A year into opposition and the National Party could be moving to expel one of its MPs, following the protracted leak saga.
Today the National caucus is expected to vote on whether to suspend Jami-Lee Ross, after an inquiry into the leak of Simon Bridges’ travel expenses pointed to Ross as the likely source.
Ross is currently on medical leave for personal reasons, which he and Bridges maintained was unrelated to the leak.
The report prepared by PWC following an inquiry into the leak of the expenses to a Newshub journalist in August found the source of the leak, and the sender of the text message from the person claiming to be the leaker, had not been identified “with certainty”.
But it went on to say: “The evidence we have identified points to Mr Ross.”
“Mr Ross may therefore be the text message sender.”
Ross strongly denies being the leaker, and said the evidence used to support the theory – mainly calls and texts to people involved – were made over an unrelated matter.
Ross unleashed on Twitter moments before Bridges announced the findings of the leak inquiry, accusing Bridges of having a personal vendetta after a falling out between the two, of forcing him to take medical leave, and of electoral fraud.
“Some months ago I fell out with Simon. I have internally been questioning leadership decisions he was making, and his personal poll ratings which show he is becoming more and more unlikable in the public’s eyes,” he wrote.
Bridges said Ross was “lashing out” because of the position he was in and denied having ever broken the law.
As for the medical leave, deputy leader Paula Bennett, who has been the point person for Ross’s wellbeing, said Ross’s doctor contacted her earlier this month saying Ross needed to take medical leave, but said he was now recovering.
It’s understood Ross has the right to come to the morning caucus meeting to mount his defence or ask for any discussion around his fate to be held until he’s in a position to attend.
In an ironic twist, National MPs opposed the coalition Government’s waka-jumping bill, which allows them to get rid of an electorate MP with two-thirds support of the party.
The law came into effect earlier this month, which made Ross’s expulsion from Parliament an option for National. But it was unlikely the party would use the powers of the new law.
“I disagree with that law. We have all the appropriate tools and measures as a caucus that we need,” Bridges said.
“This isn’t about me, this is about 56 members of Parliament and about the National Party.”
If the National caucus did vote to remove Ross using the legislation, or if he resigned, it would trigger a by-election. If he was expelled by National but wanted to retain his seat, under the new legislation he would have to stand again during a by-election.
However, National did not have to use the powers of the law to expel him from Parliament, meaning Ross could be expelled from the party, but remain an independent MP.
Ross won the Botany seat in a by-election in 2011 and has since been described by some in the party as “ambitious”.
However, one MP said Ross’s ambition had “overreached” his abilities.
Meanwhile, National MP Maggie Barry accused Ross of being a “disloyal disgrace”.
“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,” she said on Twitter.
Bridges also referred to other issues relating to Ross’s conduct.
“I also discussed with Jami-Lee other matters concerning his conduct that have come to my attention and suggest, together with the leak, a pattern,” he said.
It is understood several matters regarding his behaviour had been raised with the National Party executive and leadership.
The caucus would discuss these matters, along with the report, and next steps on Tuesday, Bridges said.
The leak scandal has called into question Bridges’ leadership, after three leaks to media designed to undermine him.
The saga has lasted more than two months, with some questioning whether Bridges should have held an inquiry into the leak, given the expenses documents were due to be publicly released just days later.
Bridges also came under fire for a bizarre press conference announcing Ross’s leave, when he described his MP’s situation as “embarrassing” on two occasions, a term he later retracted.
The events have called into question the party’s unity, and Bridges’ suitability as leader.
But Bridges said his leadership was safe, and his party was strong, adding that Ross was an outlier who he believed was responsible for all three leaks.
“What we’ve got here is the actions of a single member of Parliament.”
While the report wasn’t entirely conclusive, it found on the balance of probabilities that Ross was the leaker, and was the person who sent the text to Bridges, the Speaker and the Newshub journalist.
Bridges said John Billington QC independently assessed the investigation report, and in his opinion, “on the balance of probabilities” the evidence established Ross was the person who leaked the expenses and sent the anonymous text message.
In the text the person claimed to be the leaker and a National MP and gave information they believed backed up their claim. They also said they had a history of severe mental illness and an investigation into the leak would put them in danger.
The report details the steps taken by the National Party leader’s office, the Speaker, and police, following the text.
It reveals Ross spoke to a senior police officer from his district nine times, with the calls clustered around the time of significant events relating to the leak saga. It also detailed the date, time and length of 10 calls from Ross to a RNZ journalist who was leaked details of the text message.
The report included two calls between the Speaker and Ross, but Speaker Trevor Mallard said they were due to an administrative misunderstanding regarding his point of contact in the party over the leak inquiry.
It did not show any phone or email correspondence between Ross and the Newshub journalist who was leaked the initial expenses document.
Ross may have been able to mount a case to stay within the caucus due to the inconclusive nature of the report, but his Twitter barrage, and mounting accusations relating to his behaviour and conduct mean it’s unlikely the caucus will keep him on.