Melanie Reid, Thomas Coughlan and Laura Walters
Newsroom, Wellington, October 16, 2018
Simon Bridges with Paula Bennett at a Media Conference yesterday
Picture by Tim Murphy
A small number of power players in the National Party will be kicking themselves for not having acted before last year’s election on complaints received against MP Jami-Lee Ross for erratic and bullying behaviour.
The man who was by then their Chief Whip was the subject of detailed representations to officials who run the Party nationally and in Auckland about his crude political methods around his home electorate of Botany, including verbal threats and intimidation.
One person affected told Newsroom it was clear then that if National Party officials had “acted earlier on what was clearly very serious complaints (intimidation and bullying), they may not be facing this debacle now.”
In the way of these things, National eyed the general election in September and managed to sweep things under the blue carpet. Ross stood and was re-elected and once Simon Bridges became leader he even moved onto the Party’s front bench.
Today, the National Caucus debates whether to suspend Ross after a Category 5 political hurricane struck the Party yesterday.
Complaints of misconduct
He stands accused of leaking the parliamentary expenses of his leader, Bridges, and of unspecified counts of other, concerning conduct. One source says there are several separate allegations in the ‘other’ pile, including disloyalty and one to which the word ‘inappropriate’ can be attached.
One of those other transgressions could well be the complaints made to National from within the East Auckland Botany electorate; if so, the Party President Peter Goodfellow, might find the discussions familiar.
Ross took what was variously termed personal or medical leave from Parliament last month. He said he needed to spend time with his family. Many assumed he might have had some kind of mental illness. Bridges labelled the reason for the leave, twice, as “embarrassing”.
Yesterday, Bridges held a lunchtime news conference to announce that an inquiry he commissioned into whether the leak of his expenses had come from within National had narrowed the likely list of culprits down to one, Ross. Lucky for Ross, Bridges did not proceed to have him ‘gone by lunchtime’.
Instead, he said the report would be debated today by the Caucus, alongside other conduct which had emerged of late.
The MP, who had been silent until a visit to his home by Bridges and deputy leader Paula Bennett yesterday morning, tweeted that the medical leave had been forced on him to shut him up, seemingly giving the lie to any health condition. He alleged Bridges had been Party in a secretly taped meeting to discussion of breaching electoral law provisions and he would speak out in coming days.
The Caucus meeting could have some awkward moments. Some of the conduct Ross is accused of – one person told Newsroom there were as many as four allegations, and all were ‘correct’ – would in normal circumstances remain private.
Add in the extent of Head Office involvement last year in squelching the Botany bushfires.
Then stir in yesterday’s almost extortionate claims about secret taping of the leader, and any examination of the mess, could require a detached legal interlocutor of the type hired by US Senate Republicans in the Judge Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.
There are those who still believe it will never be proven that Ross leaked the original expenses document but there seems widespread acceptance Ross has been behaving in a manner unbecoming of an MP and of their Party. His tweets yesterday, particularly of having secretly taped Bridges and accusing him of illegality, can hardly have helped his case that Bridges – and not he – has lost it.
The Howick Local Board
The pre-election crisis over Ross stemmed from his bare-knuckles campaigning for his wife Lucy Schwaner to be chair of the Howick Local Board of the Auckland Council. Many on the Howick board are National Party types but the Party doesn’t stand candidates directly.
Those who questioned Schwaner’s suitability to be chair, and who were caught up in her eventual defeat and immediate resignation from her just-elected board seat, felt the force of Ross’ political manoeuvrings. Two report the MP threatening to “go to war” with them and their families over the issue.
People reported being told to fall in line or else, were singled out and criticised privately and publicly – with one being subsequently issued a trespass notice by Ross’ electorate chair before a National Party event.
Ross told a public meeting before the parliamentary election last year that it was his wife who had been subjected to nasty and vicious attacks by “personalities that would make her life hell.” He pledged to support her again in the same way if that situation occurred again.
The local board chair David Collings contacted National’s General Manager Greg Hamilton first in October 2016, about Ross’ intimidation and bullying. Complaints over their wellbeing were also made by members to the Auckland Council into last year. Eventually some had a private meeting with the National President, Goodfellow, and Regional Chair, Andrew Hunt, because the situation was relentless.
Their repeated appeals for the MP to be reined in produced an unsatisfactory result but they were clear the Party knew what they were dealing with in terms of Ross.
The latest crisis at the national level has patterns that seem familiar to those who complained.
Collings told Newsroom: ”If National Party officials had listened and nipped it in the bud and acted earlier on what was clearly very serious complaints (intimidation and bullying), they may not be facing this debacle now.”
He said, from personal experience: “Jami-Lee is like moving fireworks, it was just a matter of time before he was going to ignite and go rogue.”
Some of those bruised by that episode and the Party’s response at the time worried that Ross’ recent leave could see him return to the fray after a spell of leave with no long-term assistance to improve his behaviour.
Goodfellow did not respond to repeated calls and messages, referring Newsroom to a communications manager, who insisted on emailed questions. Newsroom has not received a response.
As National MPs tried to keep up with the Bridges-Ross fallout yesterday it was clear the open disloyalty had tended to unify the Caucus, for now, behind Bridges.
Senior MP Judith Collins told Radio Live Ross, once viewed as a Collins ally, had been wrong to say what he had yesterday, had showed poor judgment and she would take a firm view of such behaviour in the Caucus meeting.
Former minister Maggie Barry lashed out on Twitter at the Botany MP: “What a disloyal disgrace this flawed & isolated individual has become. Having now read the PWC report I personally believe the unpleasant & bullying pattern of behaviour of Jami Lee Ross has no place in an otherwise united National Caucus under our leader Simon Bridges.”
Other MPs surveyed by Newsroom were less willing to speak publicly. One, asked if she had any personal issues with Ross or if she had ever had to complain about his behaviour said “no comment” and hung up.
Another said Ross had acted “like the Emperor Nero trying to be Emperor before finally burning the house down”.
The MP said Ross had been disloyal and had intimidated people — but “people who were weaker than him”.
He had fewer qualifications for the senior benches than others, had not got his way at times, and started to behave erratically.
One MP thought whatever motion was put up at the meeting today could be unanimous and more issues with Ross’ conduct would come out as the Caucus members were now all “sharing feelings about Jami”.
Even if he stays, suspended by National but as an MP, Ross would have to have National Party sanction to stand again as its candidate and that option appeared to evaporate about noon yesterday.
The above article, which appeared in the ‘Newsroom, has been reproduced here under a Special Arrangement.