Election 2017: National's year of living dangerously

by Graham Adams / 16 August, 2017
Opinion.
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Prime Minister Bill English has been damaged by the fallout of Metiria Turei's fraud admission, writes Graham Adams. Photo / Getty Images

 The upheavals started with Key’s exit. Now Metiria Turei’s resignation has jolted the political landscape again and exposed the government’s weaknesses. 

In December last year, following the sudden exit of John Key, Kim Dotcom opined that the real reason for the Prime Minister’s resignation was a two-terabyte cache of emails taken from New Zealand government servers that was to be released before the coming election.

The German emigre emphasised that he was merely passing on a rumour, and the emails and their release had nothing to do with him, but the story quickly entered the mainstream media anyway. On January 1, Fairfax journalists made predictions for the coming year, including: “There will be one more political bombshell in 2017 that will change the course of the election and install Andrew Little as prime minister” — which was interpreted as an oblique reference to the email dump.

If a cache of emails exists there is still time for it to appear, but Little has already abandoned Labour’s leadership after catastrophic polling figures. The Fairfax soothsayers have been thoroughly upstaged and the political bombshell they predicted has not been an email dump but the confession in July by Greens co-leader Metiria Turei that she had lied to the welfare department as a young mother in the early 1990s. 

 

Who could have predicted the dramatic events that followed, which saw the Greens soar then plummet in the polls, while Labour plummeted then soared under Jacinda Ardern? Within a fortnight of her ascent to the leadership, Labour went from being an object of pity to having a reasonable chance of forming a government.

In the run-up to the election, Bill English has also been damaged by the Metiria Turei saga along with the Greens. Not only did it open the door for Jacinda Ardern to become party leader and immediately rival him as preferred prime minister, it has also given the media reason to revisit his notorious accommodation allowance arrangement in 2009 that saw him pay back $32,000 of taxpayers’ money.

Viewed in that light, the Todd Barclay affair, which might have been dismissed as a one-off mistake, has begun to look like a pattern by the Prime Minister. In short, English’s reputation as a straight-up sort of a guy is under serious stress. And if Winston Peters has his way, that stress will only increase as he dangles the prospect of revealing the contents of 450 texts that English sent to his former electorate agent in Clutha-Southland. It doesn’t help the Prime Minister’s reputation that he may have deleted those texts — especially given there is a police investigation under way.

If Labour does manage to cobble together a coalition after the election in six weeks’ time, English will likely be out. And who will take over the National Party leadership? It probably won’t be his deputy, Paula Bennett. She appears to have become a liability to the party hierarchy and, as the campaign gathers momentum, is rarely in public view. If you follow the NZ Herald’s political coverage, for instance, she is notably absent from it.

 A change.org petition is circulating about an inquiry into Paula Bennett's time on a benefit. Photo / Getty Images

Turei’s confession also gave journalists licence to ask Bennett about her time on a benefit as a young mother. Her answers have often been mealy-mouthed. She told Duncan Garner on The AM Show that she had never “deliberately” lied to the welfare department; and when Fairfax journalist Tony Wall asked if she had claimed the DPB while in a relationship, or while living with her then-boyfriend (now husband), Alan Philps, Bennett replied through a spokeswoman: “I was on and off a benefit during my teens and early twenties but I did not receive support that I wasn’t entitled to.”

It was a curiously roundabout answer to a direct question that really required a yes or no answer.

Following allegations made on Facebook by someone who knew Bennett when she was a young woman, a change.org petition calling for an investigation into her behaviour on the benefit has garnered more than 22,000 signatures. The petition’s sponsor says it will be presented to Amy Adams and, although it’s hard to see the Justice Minister standing on the forecourt of Parliament to receive it, it is undoubtedly newsworthy. If it is ignored, it will convince many people that the media’s pursuit of Metiria Turei was a partisan political hit-job.

The Facebook allegations (which, it must be noted, were unsupported by corroborating evidence) were firmly rejected by Bennett, and her lawyers warned media against repeating them. That threat was widely reported and it immediately triggered the “Streisand effect” of inflaming public interest in the allegations rather than dampening it. 

The rumblings might have died away, of course, if Turei had been treated generously for her youthful misdemeanours but, after persistent hounding by the media saw her step down, her aggrieved supporters may — rightly or wrongly — expect journalists to turn their attention to Bennett’s life in a similar fashion. Journalists not only scoured electoral rolls to check where Turei had been living as a beneficiary, but NZ Herald political reporter Audrey Young reported shortly before Turei resigned that one of her colleagues “spent several hours buried in the National Library this week trying to track down her flatmates from that time”.

These undercurrents are only one of Bennett’s problems. It has also undoubtedly dawned on National’s strategists that Bennett is not the drawcard they once imagined her to be, even if she was the star of the National Party conference in June, where she joked about her $950 shoes, and later confessed to having a “political crush” on Bill English for his “amazing big brain”. She had the party faithful eating out of her hand but it’s much less certain that she has the same appeal to voters, especially those living outside a few areas of Auckland.

Ironically, since Ardern’s promotion and her direct and decisive media interviews, the tables have been turned on who is seen as lacking substance. Bennett tried this line of attack on The AM Show in March when Ardern became Andrew Little’s deputy but a few months later Bennett is the one who looks like a policy lightweight who has taken on so many portfolios she can’t master any of them.

Collins therefore seems a more likely prospect for the leadership in the event of National losing the election, although Nicky Hager had an ominous warning for her last December when she put her name forward to succeed John Key. He told RNZ she would be an “incredibly risky” choice,​ indicating he had damaging information about Collins, although he was not able to release it at that time.

National will be hoping and praying that if any other skeletons tumble out of the closet before the election, they aren’t theirs.

As Turei’s experience has shown, the cost of scandals can be very high, both personally and for a party’s fortunes.

  

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