Jami-Lee Ross is no longer a National MP, but his scorched-earth strategy means Simon Bridges’ leadership is in real peril. Sam Sachdeva reports on an extraordinary day of explosive allegations, emphatic rebuttals – and a musical interlude from Winston Peters.
For once, Winston Peters was lost for words – or rather, he chose to let someone else speak for him.
Facing the media after Jami-Lee Ross’ stinging excoriation of his leader Simon Bridges, complete with allegations of corruption, Peters pulled out his cellphone and a tinny tune from 1970s war film Kelly’s Heroes began to ring out.
“Friends all tried to warn me but I held my head up high, all the time to warn me but I only passed them by,” it began, before the kicker in the chorus: “Burning bridges lost forever more.”
With a “thank you very much”, Peters strode away.
If his lack of verbiage was out of character, it was perhaps understandable given the amount of damage that Ross’ own words had already done.
In an hour-long press conference, the Botany MP took a scorched-earth approach to Bridges and the National Party which Ross first joined as an 17-year-old in 2003.
Clasping both sides of a lectern, with a carefully double-spaced and numbered speech in front of him, Ross seemed calm as he laid out the case against Bridges’ leadership.
“I once thought Simon Bridges was capable of being Prime Minister. Now that I see what he is really like, it is clear [he] is not.”
While that would have stung Bridges, along with jibes about the leader’s nose-diving ratings with the public, it is the suggestion he asked Ross to help hide the identity of wealthy Chinese donor Zhang Yikun that could do the most damage.
While police have rarely prosecuted breaches of the law around electoral donations, if true the allegations against Bridges and National are grave indeed.
Ross has promised to lay a complaint with the police, and claims to have recordings, text messages and other evidence of the cover-up.
In return, Bridges offered blanket broadsides against the “lying, leaking…lone wolf” and his “baseless claims”, but little to rebut the specific claims regarding Zhang.
Bridges was flanked by former leadership rivals Amy Adams, Mark Mitchell and Judith Collins along with Todd McClay, casting into sharp relief Ross’ isolation in a caucus which unanimously voted to expel him.
But if the merits of the two MPs’ cases were judged on their demeanours, it was Ross who appeared the more at ease: he addressed reporters by their first names and answered every question which came his way, while Bridges stuck to his talking points and flashed a disconcerting “smile” which looked more like an attempt to hide anger and discomfort.
Yet body language is scant grounds to convict, and Bridges is entitled to the presumption of innocence until the police carry out an investigation which he has welcomed (although he would not confirm whether he would provide a privacy waiver so any interview with them could be released).
A blow to Bridges’ leadership
Whether or not any wrongdoing is found, it’s hard to shake the sense the Ross affair will prove the undoing of Bridges in one way or another.
The leader’s terrible favourability ratings are an open secret, but his saving grace has been National’s steadiness in the polls.
While many have wrongly predicted a downturn since the election, it seems safe to assume this sort of in-fighting and messiness will turn off soft voters, and any fall – perhaps towards the 35 percent mark Collins nominated as her own sacking point had she become leader – could start the sharpening of knives.
While there is little Bridges could have done about Ross’ attack, it is now common wisdom that “Leakgate” has been handled terribly from the start, and whatever Bridges hoped to achieve this is not it.
None of this is to say that Ross should emerge as a gleaming white knight speaking truth to power.
An MP who will secretly record their leader and do their best to bring the whole house down clearly cannot be trusted by his party – the unanimous vote to expel him says as much – while Ross still has questions to answer about reports of bullying, erratic behaviour and other alleged misconduct dating back to before the last election.
And for all his bullishness about how the people of Botany could have a truly independent voice, the odds are heavily stacked against Ross winning the by-election.
Outside of the Māori seats, only two independents have won a by-election since 1938: William Sheat in 1951 and Winston Peters in 1993, both cases where the defector’s original party did not stand a candidate against them.
It is hard to see National extending any such courtesies in what was a true blue seat before Ross’ arrival on the scene.
After spending his entire adult life in politics he may have to search for a new vocation.
Peters’ musical interlude was aimed at Bridges, but the lament of “lonely feelings and burning memories” may strike true with Ross in the coming months.