By ETHAN GRIFFITHS and AZARIA HOWELL

This week played host to what could well be one of the biggest scandals in New Zealand politics in the last ten years, and likely the biggest political fallout between two politicians of the same party in over thirty, and it’s all due to disgruntled former National MP Jami-Lee Ross. The storm has been months, even years in the making, and all started with a leak to the media proving that National Party leader Simon Bridges spent over $113k of taxpayer money in just a few months. What has followed has seemed to be nothing but disparity, shock and a prime example of dirty, dirty politics.

What kicked it all off?

Earlier this year on August 13th, an anonymous source gave insight to Newshub that National Leader Simon Bridges spent over $113,000 of taxpayer money in just a few months. The public was outraged by the alleged big spending by the MP, but Bridges defended the rather large expenses bill by telling media he’s been “working incredibly hard to get out and around New Zealand regionally.”

After the extensive public outrage and the disparity in the National Party caucus due to the leak, Bridges welcomed an investigation proposed by speaker Trevor Mallard into who leaked the expenses, which lead to one of the largest political “whodunnits” we’ve ever seen. On August 16th, the National Party leader received a text from the anonymous leaker, pleading for the investigation to be called off due to mental health concerns. Bridges consulted with the police and the Speaker of the House on how to best approach the issue.

After the Speaker’s investigation was called off because of the text, the National Party announced that they would be conducting their own investigation into who the leaker of the expenses was, hiring two law firms to help out with the job. From the point until the leaker was revealed, rumours and allegations surfaced of various MPs and staff across the parliament who could be held responsible for the leak. No one knew for sure until 2pm on Monday, the 15th of October.

What’s happened this week?

Monday

On Monday, Simon Bridges sent an email to the media, informing them that the results of the investigation into who leaked his expenses would be announced at a press conference at 2 pm. Everyone expected a “we know who it is but won’t tell you” answer from Bridges, but that was far from what we got. Only minutes before Bridges was about to front a huge pack of media, National MP for Botany, Jami-Lee Ross who was on sick leave, tweeted that Simon was about to “pin the leak” on him and that he wasn’t actually the leaker. Not only did he deny being the leaker, but he also came out saying that Simon Bridges had broken the law, by filing a ‘false electoral return’, a serious crime for an MP, and could carry a prison sentence of two years.

Simon Bridges looked baffled at his 2 pm press conference, but alongside his deputy, Paula Bennett, remained calm and collected. He strongly denied any of what Jami-Lee Ross was alleging, and at that point, no one really had any details on what the allegations were, other than what was in the tweets. Simon Bridges said his caucus (all the National MPs) would meet and decide the future of Jami-Lee Ross in the party. He didn’t rule out completely expelling him from the party, or just a suspension. The ball was now in Jami-Lee’s court before the 11 am caucus meeting the next day, to prove if he had dirt on Bridges or not.

National Party caucus, fronted by Simon Bridges & Paula Bennett. National Party/Facebook

Tuesday

Everyone woke up Tuesday morning eagerly rushing to check Jami-Lee Ross’ Twitter feed, to see if he had elaborated on what he had said yesterday. There was none of that, but by 12:30 pm, he had tweeted that he would “talk to media” at a specific location in Parliament at 1 pm. Everyone was desperately awaiting arguably the most anticipated press conference of the year, and by exactly 1pm, an extremely sleep-deprived and stressed Ross arrived to give a long speech he printed off at Warehouse Stationary minutes earlier, that he’d typed that morning after driving nine hours from Auckland to Wellington to avoid media staked-out at the airport. 

Jami-Lee Ross. Jami-Lee Ross/Facebook

The press conference was a bomb, detonated right then and there, scorching the faces of every political reporter at Parliament. In the press conference, Jami-Lee called Simon Bridges “corrupt” and said he’d broken the law. He said that Bridges had falsified sexual harassment allegations against him in an attempt for him to step down from parliament, and he said that leader Simon Bridges was not fit for public office, let alone leading National. He topped it all off by saying he officially quits from the National Party and Parliament, which forces a by-election in his Auckland electorate of Botany. He said he’d stand in the by-election, which he called “a referendum on Simon Bridges’ leadership”. It was seriously explosive. He left the press conference, telling members of the media he had secret recordings of Simon Bridges admitting to the allegation of filing a false electoral return, and said he would be laying an official police complaint against Simon Bridges. Simon Bridges was still in his caucus meeting at this point, and he was expected to hold a press conference directly after. He promised to release a recording of a phone conversation between him and Bridges the next day, after he had given it to the police.

