The developments at parliament yesterday are almost without precedent, as renegade National MP Jami-Lee Ross threw astonishing accusations at his party leader Simon Bridges. In this post drawn from this morning’s Bulletin, the Spinoff’s daily email newsletter, Alex Braae takes on the crucial what-next questions.
What did Ross allege?
The Botany MP claimed that Simon Bridges directed him to split up a $100,000 donation from a Chinese businessman into smaller amounts, so that they could be hidden. Ross held forth at parliament for almost an hour, in a press conference that had the dramatic intensity of a Russian novel. Moreover, Ross says he has a tape recording of a conversation with Bridges that he’s going to hand in to police, and also tweeted photos of Bridges with the businessman. And he even dropped the C-bomb on Simon Bridges – calling him a “corrupt politician.”
Exactly, it’s huge. Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis told the Newstalk ZB that if the allegations are found to be true, that would breach the Electoral Act, with potential penalties of two years in prison. Not only that, Bridges would be automatically expelled from parliament, which would make it difficult to continue leading the party to say the least. Here’s an explainer on donation law from Stuff. Bridges, for his part, completely denies any wrongdoing. He welcomed a police investigation. But he also refused to discuss donations at all, which shouldn’t be taken as an admission of anything, but was in contrast to Ross who held forth on pretty much everything thrown at him.
So what happens to Jami-Lee Ross now?
He basically told his caucus colleagues that they couldn’t fire him, because he was quitting. The party voted to expel him anyway. What it means is that there will now be a by-election in Botany, which Ross says he’ll stand in as an independent. It’s a safe National seat, and Ross says it will be a referendum on Simon Bridges leadership. That’s likely to be held around the end of the year.
Will Simon Bridges even still have the leadership by then?
Honestly, who would predict anything at this stage. If there’s any sort of police investigation, that could make his position untenable. If anything alleged by Jami-Lee Ross and denied by Simon Bridges turns out to be true, that’s probably the end of it too. And one other twist of the knife that Ross dug in – he says internal party polling shows Simon Bridges has a net favourability with the public of -27 – that basically means a lot more people don’t like him than do. For a party as ruthlessly committed to electoral success as National, that won’t sit well at all if true.
Sounds like Ross has come out of this all pretty well?
Er, no, not really. He’s openly admitted to secretly taping his boss and using that for political gain, and has thrown a whole lot of other colleagues under the bus in the process. Not only that, he brought up what he says are false allegations of sexual harassment at his press conference. Deputy leader Paula Bennett responded to that, saying it wasn’t sexual harassment allegations that had been discussed with Ross – it was that he had behaved inappropriately “for a married member of parliament”. Whatever that means you’ll just have to use your imagination. Or don’t, up to you.
Who was the businessman who donated?
He’s a Chinese New Zealander called Yikun Zhang, and there’s no suggestion he’s done anything wrong. But there are a lot of curious details about it all. He was recently made a member of the NZ Order of Merit, on the recommendation of former National MP Eric Roy, current National MP Jian Yang, and Auckland mayor Phil Goff, reports the NZ Herald. He owns $40 million worth of property in Auckland, and has founded community organisations. And as Stuff reports, according to his secretary, he doesn’t speak English.
What’s the mood of the commentators?
There’s a wide consensus that Bridges’ leadership is in deep trouble. Tracy Watkins at Stuff says it may have been dealt a killer blow. Heather du Plessis-Allen says he needs to go for the sake of the party. On The Spinoff yesterday morning before it completely kicked off, conservative columnist Liam Hehir wrote that above all National needed to avoid the leadership merry-go-round Labour suffered from in opposition. And for a full audio digest, Gone by Lunchtime convened for an emergency episode, to process what the hell was going on – describing it as a ‘political kamikaze supercut.’
It’s hard to overstate just how big a story for politics this is. It’s on pretty much every front page in the country this morning. Some of the Stuff papers have reached a bit with “Mutiny on the Botany” for the headline. The NZ Herald’s one though is perfectly snappy – “Blue Blood”.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.