Selwyn Manning is the founding editor of Scoop, The Daily Blog and is now editor at Evening Report. He was a press secretary in the Helen Clark Government and one of New Zealand’s most respected political commentators. His investigation into the sectioning of Jami-Lee Ross raises serious and dark questions that require immediate analysis.
Accusations have surfaced alleging the current National Party leadership conspired to politically destroy Jami-Lee Ross – this after details of his affair with a fellow party MP became known to them. The allegations raise serious questions. Those questions include: what did National’s leader and deputy leader know and when did they find out?
A sworn-to timeline of events is now essential so that the public interest can be satisfied. This must be a crucial element that is cemented in to the methodology of Simon Bridges’ inquiry into the culture of the National Party. Above all, it must be independent and publicly accessible.
The inquiry must examine the National leadership team’s actions and culture, test whether they acted in a proper and timely manner, and assess whether their actions considered a concern for the welfare and mental health of an MP they had previously supported, promoted, and embedded within their leadership team.
It follows that allegations suggesting a “hit job” was orchestrated from inside the National Party leadership must also be independently explored.
If the inquiry finds that either the leader, or deputy leader, was part of a destructive and inhumane attack on Jami-Lee Ross – while it was known that he was at high risk of being pushed over the edge, was ill, and verging on suicide – and that they acted without reasonable regard for his welfare, then it must be accepted by the National Party caucus, its membership and the public, that this National leadership team is at the very least morally bankrupt.
This inquiry ought to be conducted amidst a background whereby Ross declared his role in the destructive side of politics; following the orders of Sir John Key, Bill English, Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges. Ross was afterall a ‘numbers man’ for Bridges, and benefitted from the patronage that the Bridges-Bennett leadership team offered.
There are a number of ‘ifs’ in this analysis, but the public interest demands that they be considered.
The allegations have surfaced on the blog-site Whaleoil which is owned and edited by controversial writer Cameron Slater.
Some may dismiss the allegations on the basis of tribalism, or ignore the allegations because Slater was centrally involved in National’s so called Dirty Politics as revealed in 2014. But the nature of the allegations are as serious as they get in politics, and, if accurate played a part in the sudden deterioration of Jami-Lee Ross’ mental health, the sectioning of Ross for his own protection, and the erasion of credibility of a potential political opponent who was determined to continue as a critical member of New Zealand’s Parliament.
This analysis’ argument suggests any such bias, on behalf by Cameron Slater’s opponents, ought to be ethically and morally put aside until such a time as the truth and facts are tested. Such an inquiry, preferably judicial but essentially independent, must be robust and critical in its analysis.
To reiterate; numerous elements of this saga elevate the issues to a matter of serious public interest.
And it must be noted at this juncture, that the party’s leader Simon Bridges insists he has acted appropriately and denies taking part in any political “hit job”.
Let’s examine what Evening Report has learned from contacts close to events.
Alleged details of events between Saturday-Sunday October 20-21
There is a txt-chain of events that investigators can forensically examine that are central to understanding who was involved in the sectioning of Jami-Lee Ross.
If the txts are examined they will determine if it is fact that the National Party MP, with whom Jami-Lee Ross had a three-year affair, rang the Police and that as a consequence of that call the Police used mental health laws to take Jami-Lee Ross into custody and contain him within the mental health unit at Counties Manukau Health.
Txts will also show whether it is fact that the female MP then called Simon Bridges’ chief of staff at 9:15pm on Saturday October 20 informing him of the events. If so Bridges’ office was aware of an alleged suicide attempt. Investigators would then be able to assess whether a txt message from Jami-Lee Ross’ psychologist, who Evening Report understands messaged Jami-Lee Ross at 9:28pm on Saturday October 20, asking if he was ok, and that the psychologist had minutes prior received a txt message from Jamie Gray, Simon Bridges’ chief of staff.
It is a matter of public record that Simon Bridges appeared on NewsHub’s AM Show on Tuesday October 23, denying all knowledge of events on the Saturday night – that is until a wider grouping within the National Party became privy to what had happened to Jami-Lee Ross.
It appears reasonable to form an opinion that Bridges’ chief of staff would have informed the leader of such an event. If he didn’t, why didn’t he inform Bridges?
The sectioning of Jami-Lee Ross ended a week where many National Party MPs, and a wider network of those loyal to the party, appeared to be actively orchestrating a coordinated campaign to destroy the so-called rogue MP’s political chances and to discredit his claims of corruption within the National Party leadership. Had Jami-Lee Ross abused his position as the senior whip within the party? It certainly appears so. Did he abuse the power he was afforded? Media reports would suggest this was so. Did he have an affair with at least two women? Yes. But it appears that the public attacks began, not at the time when senior members of the party were informed of Ross’ actions, but, once Ross began to attack the leadership. This is significant.
