A showdown in Winton

Last night the Clutha Southland National Party selected Hamish Walker, a 32 year old business advisor from Dunedin, as the replacement for disgraced MP Todd Barclay. But if National think that will put to rest the questions swirling around their electorate operations in the Deep South they’re dreaming, writes Peter Newport.

It’s a long drive from Queenstown to Winton. Todd Barclay knows that, and his new National Party replacement Hamish Walker is about to find out. Walker is from Dunedin and he’s got five short weeks to exorcise the ghost of Todd.

Last night National Party delegates from all over New Zealand’s largest general electorate, Clutha Southland, drove to a small Salvation Army Hall in Winton to replace Barclay. It was a cold clear night. The town was deserted. The light wind felt like it was straight from Antarctica, which it often is.

It was serious stuff at the hall. The car park was packed, there was not a spare seat in the house. The doors got locked. Severe committee people carried ballot boxes backwards and forwards. Each of three shortlisted candidates got to speak for ten minutes, and then answer a secret question from the National Party president Peter Goodfellow and then a second secret question from the prime minister Bill English. Neither president nor prime minister was there in person and the secret questions were in TV quiz-show style envelopes. Only official delegates could clap. Media and observers had to keep their reactions to themselves. A secret.

Being media we sort of broke the rules. At least between ourselves. It was a tiny media scrum of four, in the back row. No TV cameras or bright lights. No satellite dishes or producers with an anxious sense of purpose.

We thought former Queenstown mayor Vanessa Van Uden did well. A Southland Girl. She seemed authentic and had some runs on the board in Queenstown. Nick Perham is a manager at Worksafe and is on the Southland District Council. He seemed warm and relaxed. Hamish Walker seemed squeaky clean. A nice guy. He looked good and made a speech that we are not allowed to report.

Prospective National candidates Vanessa Van Uden, Hamish Walker and Nick Perham. Photo: Peter Newport

But the packed Salvation Army Hall seemed heavy with the presence of who wasn’t there and the issues that weren’t talked about. To National’s credit, while the votes were being counted, Barclay’s colleague Sarah Dowie, MP for Invercargill, gave a stirring speech. She had the courage to front foot what others carefully avoided. She looked full of energy and optimism.

“Todd is my friend,” said Dowie, her sincerity beyond doubt. “He is like my little brother. We are Team South. He was voted the best looking guy in Parliament. Bill English was number seven and I was voted the ninth best looking.” The businessmen and farmers laughed, basking in the knowledge that they were only minutes away from getting National’s future in the Deep South back on track. Dowie also pleased the crowd with references to Jacinda Ardern as a “retail politician” who “our prime minister will test on the economy and she will be found wanting.” The big cross on the wall gave everything an evangelical flavour.

I hate to rain on anyone’s parade but there’s a few things that probably need to get sorted out, even with Hamish Walker launching his first campaign meeting at 10.30 pm last night, only 90 minutes after the Salvation Army Hall started to empty into the cold, Southland night.

I’d starting researching the candidates that had been chosen to fill Barclay’s shoes hours before starting the drive to Winton. I wanted it to be simpler. For some reason I did not think that this selection meeting in Winton should be anything other than dignified. It felt like Barclay’s execution and no matter what he’d done wrong, it seemed Sarah Dowie’s obvious respect for the man should prevail.

But my god. Story after story, denial after denial, mistake after mistake. Through Athol and Five Rivers, Lumsden and Dipton I replayed the stacks of media coverage I’d just trawled through. As I headed along the precipitous shore of Lake Wakatipu towards Kingston I pondered the most mysterious of all the “missing “ candidates who had lined up to take Barclay’s job: John Prendergast. He whose name cannot be spoken.

John Prendergast was by all accounts a well liked and respected CEO of the Community Trust of Southland. He’d been there 20 years and wanted to get into politics; he set his sights on Todd Barclay’s soon-to-be vacated electorate. From what I could gather he’d make a perfect National candidate and he had a lot of local supporters. But then, just weeks ago, he was asked to resign from his job at the Community Trust, for no apparent reason.

