The National Party candidate selection process has been shoved into the spotlight yet again, but it’s not the only party reviewing how it vets wannabe MPs
In the last 12 months, the National Party’s candidate selection process has been questioned more than once, with high-profile exits from Parliament from first-term MPs Hamish Walker and Andrew Falloon.
The latest case plaguing the party is Jake Bezzant, who unsuccessfully ran in the reasonably safe Upper Harbour seat at last year’s election.
During the campaign, BusinessDesk broke a story that Bezzant had left his job at Parking Sense in the United States after disagreements over “fantasy multi-million-dollar contracts’’ along with disputed claims he had founded the company.
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Last week it was revealed a former girlfriend of Bezzant’s had gone public on a podcast, accusing him of impersonating her online without her consent to solicit sexual images from other social media users.
The National Party had already indicated in the aftermath of a disastrous election result that the candidates college would be rebuilt and strengthened and vetting procedures needed to be reviewed.
But that won’t be happening at the party’s special general meeting later this month – instead those matters have been deemed “operational’’, and will be dealt with by the board in the coming months.
Leader Judith Collins told Newsroom there were a number of ways the vetting process could be strengthened, including appointing an independent panel of people outside of the party to vet prospective candidates.
“We need to be looking for people who have the character and experience that we expect for MPs while at the same time are representative of the community,’’ Collins said.
“Every party has to relook at the way it operates like any business or enterprise does, and I’m very pleased I’m dealing with these issues as they come about.’’
In the case of what has been exposed about Bezzant, she said, “Who could have imagined that?”.
“I think in today’s world with social media, it’s very important we have people going through social media checking for things.
“We also need to not just rely on the references and reference checks that people give us in their forms when they apply to be candidates – we need to go wider than that,’’ Collins said.
“There needs to be far more of a professionalisation of the system, because at the moment it’s very much left with the local electorates, and it’s not fair to expect people to even know what some of these social media platforms are.’’
She said an independent panel is one of many options the party will consider ahead of the 2023 election and recruiting of candidates.
Party President Peter Goodfellow arrived at Parliament on Tuesday but was reluctant to answer questions about his involvement in the Bezzant saga or whether he should resign for failing to act faster.
He said he spoke to people who employed Bezzant and knew him, but it didn’t raise red flags.
National Party chief whip, Matt Doocey, begged to differ, telling media there were obviously red flags and the board had some explaining to do.
While National is holding a special general meeting in Wellington on June 26 to debate and vote on proposed rule changes in the wake of its election review, it won’t include any changes to the candidates college or the party’s vetting process.
In a statement to Newsroom, a National Party spokesperson said those were “operational matters and will be worked through and considered fully over the coming months as we prepare to relaunch our candidates college and prepare for candidates’ selections’’.
Learning from National’s lesson
The ACT Party grew from one MP to a caucus of 10 at last year’s election and leader David Seymour told Newsroom that has in part prompted some reviewing of the party’s constitution and selection processes.
“There’s been some pretty harrowing examples from other parties that show we have good people, but that’s perhaps more by good luck than good management, and next time we want it to be by good management,’’ he said.
“We’ll probably be looking at more rigorous scrutiny of candidates and I expect that will involve more testing, interviewing and background checking.
“I think all parties have to lift their game in that regard,’’ Seymour said.
“We had one potential candidate who said, ‘Right what are we doing about 5G?’, and we quietly suggested perhaps he shouldn’t stand for ACT.’’ – David Seymour
The ACT Party runs a school of practical politics ahead of candidates being selected to run at an election.
It’s an opportunity for prospective candidates to “learn about campaigning, politics and the purpose of the party, but also functions as a good opportunity for the party to observe potential candidates in action,’’ Seymour said.
“We had one potential candidate who said, ‘Right what are we doing about 5G?’, and we quietly suggested perhaps he shouldn’t stand for ACT.’’
Currently the party has an informal process for checking potential candidates’ social media history, but Seymour said he’s already been talking to the party president in the last few weeks about formalising that process in the future.
No system is perfect
The checks and balances on candidate selection are much more rigorous than they were 10 years ago, according to Prime Minister and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern.
While the National Party’s problems have brought social media use and vetting processes to the forefront, Ardern told Newsroom Labour’s improvements weren’t driven by “the activities of any other party’’.
“It’s about having a selection process in place that is democratic, but also has a level of scrutiny within it, so if there are issues we can identify them earlier on.’’
In the lead-up to last year’s election campaign, Newshub revealed Kurt Taogaga, who was then ranked 68th on the Labour Party list, had praised a column describing Islam as a “Stone Age religion’’ and its followers as a “sorry pack of misogynist troglodytes from Wogistan’’.
Before entering politics, Taogaga had taken to Twitter in 2013 writing, “We need to see Islam for what it truly is’’.
Labour Party President Claire Szabo moved quickly to remove Taogaga from the party list, saying his views didn’t represent those of the party.
On Tuesday, Ardern acknowledged that was an example of the party’s vetting processes not being “perfect on every occasion’’.
“From time to time if we haven’t tracked back far enough we may miss something – but I think there is certainly more rigour in the system than there was say 10 years ago.’’
The Labour Party periodically takes stock and last year it discussed what social media platforms needed to be considered as part of checks on candidates.
Even social media has its limitations though, as only posts made by potential candidates can be viewed, not comments made on their friends’ pages or posts on other social media accounts.
And while political parties do police vetting, even that will only raise flags where action has been taken.
Seymour says “ultimately it all comes back to character’’.
“Look at Jake Bezzant, he used property that was not his for a purpose he should not have used it for.
“I mean your Grandma tells you that you shouldn’t do that,’’ Seymour said.
In that case, Seymour suggests it’s less about technology, and more about values.