An Opposition’s Role As The Public’s Advocate
As senior representatives of New Zealand’s Legislature, leader Simon Bridges and deputy leader Paula Bennett can arguably be regarded as the public’s advocates within Parliament. Their job is to keep the Executive Government on its toes, challenge its policy and rationale, to be Parliament’s keepers of the public’s interest.
As such, the public deserves to know if the leaders, as a team or individually, conspired to destroy the political chances of an MP and former colleague, who they considered to have gone rogue, and who they knew was suffering a crisis of mental health so serious that it could have ended in death.
It is in consideration of the public interest, that this editorial is written.
We now know as fact, Jami-Lee Ross had a three year affair with a South Island-based National MP.[name withheld]. Like him, she has two children and was married.
While the affair was going ‘well’, contacts inside the National Party have told Evening Report that Jami-Lee encouraged Bridges to promote his lover above her standing and reputation in caucus, well above some high profile MPs like National’s Chris Bishop who are respected among colleagues and media and seen to have been doing their job well. The promotion was seen to give leverage, to sure up the numbers to stabilise Bridges’ and Bennett’s leadership team at a time when they sensed support was delicate.
Meanwhile, Jami-Lee Ross continued to pull in big donations from wealthy Chinese residents in his Botany electorate. As a reward, Bridges embedded him into his inner core, the top three. Politically, this is really an unsound move by a political leader. With Ross being senior whip, he is supposed to be directed by the leader to pull MPs into line, to do the leader’s bidding, and to do this without necessarily knowing the deep and dark details underlying the leader’s moves.
In effect, with Jami-Lee Ross becoming a central figure, knowing all the details, the dirt, the strategy and tactics, it centralised too much power into the whip position and elevated a real danger of a whip using the position for his own gain. To reiterate, this appears a seriously stupid move of Bridges and Bennett to pull a whip in on their machinations. And, in a significant contact’s view, it appears they risked this because Jami-Lee was pulling in the donor money.
Jami-Lee Ross had been on the rise for a time. Former Prime Minister John Key promoted him to the whips office. Then PM Bill English secured Ross’s rise by maintaining and elevating his whip role. Bridges and Bennett further empowered Jami-Lee Ross by cementing him into the whip position, a move that suggested National’s power-politicians were well satisfied with his service.
It’s hard to tell how far back it was when Jami-Lee Ross began to record Bridges. And, at this juncture, it’s difficult to know if he recorded Bennett as well. The public is left to fathom whether it was when his affair with the National MP went sour and perhaps Ross sensed Bennett having become close to her.
In any event, when Jami-Lee Ross fell out with his colleague and lover, sources say Bennett played a crucial role in the analysis of his conduct, in particular women who had allegedly been burned by Ross. Two women, contacts inside National state, were staff of the National Party leader. The MP (whom Ross had a three-year affair with) and the two staff members are said by National Party contacts to be the subject of NewsRoom.co.nz’s investigation into Ross’ activities, an investigation that is believed to have spanned up to one year in duration. Evening Report raises this aspect as the public interest demands to consider whether it is reasonable to believe that two staffers in the leader’s office never told nor informed Bridges, or the chief of staff, that they were cooperating in a media investigation into the leader’s chief and senior whip?
Contacts state that Bennett gained the women’s confidence, received information so it could be prepared as part of a disciplinary process. Did Bennett choose to engage media with this information? If so, once media received the information, what involvement did the deputy leader have or continue to have, or engage with, the complainants and media?
Sources inside National state Bennett then seeded info about Jami-Lee Ross having had an affair. They point to her having hinted at behaviour unbecoming of a married member of Parliament during an interview before TV, radio and print journalists. Did she do this without Bridges knowing or being forewarned.
If true, in effect, this would have driven the narrative ahead of the leader. If so, it is reasonable to fathom that a senior politician would know Bridges would be forced to defend the character-attack campaign that appeared orchestrated and designed to destroy Ross. Amidst the firestorm, National MP Maggie Barry spoke out against Ross with significant indignation. This will have been digested by the public that National had expelled a human predator from its midst. It also gave the impression National’s female caucus members were unified. However, respected MP Nikki Kaye kept out of it. Why?
Next, Bridges was forced to field political journalists’ questions about breaking the old convention that you keep affairs and family issues under the covers.