The chair of the Trust is Margot Hishon. She’s also the Chair of the Clutha Southland electorate branch of the National Party. Prendergast was not selected for the candidate short list and also out of a job. No explanation – nothing.

Nine former Community Trustees were so angry at this that they wrote to Justice Minister Amy Adams, demanding an investigation. Adams said no, the threshold for such an investigation had not been reached. Prendergast just disappeared. No one knows what happened. It’s a secret.

After zipping through Kingston, leaving the lake and the snowy mountains behind, I started to wonder whether an electorate could be cursed. Another apparently near-perfect candidate, Allan Baird, was president of Southland Federated Farmers. He had to pull out when he discovered he was being taken to court for water pollution from his dairy farm. “This puts some clouds in my pathway for the nomination,” he said.

By now I’d crossed from Otago into Southland. I’d normally stop at the Five Rivers Café but the light was fading and the selection meeting at Winton was due to kick off at seven sharp. I thought about Simon Flood in Queenstown, a merchant banker who had been at the same firm where Sir John Key had worked. Flood was close to Sir Eion Edgar, a powerful and very highly respected National supporter in Queenstown. His patronage seemed certain to ensure Flood ousted Todd Barclay in a formal challenge last December.

But that’s when the whole “evil six” thing began bubbling away; events in Gore had started to overtake even the most vivid imaginations of Scandinavian-noir TV writers. Later Melanie Reid’s investigation showed that many people high up in the National Party knew about Barclay’s secret recordings of his Gore electorate agent Glenys Dickson. Flood’s challenge failed and then a few weeks ago he pulled out of the current contest. Another one bites the dust.

Glenys Dickson

I had decided earlier in the day to try and strip away some of these layers of fog and mystery. What really caught my attention is that Glenys Dickson, who was the electorate agent for Bill English for the best part of 17 years, seems to be very angry about something. That is apart from losing her job in the wake of the secret recordings scandal – even though she got a big secret pay-out. What’s bothering me is that the pay-out was funded from the prime minister’s office, and not just from her employer, which is parliamentary services. She was recently spotted at a Gore meeting for Winston Peter’s NZ First Party. And Winston is making big political capital out of the 450 texts that Bill English sent to Glenys Dickson. English says the content of those texts will remain a secret. He does not deny sending them.

Before driving to Winton I had called NZ First about this, to see if anyone could explain where all of this is heading. Was there more information to come?

“Winston will want to talk to you”, I was told. And sure enough he did.

I delayed my drive south waiting for the call, and then there was Winston Peters calling to tell me where he thought all of this is going.

He remembered Glenys Dickson sitting in the audience of his recent Gore public meeting. “I think I saw her, she was in the back left hand side as I recall, but I think a public meeting cannot be interpreted as anything other than a public meeting.” I asked if Dickson was working with NZ First Clutha Southland candidate Mark Patterson in any capacity. “I think the answer is no,” said Peters, sounding ever so slightly unsure of himself.

Peters told me that Bill English knows what is on the Todd Barclay recordings. “I know why he didn’t listen to it, because he was told what was on it, that’s the fact of the matter. Mr English has kept on saying that he has nothing further to add. He has a whole lot more to add, that’s the reality.”

So there’s more to come? “I’m astonished at what went on down there and the prime minister has not yet explained why he was continually involved, massively involved. He’s never explained why.” It’s clear to me that Peters has not finished with the Barclay saga. Clearly he does not believe in secrets.

I emailed the police to find out how the investigation into Barclay is going. Grant Ogilvie, the national manager of media relations for the police, said no information would be released at all until the investigation is finished. But surely it’s a matter of public interest if the investigation is not completed by the election? It could affect how people vote. “We understand your question however all we can say is that it will take as long as it needs to take,” Oglivie said. “The timeframe is determined entirely by the requirements of the investigation, not other factors.”

