The art of getting off political high horses gracefully is getting a fair bit of practice in Wellington at present as both National and Labour struggle to extricate themselves from self-created disasters, notes former Minister Peter Dunne.
The early release of an incorrect version of National leader Simon Bridges’ travel expenses would have been at best a nine day wonder, had Bridges shrugged it off and not instead called for a judicial inquiry to discover who was responsible.
Escalating a minor irritation into a national drama was a serious error of judgment and offers a fascinating insight into Bridges’ sense of trust of his colleagues and staff. But, having done so, and worse still having had his bluff called by Mr Speaker Mallard acceding to his request, Bridges has become obliged to see the matter through.
The complication of the suggestion that the so-called leaker is now in such a fragile psychological state to plead for the inquiry to be called off – and for the Speaker’s dramatic about face to do so – compounds Bridges’ original error of judgment while now leaving him little alternative but to proceed.
He has placed himself between a rock and a hard place: to abandon the inquiry now would leave him looking weak and indecisive, and, if the culprit is one of his MPs or staff, having to live with the knowledge there is an active fifth columnist in his ranks.
But to discover and expose the person could have far more disastrous consequences, particularly if the anonymous pleas of last week are to believed. Bridges must be ruing the day he broke one of the primary rules of politics by calling for an inquiry before he knew what it was likely to discover.
In the meantime he will be looking desperately for any diversion that will allow him to quietly bury the issue, and move on with his dignity intact.
Mallard may need some time to reflect
There are two other aspects of this curious saga.
The first is the role of Mr Speaker. Mallard is perhaps the most overtly partisan occupant of that traditionally impartial and above party politics high office in the last thirty years.
How much he knows of what happened and how much of that he has passed on to Bridges, and whether he has passed on the same amount of information, or more, to the Prime Minister (and why it should be any business of hers anyway) remain matters of speculation. But his gratuitous comment when abandoning the inquiry that the culprit was obviously from the National camp was unbelievably foolish, and has merely inflamed an already tense and untrusting relationship with Parliament’s largest party, while doing nothing to advance a resolution of the issue.
Mallard’s appearance of enjoying Bridges’ discomfort is not helpful either, all of which bodes ill for inter-party co-operation, so critical to the smooth operation of Parliament, for the remainder of this term. He needs to spend the rest of the current recess reflecting upon what the independence of his role actually means, and seeking a way to get off the high horse he has so purposefully climbed upon.
It is likely the National caucus and leader will have a far more acute sense of the person’s vulnerability and how to handle it, than a cursory external police assessment.
And then there is the question of the police who say they have discovered the identity of the person responsible but do not wish to disclose that to Bridges. (In a style more usually associated with Winston Peters, Mallard seems to be implying he also knows the person’s name, raising the question of where he obtained that from, and why he has not passed it on to Bridges.)
Police statements that they are satisfied their suspect does not pose a psychological risk need also to be treated with considerable caution. If it is a National MP, for example, it is likely the National caucus and leader will have a far more acute sense of the person’s vulnerability and how to handle it, than a cursory external police assessment.
Ardern goes for the soft option again
When Labour MPs voted to include Claire Curran in the Ministerial line-up, there were many who speculated that she would be the first casualty of the new government. And so it has proved to be.
Her convenient amnesia that led her to mislead Parliament earlier this year over private meetings with a Radio New Zealand official was inexcusable and should have brought about her dismissal then, both for her selective honesty and lack of judgment.
The Prime Minister’s failure to act decisively in the wake of that was widely held to be an error she would regret in time. Last week’s developments were an unwelcome reminder of that weakness, and few would have been surprised had the Prime Minister matched her stated annoyance at Curran’s latest actions and lack of judgment with more decisive action this time around, but again she has chosen the soft option.
Given the near certain prospect of further lapses from Curran, the Prime Minister will be unable to take the easy way out three times in a row. So her descent from the high horse of inaction will surely be the dismissal altogether of Curran at the first available reshuffle opportunity.
But all these machinations are trivial sideshows compared to the bigger issues facing the country at present, and their persistence merely fuels public cynicism about politics and politicians. And, in the Bledisloe Cup of politics, they are one area where we do run a distant second to our Australian neighbours.