The Jami-Lee Ross saga was unique in New Zealand’s political history. Danyl Mclauchlan explains why.
This post was first published Oct 20 2018
So much of what happens in politics never makes it into the media. Every now and then a journalist – out for an early run or stumbling home from a late night – passes Parliament and observes the prime minister of the day and their senior advisors hurrying into the Beehive, hours before dawn, expressions of shock or anger on their faces. Something big is going down but the press secretaries don’t know what it is, or won’t tell. The PM is in a vile mood for a few days and then everything returns to normal. The crisis is over, whatever it was, and most of the time no one ever finds out about it, or any of the lesser day-to-day crimes and blunders and scandals that play out behind the scenes. It’s only when things really fall apart – as they did for National this week – that we get a rare glimpse of what’s really going on.
‘Politics should be about policy and values,’ is a sentiment we’ve heard from a few commentators in response to recent events; an understandable reaction to the torrent of malice and lies vomiting out of the many orifices of the National Party. And that’s all very well and good, but for professional politicians ‘values’ are mostly just a form of marketing: the current government talks about transparency and open democracy but is obsessed with secrecy and cosy with lobbyists; National is supposed to be the party of conservatism and family values and their married-with-kids MPs are having ‘brutal misogynistic sex’ with each other while the president of the party covers up allegations of harassment. We’re learning a lot about some of the people who run our country, or who aspire to, because we’re – briefly – seeing them as they really are, not as they want to be seen.
Let’s start with Jami-Lee Ross. A few days ago I asked a senior political journalist whether she thought Ross was in his right mind. She gave me an incredulous look. “Do I think the guy who just drove from Auckland to Wellington overnight to deliver the longest stand-up media statement I’ve seen, in which he implicated himself in a crime punishable by two years imprisonment is in his right mind? Is that what you’re asking me Danyl?”
Most politicians have a strong streak of arrogance. That’s not a bad thing: they need to have confidence in themselves to inspire confidence in others, and that confidence needs to be robust because the political system can be very bruising. Lots of us lose sleep over conflicts at work: imagine if your most vicious critic got to attack you via the national media for several nights a week whenever you did anything wrong. It takes a certain type of person to survive and thrive.
It’s not unusual for MPs to drift over the line from healthy self-confidence into the oncoming traffic of delusional narcissism. In many ways the parliamentary and party systems incentivise some of the harassment and toxic behaviour Jami-Lee Ross has been accused of. Almost everyone who works for an MP is on an events-based contract, meaning they can be sacked without notice or cause; serious incidents can be settled with confidentiality agreements negotiated via payments from the leaders’ funds; it’s in everyone’s best interest – the MP, the party, the unfortunate staffer with a future career to consider – for everything to be settled quietly. Whichever party you support has or had toxic MPs who were protected by the leadership.
But there’s a limit. Sometimes MPs who go off the rails step down quietly, shuffling off to repair their devastated marriages, broken families, ruined mental health. Sometimes they’re forced out, scratching and biting, clawing at their party while insisting they’re the only one who can save it. But Jami-Lee Ross just put all those previous flameouts to shame. No one has ever seen anything like it in New Zealand politics. What makes him so uniquely terrible?
Firstly, Ross is really high-functioning. When two of the Green Party’s backbench MPs quit the caucus during last years’ election campaign, they didn’t know how to send a press release or log on to social media, or when the tv deadlines were. Ross, by contrast is a media-trained front-bencher for a major party, and it shows. He dominated the news cycle for three solid days, outperforming his leader during his standups and making plausible accusations against Simon Bridges which – if true – would destroy his leadership, and now look as if they probably aren’t true but might destroy him anyway.
Second, politicians usually fall out with their rivals, not their confidants. No one really knows if Simon Bridges can survive this because no one’s ever seen a leader of a major party fight a deathmatch against their own former numbers man and senior whip. They’ve never seen it because the consequences of such a thing would be so terrible any leader would do anything they could to avoid it.
Ross has more tapes of Bridges and – allegedly – his colleagues; he’ll have text messages, emails, maybe screenshots of private social media exchanges. Who knows! Ross’s behaviour is so unpredictable there’s no way to know what he’ll do next or will happen with any of it, but an extended campaign of terror in which he releases bombshells during every National AGM or whenever Bridges makes a policy announcement seems simply unsurvivable. And this isn’t because Bridges is outstandingly flawed: no leader can survive having their conversations with their close advisors made public. That’s right, readers of The Spinoff. Not even her.