A quick call to the Labour Clutha Southland candidate was the last task on the to-do list before leaving Queenstown. Cherie Chapman is in her car driving from Bluff to Glenorchy for a campaign meeting. She’s riding a wave of Jacindamania and of course the Todd Barclay scandal has done no harm either. Chapman is full of beans and she’s ready to push Labour’s shiny new image into the deepest and most conservative crevices of this massive territory.

Labour candidate Cherie Chapman

Chapman’s mission would have seemed totally impossible just six months ago. Later that afternoon I’d hear Radio NZ’s Otago Southland correspondent claim that the famous sheep statue in Gore could win this electorate for National – that’s how deep the heritage goes. But RNZ also relayed news of the crisis at the Southern DHB. A man with prostate cancer had to spend $37,000 of his own money to get a private operation in Christchurch after multiple mistakes by Dunedin’s cash strapped public hospital system.

It’s still almost unthinkable that Labour could take Clutha Southland. But there’s still this nagging feeling that something is not right here. There’s more to come.

I’m confronted at the end of the evening by National’s new candidate. After all the dramas, here is Hamish Walker, ready to conquer the world. A few seconds earlier I’d asked Sir Eion Edgar if he thought the delegates had chosen the right person. “I think so,” says Sir Eion. I’d noticed that he clapped a little louder for Hamish than for the other two choices.

I asked Walker where he will live. Gore or Queenstown? “At the moment I’m living just south of Balclutha with my partner Penny, I’ve just been selected so I have not made up my mind yet where I’ll be living.”

“I guess in the National Party we all need to work together. I’ve been selected here by the people so I will work for the people. With office staff, they play a critical role as well. I’ve got a big job over the next five weeks to work hard and gain the trust and confidence of the people of Clutha Southland and get as many votes for National as possible.” He says this a few times to different journalists.

Newly selected candidate Hamish Walker takes media questions. Photo: Peter Newport

Walker is 32 years old and has had a varied career including property management, commercial fishing and gold mining. He praised Todd Barclay for his contribution and within minutes Barclay had reciprocated with a friendly Facebook post.

There were more interviews. Many more references to trust and confidence. Margot Hishon, the Clutha Southland National Party chair, was on the steps of the hall giving an interview to RNZ about how well the night had gone.

Reporter Ian Telfer asked about Glenys Dickson and all of the swirling questions around Bill English. “We’ve got no focus on that, we’re moving forwards.” Hishon declared.

“What about John Prendergast?” I asked, feeling that someone needed to ask.

The minder from Wellington was keen to shut things down.

“I’ve got nothing to say about John Prendergast,” said Hishon. I pushed on, suggesting that a bit of transparency would be good.

“I’ve said all I have to say about the Prendergast situation,” was the reply.

“But you’ve said nothing.”

“I’ve said that John Prendergast resigned from the Community Trust of Southland on the second of July. “

And that was it. “Thanks guys,” said the comms man from the National Party in Wellington. I never got the official media release he promised me.

The tiny media pack headed off to the only motel in Winton to write our stories. It would be a late night. I am thinking a lot about how tough the job of a new MP must be. How well Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie is doing, clawing her way up the system with humour and strength. She told the meeting that Jacinda Ardern is a nice person. I thought about Winston Peters and Bill English locked in their battle. How would that end? Will Hamish Walker do well? Will Dowie give him the same support and guidance she gave Barclay?

I’m wondering why there have to be so many secrets, so many casualties. I guess it’s the power. I’ll drive back to Queenstown after some sleep, and hope that whoever gets into power will do the right thing by us, the voters.

When she was filling in time during the vote counting, Sarah Dowie was asked by a National Party delegate if the media was a friend or a foe. She said that she quickly learned that journalists glazed over if an MP tried to explain something, so it was necessary talk in sound bites only.

Hamish Walker has learned that lesson fast. He’ll probably do well.

Winton’s evening of glory was over. The vast, agricultural emptiness of Southland, the buzz of Queenstown to the north, brooding Te Anau and the Murchison Mountains to the west; all 38,000 square kilometres of it lay beyond the town of Winton. I go to sleep dreaming of a time when politics gets more civilised. Maybe nobody’s explained it to me properly.


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