Bridges was then compelled to inform media that he had “told off” his deputy leader for giving credence that an affair had been ongoing between Ross and a Nat MP. This made Bridges look even weaker.
The future of National’s leadership
National Party contacts suggest Bridges is positioned where he will be forced to absorb the political fallout for what is seen by some as a character assassination campaign gone wrong. One contact states that once Bridges is rendered useless, and the issue dies down, Bennett herself will be well positioned to remove Bridges as leader in 2019.
It is reasonable to form an opinion that senior National MP Judith Collins will also be available if the leadership were to fall vacant. Her popularity is again on the rise.
At this juncture, for Bridges and Bennett, it appears wise for them to expect more National Party dirt to emerge before the end of the year. Evening Report’s sources say: “ample dirt lingers just below the surface.”
For a party that once stated it had no factions, it certainly seems its personality factions are now in all-out political warfare.
Judith Collins’ star has been rising since she returned to the front-bench in opposition. And it has been bolstered by a favourable Colmar Brunton Poll. It’s fair to suggest she has laid heavy hits on Labour’s Housing Minister Phil Twyford. As a consequence, her standing within the caucus has improved. On investigation, it is clear she has not had the loyalty of Jami-Lee Ross since he was promoted by John Key. He, along with Mark Mitchell, then supported Bill English for the leadership. Bennett and Mitchell are politically close. It does appear that moves by some media to connect Jami-Lee Ross’ revelations with a Judith Collins plan as not based on fact.
While there’s an expectation among interested public that Collins will be the next leader, she will need the support of what’s left of National’s social conservatives and those loyal to Nikki Kaye.
For Collins to succeed, she will have to be seen to inoculate the party from damaging information that may be in the possession of Jami-Lee Ross. All the while, she, like Bennett, needs Bridges to continue to fail as a leader.
It is fair to accept, the recordings and damaging information are now with Cam Slater and Simon Lusk. It is also reasonable to suggest that Bridges is a disappointment to some who once supported his bid for leadership. Cam Slater is clearly appalled at what he refers to as a “hit job”.
Slater is adamant that he is not motivated by an agenda, nor by a pitch by a fiscal conservative faction to gain leadership of the National party. Rather he said, he is motivated to help an old friend who the current leadership moved to destroy. He added on his blog-site, if the current leadership continues “to lie” he will continue to reveal the truth.
Meanwhile, Jami-Lee Ross is being reassured and cared for by a mutual friend of his and Slater’s who is a pastor with the Seventh Day Adventists.
Contacts say, with regard to Jami-Lee Ross and his National Party former lover and colleague, the three year affair was a relationship that in the end didn’t deliver what either banked on – despite promotions and connections and having benefitted politically from their association.
It’s fair to say, Jami-Lee Ross was out of his experiential depth and in part abusive from the point of view of how to handle political power, networks and consensual relationships.
Two other women who laid complaints about Ross, worked in the leader’s office.
Bridges is adamant he didn’t know about the abuse of power nor the complaints. Did Bennett know? At what point was she privy to the information?
One National Party contact said: “It defies reasonable belief that Bridges didn’t know.”
It is right that Bridges has initiated an inquiry into National’s culture. But that in itself falls short or what the public interest demands. Why? Because the inquiry reports back to Bridges, who as leader may well be one of the protagonists. Also, the report will not be released to the public which leaves it as a golden prize, the holy grail, for any journalist and, irrespective of who it damns or exonerates, will become a currency for any MP with leadership ambitions.
As it now stands, Bridges’ worst nightmare must be not knowing what Jami-Lee Ross recorded and at what point did he begin taping the National Party leader’s conversations.
If those recordings contain further embarrassing or damaging content and references, then he will be finished as leader. Bridges, as leader, even if he has a clear conscience, must be wracking his memory as to past conversations and comments while knowing the conversations may be in the hands of people with whom he has lost their trust.
And the question remains unanswered: Was Paula Bennett recorded as well?
If her actions are found by inquirers to have led an orchestrated political response to Jami-Lee Ross’ revelations, whether that be at the behest or otherwise of the current leader, then this will destroy any higher ambitions that she may have ever contemplated.
It follows, that if the report concludes that the rot inside National extends to its current leadership, then it may well be that Judith Collins will become the leader of the National Party, unopposed.
Whatever the future holds for the National Party, it is in everyone’s interests that an independent judicial investigation into this National affair be conducted in a spirit of openness and propriety.
Footnote: Interview between the author and Jami-Lee Ross on his role as a new National Party MP (August 13 2012):