When Todd Barclay took over from Bill English in Clutha-Southland, he would have hoped for a long future in the true blue seat. Three years later, Parliament’s Baby of the House has become its youngest ex-MP in more than 40 years. Sam Sachdeva reports.
Todd Barclay may be the Baby of the House, but he has been taken down by a scandal to rival that of the most grizzled political veteran.
National’s Clutha-Southland MP entered politics as a 24-year-old with hopes of a long future in the seat.
Now, a fortnight after his 27th birthday, he is on the way out and facing the spectre of a new police investigation into whether he secretly recorded a member of his staff.
It’s a fast fall from grace for the grinning MP who took office in 2014.
In a Stuff profile shortly after Barclay entered Parliament, his parents Paul and Maree spoke about a preschooler who thrived on grown-up conversations with his mother’s friends.
“There’d be four or five of us sitting there talking, and he’d pull up a chair, sit in the middle and join in the conversation. He would get quite dominant.”
At Gore High School, he excelled at English, history and economics, also travelling to Australia as a basketball referee.
Then it was off to Victoria University in Wellington, where he received a Bachelor of Commerce with a major in commercial law.
His first foray into politics came as the result of a somewhat cheeky email to the then-Deputy Prime Minister playing up their hometown allegiances.
According to Stuff: “As English tells it, the email simply said: ‘Hi, I’m Todd Barclay from Dipton. Can I have a job?’.”
That led to an internship in English’s office, followed by stints working for Prime Minister John Key and ministers Gerry Brownlee and Hekia Parata.
A move into the private sector came when he joined PR consultancy SweeneyVesty, before making the politically questionable decision to work as a lobbyist for tobacco giant Philip Morris.
Barclay defended his job after becoming an MP, telling Stuff: “The company’s a legal company selling a legal product.”
His plan was to do the job for a short time, then moving to a less toxic role before running for office.
Instead, English’s decision to retire as an electorate MP at the 2014 election opened the door for him.
He won the party’s nomination in part to a decent slice of luck: Newsroom understands the initial frontrunner was former Merrill Lynch funds manager Simon Flood, only for him to withdraw due to family reasons.
Barclay was then selected as the National candidate, romping home by nearly 15,000 votes at the general election.
Attracting headlines as Parliament’s youngest MP, it wasn’t long before Barclay began ruffling feathers back at home.
Barclay’s Queenstown-based electoral agent Barbara Swan resigned in January 2016, reportedly to spend more time with her family.
The following month, his Gore-based senior electorate agent Glenys Dickson quit, with a National Party official making reference to “an employment problem”.
Later that month, National’s Clutha-Southland electorate chairman Stuart Davie resigned, saying it was “untenable” to carry on.
Some of the discontent seemed to be related to the change of MP, as the craggy farmer who had held sway for decades was replaced by a fresh-faced newbie keen to make his mark.
Unnamed party members complained to Stuff about Barclay favouring the “glitz and glamour” of Queenstown over the Gore heartland, relocating office resources.
Prime Minister John Key sought to downplay the resignations, saying it was “not entirely unusual” to have changes of electorate staff after a new MP came in, while English denied speaking directly to those involved – not exactly the truth, as it later transpired.
A secret recording
Then, rumours began to circulate of a “secret recording” made by Barclay of his staff.
The MP sought to brush them aside, telling RNZ he was “not going to dignify that with a response”.
As the initial flurry of media coverage subsided, Barclay must have thought he was in the clear.
An attempt to deselect him failed, with Barclay winning the Clutha-Southland nomination handily despite a challenge from Flood.
However, Newsroom’s detailed investigations began to build the pile of evidence that would eventually lead to his downfall.
Approached at Wellington Airport on Monday night, Barclay said it had all been covered before.
Asked why English had sent a text saying he had recorded Dickson, he clenched his jaw tightly with the potential realisation that his career was at risk.
Curiously, he did not appear to mention this bombshell to the Prime Minister’s office, which seemed blindsided when Newsroom’s story came out the next morning.
Then came a fatal mistake: as English stood barely 10 metres away saying he could not recall whether Barclay had told him about recording Dickson, his Clutha-Southland MP was in vehement denial mode.
No, he did not speak to English; he “totally refuted” recording Dickson; the good people of Clutha-Southland saw these allegations for what they were.
Yet when English’s police statement came out hours later, confirming Barclay had in fact confided in him, his fate was surely sealed.
Not that Barclay appeared to know it: in a bizarre Tuesday evening press conference, he “clarified” his comments from earlier in the day before turning on his heels without taking questions.
As pressure mounted, he skipped a Wednesday morning select committee and cancelled his attendance at an Auckland event.
English confirmed to media there were “ongoing discussions” about Barclay’s future, and at 1.18pm the statement came out.
“It was the proudest moment of my life to have been elected the MP for Clutha-Southland,” he said, but his resignation was “in the best interests of our Government and the National Party”.
Where Barclay goes from here is far from clear.
Parliament’s youngest MP in 12 years is now its youngest ex-MP in more than 40 years.
Barclay seems unlikely to follow Mike Moore in making a swift return to Parliament, and a return to lobbying would seem difficult for someone who doesn’t enjoy the warm backing of English and other ministers.
Whatever he does next, it may take some time to rebuild the trust of the public.
Read Newsroom’s file on Todd Barclay: How Barclay’s career went up in smoke