So remember how there was a bit of a battle going on between National leader Simon Bridges and Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross? It has just stepped up about 16 million notches.
Jami-Lee Ross has gone absolutely all-in against the National party leadership of Simon Bridges, in a way that has no obvious precedent in New Zealand politics. Not only did the Botany MP say Simon Bridges had poor political judgement and was doing a bad job of leading, he made an incredibly serious accusation of breaking electoral law, and says he will deliver evidence of that to the police. He’s at the same time lit a series of fuses in the National caucus, and resigned both his caucus spot and his seat, which will bring a byelection in the coming months.
But what exactly is being alleged? Jami-Lee Ross alleged in his press conference on the parliamentary tiles this morning, not far from a National caucus meeting assembled to discuss his future in the party, that he was directed by Simon Bridges to split up a donation of $100,000 into smaller amounts, so they could be hidden from the Electoral Commission. The donation was made by a Chinese businessman, named by Ross as Zhang Yikun, with whom Bridges had dinner.
Ross said he taped a phone conversation with Simon Bridges discussing the donation, and will deliver that tape to the police, before providing it to the media. Moreover, he has accused Simon Bridges of being “a corrupt politician”, among the most serious and defamatory allegations that can be made against an MP.
The MP for Botany said he will resign his membership of the party, and his seat, in order to stand again at an upcoming by-election as an independent. He said that vote will be a referendum in the safe National seat on the leadership of Simon Bridges.
But this all happened ages ago! The alleged events being talked about are months old now. So why just bring it up now? “I should have said something earlier,” said Ross. “I should have known it was wrong. I was naive, and I’m sorry.”
And that whole medical leave thing – was that real? Yes, Jami-Lee Ross confirmed that he’d had a mental breakdown. But he also said he had been declared fit to return to work by a doctor.
And he also pre-empted another charge that he said had been levelled at him and was likely to be made public. Speaking about an alleged smear campaign against him, he said four complaints had been made against him for sexual harassment to the National party’s hierarchy. He believes the allegations have been trumped up, and says that when he asked for “natural justice” on the complaints, he was told that the number of complainants could be inflated to 15. If any of the alleged complainants come forward, then this argument could collapse very quickly.
Immediately afterwards, Simon Bridges says the caucus votes unanimously to expel Jami-Lee Ross. “It’s the strongest possible action the caucus could take, and that’s because we’re united,” said Mr Bridges, flanked by a range of his most senior MPs.
And what of the allegations? “They’re entirely false. And I invite Jami-Lee Ross to take those to the police.” He said there was “zero chance” that such an action would succeed, but refused to get into the details of any donations. He said he had done “absolutely nothing wrong”.
“We as a caucus are now going to draw a line under this,” he added optimistically.
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Before the press conference, National MPs were unanimous in their condemnation of Jami-Lee Ross’s actions. They all declared their support for Simon Bridges. However, if the allegations about falsifying donations are proven, then Mr Bridges’ leadership would be utterly untenable. A reminder here, for legal reasons – these are at this stage unproven allegations.
It’s a dramatic falling out for the two politicians. Ross acted as Bridges’ “numbers man” (the guy who makes sure the votes are secured) during the recent leadership contest. They were close allies. On Politik earlier this morning, there was a report that Jami-Lee Ross expected more in return for his support than what he ended up getting – a seat on the front bench and a few portfolios.
Yesterday, Simon Bridges’ position was very clear – he completely denied engaging in any form of corruption or breaking electoral law. Today, he was alliterating – “he’s lying, he’s leaking, he’s lashing out.”
And what about the thing that started it all – the leak of Simon Bridges’ expenses a few days before they were due to be released? The PWC report commissioned by Simon Bridges pointed to Ross as the most likely culprit, but didn’t go so far to say that it had been proven. And Ross still denies it. It seems like a rather small thing to blow a party up over in hindsight.