Finally, a huge component of Ross’s unique toxicity is his political lineage. He was a supporter of Judith Collins, a friend of Cameron Slater and Simon Lusk, who has been advising him through this trainwreck. They comprise the core of the nihilist faction of the National Party made famous in Dirty Politics and sundry other scandals. Lots of politicians from across the political spectrum resort to unethical tactics to achieve their goals, but what was so unusual about the Dirty Politics crowd is that they didn’t seem to have any goals, other than to be in politics so they could lie and leak and bully and smear and ruin people’s lives. For them that IS politics. And, in the grand tradition of the ‘you knew I was a scorpion’ parable, empowering a faction of ruthless, amoral assholes whose only goal was to destroy everyone around them has been a predictable disaster for National.
It’s a disaster that’s shone light in some interesting places though: like those scuffles in Scooby Doo where someone falls backwards through a tapestry revealing a hidden disguise and secret passageway.
Ross has raised questions about that perennial source of political scandals: fundraising. The major parties like to maintain this fiction that their leaders don’t solicit donations, that they direct potential donors to the party president. But the leaders are always the most successful fundraisers. That’s why Bridges knows who has given his party $100,000, why he wants to have dinner with them at his house, and knows what they want in exchange: another MP in his caucus.
New Zealand politicians get angry when anyone suggests their fundraising activities are a form of corruption. And you can hear in Ross’s tape that there hasn’t been an explicit transaction: ‘there’s no catch to it,’ Ross tells Bridges, but these guys want (another) MP in National’s caucus. That’s tricky, Bridges replies: depends on what’s happening with the list, what’s happening with the polls, where they’re at with candidates from other ethnicities. So we can’t quite say its a cash for access deal.
Political scientists have a term for this type of behaviour: they call it a gift economy. It’s the same form of unspoken reciprocity as when we exchange presents at Christmas or invite friends to weddings. No one ever says, “You can come to our reception if you buy us something expensive and invite us to your own wedding when we will give you something equally nice.” That would be a weird breach of etiquette. Everyone knows how it works but no one says anything – which is vital from a legal standpoint: for a donation to function as a bribe under the Crimes Act a prosecutor needs to prove it was made to reward or influence them; the unspoken ‘gift economy’ nature of the transactions makes that impossible.
More importantly, it’s a form of corruption that’s very palatable for our political class. No one likes to think they’re taking bribes. And Bridges isn’t! He’s just accepting a large sum of money from a guy who wants something from him in return, and who may or may not donate future large sums.
We’ve learned about how effortlessly donors and parties who give large sums can evade the disclosure requirements. If you give less than $15,000 then your name does not have to be revealed in the expenses declaration, so payments made separately with different names listed as the donors allow huge sums to be gifted without disclosure. Just under half of the total sum of National’s declared campaign donations in 2017 came from the greater than $5000 but less than $15,000 bracket, which Zhang Yikun allegedly structured his donation into. Less than a quarter of the total sum of Labour’s disclosed donations come from the same bracket.
It’s rare for the major parties to break the laws around political donations because they get to write the law. It’s designed to work for them, to allow them to solicit money while concealing their funders. Based on the content of the recordings and text messages Ross has made public, if anyone has actually done anything wrong, it’s probably him. Bridges said during his media stand-up on Wednesday, “Jami-Lee Ross is an expert and experienced fundraiser.” Which sounds, ominously for Ross, like former crown prosecutor Simon Bridges preparing his own potentially devastating case.
And, finally, Ross has shone a light on the influence of China on New Zealand politics, especially in the projection of the rising super-power’s soft power in the region. During last year’s election campaign it was revealed that one of National’s current list MPs – Jian Yang – had extensive undisclosed links to Chinese intelligence. If that story had come out during the 20th century it would have been the largest political scandal of the decade, the instant end of that politician’s career, a disaster for National. Today it’s just a weird thing that happened and everyone mostly forgets about, and which Yang still politely refuses to discuss with the media. The Cold War is over. Nationalism is declining, at least among our business and political class who enjoy dual citizenship as both New Zealanders and members of the trans-national elite. Now we’re all happy consumers in one big global economy. The leaders of our right-wing political party have dinner with the Chinese Communist Party’s envoys in New Zealand and prefer that they bring the wine because theirs is better.
Some commentators are saying this has all been “good for Simon Bridges” because it makes him look prime ministerial. I don’t see that. He performed well on Wednesday but mostly Bridges has looked shell shocked, evasive, doomed. It’s possible his personal popularity will improve among National voters – very few of whom previously named him as preferred prime minister – as they rally around their man. But Bridges hadn’t defined himself with the public before the crisis hit: he was just another generic, faceless opposition leader, now his brand is contaminated with the most hateful betrayal New Zealand politics has seen. I think his possible ceiling of support is much, much lower, and he hasn’t even defeated his enemy yet.
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