his people skills lacked finesse is like saying Gareth Morgan can be a bit abrupt.

Barclay’s defence is also robust. Hell hath no fury like local pooh-bahs deprived of their status. He was up against a deeply rooted cabal who deemed him an impertinent parvenu – even after he was re-selected with handsome support. As a young pup, he should have had better pastoral support from the party and caucus. And it’s beyond coincidence for this to blow up before this weekend’s conference.

But Barclay could not simply tough it out, as many supporters counselled. Any question over whether his time was up evaporated the minute the Prime Minister’s honesty was brought into question because of his mess – even though that was down to English’s own clumsiness.

English has had months to get on top of this furore and be ready to face the inevitable public questions, as well as to discipline Barclay for his mendacity and to use his considerable influence to cool down the angry locals. He either neglected or disdained to do any of those chores. That’s a serious failure of leadership.

Thus this episode tells us more of pertinence about English than about Barclay. We expect the young and inexperienced to make mistakes in the viper’s labyrinth of politics. We don’t expect seasoned players to fall into the pit along with them. English stood by while the pit was deepened month by month.

So be warned. What starts in Gore is apt to finish in gorrrrrre.

This article was first published in the July 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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