The brain-melting mind warp of the week in politics has just got even more sordid, with four women speaking to Newsroom on the conduct of rogue MP Jami-Lee Ross. Just how damaged is everyone involved now?
There were whispers, there were rumours. On Tuesday, Jami-Lee Ross took them head on, saying he had been falsely accused of sexually harassing four women by the National party’s leadership. He said he had done nothing of the sort, and said it was a trumped up allegation timed to coincide with media interest in the topic, thanks to the recent stories about US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Then National’s deputy leader Paula went on TVNZ Breakfast on Wednesday, and stood by her claim. The real story, said Bennett, wasn’t sexual harassment. It was that Ross was guilty of inappropriate conduct for a married member of parliament. What the hell did that mean?
This morning Newsroom published anonymous accounts from four women, two of whom said they had affairs with Ross, and two others who alleged he had harassed or bullied them. They make for upsetting reading. It is further alleged that he threatened to destroy some of their careers, and that he behaved like a narcissist. Jami-Lee Ross said in his police station press conference yesterday that he was comfortable with all of his conduct, in relation to being a married man.
The four women have remained anonymous. But it is worth stating that the reporter on the story, Melanie Reid, who said this morning she had been working on it for as long as a year, has a lot of experience conducting these sorts of journalistic investigations.
What will this mean for the reputation of Jami-Lee Ross, soon to be former MP for Botany? We are yet to hear him respond directly to the report this morning, but if he stays true to form he’ll appear soon enough. In the meantime let’s count up the other things that have come out this week alone. He was named in a PWC report as the most likely person to have leaked Simon Bridges’ travel expenses – he claims that’s a stitch up. He revealed that he had secretly taped conversations with colleagues, including his party leader, in the knowledge that it might become politically useful down the line. He then released one of those tapes, which on the face of it did not incriminate Bridges at all over the alleged electoral fraud. On the tape he and Bridges did, however, casually discuss the ethnicities of potential candidates like they were commodities to be traded. And somehow, he expects to run in a by-election later this year.
At least one political commentator has argued this morning that the latest revelations are good for Simon Bridges. But given what has been reported, there will inevitably be serious questions raised about whether the leadership of the party kept these alleged incidents quiet for political reasons. Perhaps the party leadership confronted him as soon as they heard about the allegations – a conversation that is meant to have taken place in the last few weeks, and which Ross says led to him having a mental breakdown, after being, he claims, falsely accused. And perhaps there are other women who may yet come forward, either anonymously or otherwise. After all, Jami-Lee Ross alleges that he has a tape of Simon Bridges telling him that if he asked for natural justice, “it wouldn’t be four women, it would be 15.” The scrutiny will turn on Jami-Lee Ross after these allegations, but if the National party kept them quiet, there could also be consequences from that.
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What else indeed. This is just one strand of the story that has turned toxic on almost everyone who has got too close. Let’s go through a few others.
Candidacies for donations?
One of the things discussed on the tape was that a Chinese businessman who was donating $100,000 was also keen to discuss candidacies. In particular, he wanted to discuss a candidacy for Colin Zheng, a manager at a construction company owned by Zhang, reports the NZ Herald. Newstalk ZB’s political editor Barry Soper says here that such a discussion makes it sound like candidacies or spots in parliament can be bought, which he calls “morally reprehensible.” He adds that it “should send shivers up the spine of the electorate.” Bridges denies that was what was meant, but it seems a fair question to ask now – is that how candidate selection works in the National Party?
Analysing it for The Spinoff, Leroy Beckett writes that it shows the current system of political donations is broken and lacks transparency. And on the NZ Herald, David Fisher writes about how it brings to light some of the ways in which National has become a formidable money-raising machine, particularly through the courting of well-connected elements of the Chinese community.
The donation itself
The tape shows that Simon Bridges knew about the donation. But it was not the smoking gun that Ross had led media to believe it would be. It doesn’t suggest he knew anything, or directed anything, in relation to the donation being split up so it could be hidden, which means there’s still no proof that he broke the Electoral Act. Jami-Lee Ross alleges that directive came in a separate, untaped conversation. Just to round out the grubbiness of it all, on the tape Simon Bridges said he’d like to use the money for attack ads.
The strong, united National caucus
The immediate headline grabber from the tape was comments made by both men about the calibre of their fellow MPs. West Coast-based list MP Maureen Pugh in particular was singled out as “fucking useless” by Simon Bridges, a comment for which he immediately apologised for when it became public. Pugh accepted that apology, and speculated that it may have been made because she annoys colleagues with her constant advocacy for the West Coast, which is certainly one way the comments could be interpreted.
But it’s pretty clear not everyone close to Pugh agrees that she should have accepted the apology. Speaking on Newshub this very morning, Maureen Pugh’s mother hit out at Simon Bridges, describing him as a dumbass. “As far as I’m concerned, he can go suck eggs and he’ll never get our vote as long as he’s in power.” It’s likely a lot of other National supporters feel the same way about their leader right now.
Meanwhile Chris Finlayson and David Carter, named by Bridges on the tape as “obvious ones” for “getting rid of” have both declared themselves unbothered by the remarks. Finlayson said he’d been readying to exit anyway. “I just a few weeks ago concluded my arrangements to go back to the bar and I intend to leave here with class,” he told Morning Report. “Class is a commodity that doesn’t seem to be in conspicuous supply in politics at the moment.”