Simon emerged thirty minutes later, announcing that the caucus had unanimously voted to expel Jami-Lee from the party. That didn’t matter – Jami-Lee had already quit. Simon once again said that Jami-Lee had no evidence to back up his claims, and denied any wrong-doing whatsoever. He exclaimed he had the full support of his caucus, and would remain National Party leader, despite the media blowing hot air claiming he would step down. Once again – the ball was back in Ross’ court. Did he or did he not have dirt on Simon?

Wednesday

Wednesday proved to be an important day in the political boxing match between Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges, with strong punches being thrown from both directions. Ross decided to take the secret recording of Bridges, and other evidence proving he had tried to commit electoral fraud, to the Wellington Police. The media swarmed outside of the police station, hurriedly writing questions to ask Ross when he returned from his meeting with the police. As it turns out, Ross was in the police station for over two hours, and when he came out, promised the public that he would release a recording of a phone call between Bridges and himself as evidence, and ensured there was more to be leaked along the way. Former MP Jami-Lee Ross told the New Zealand public on Wednesday that the police would look into his complaint and the evidence against Bridges.

Becoming “trending” on Twitter is seemingly a daily routine for some better-known politicians, but Wednesday proved to be Jami-Lee Ross’ moment in the spotlight as the New Zealand public kept a keen eye on his social media accounts for news about the recordings and other evidence he promised. Being a man of his word, Ross released the recordings of a phone call between National Party leader Simon Bridges, which was interesting, to say the least.

The phone call, released on Ross’ Facebook and Twitter accounts and shared by social media users thousands of times, showed how the National Leader acted when (he thought) no one was watching. In the recording, Bridges spoke of National MPs who “don’t really need to hang around” including Christchurch based MP Nicky Wagner, former Speaker of the House David Carter, and former Attorney-General Chris Finlayson. By far the worst comment about National MPs who should leave the house to make space for other candidates was about West Coast list MP Maureen Pugh, who the National Leader called “f**king useless.” Apart from that, the recording didn’t actually hold any substance and didn’t show Simon Bridges had broken any electoral law, something which Jami-Lee Ross said it did. 

National MP Maureen Pugh – Maureen Pugh/Facebook

Pugh stood by the National Leader, but said she was “obviously disappointed” to hear what Simon had to say about her. In a tweet around 7:30 PM on Wednesday, she said: “Simon has apologised and I have accepted that.” In interviews with the media, National MPs have stood by their leader, saying that the comments he made were inappropriate, but that he was hard-working and determined.

The recordings also hinted at possible racism, with Bridges treating ethnic MPs like trading cards by saying “two Chinese would be nice, but would it be one Chinese or one Filipino? What do we do?” The comments sparked outrage from Indian and Chinese communities, with many people calling the comments racist and offensive.

Thursday

Thursday was arguably the most difficult day this week for Jami-Lee, who has kept an extremely low profile and hasn’t responded to any queries from the media. Early this morning, journalist Melanie Reid at Newsroom broke a story she’s been working on for six months. The story details the experiences of four women who had affairs with Jami-Lee, and goes into detail about his toxic relationships with centered around serious harassment and information extortion. Later Thursday evening, RNZ reported that another woman had been sexually harassed by Ross, and National Party President Peter Goodfellow brokered a confidentiality agreement between Ross and the victim, in an attempt to stop the harassment claims ever going public. This puts Jami-Lee in an uncomfortable position trying to claim his former boss broke the law, while at the same time being accused by multiple women of harassment, while also leading up to a by-election campaign. It’s extremely messy.

Back to Jami-Lee’s dirt, it seems that he hasn’t broken his promise of releasing more evidence that the National Party tried to sneakily hide and split up a large donation, but the question is, how solid actually is the evidence? On Thursday, the former MP released text messages between himself and National Party General Manager Greg Hamilton. In a statement to the media regarding the texts, Jami-Lee Ross said “the National Party knew about the legality issues with the donation back in September.” According to legal experts and the media,  the text messages were not complete proof that a crime occurred, and there would need to be more evidence to charge Simon Bridges with filing a false electoral return. Jami-Lee Ross has promised that more evidence is on its way, but we can’t exactly trust his judgment, considering he made the promise that both of what he’s already released had incriminating evidence.

So where does this leave us?

At the moment, no one really knows. Chances are, Jami-Lee Ross has a lot more supposed evidence up his sleeve, including more recordings and texts messages that he could slowly release. There’s also a possibility that the allegations of harassment that surfaced today could cause him to dig a hole and hide, possibly not even standing the in the by-election he created. As for the National Party, there are now serious doubts surrounding Simon Bridges’ leadership. He’s had one of his closest MPs turn against him, and he’s called one of them “f**king useless’ and mentioned that three of his most experienced should resign, so how long is it before another one spits the dummy? There’s also the chance he could be charged with filing a false electoral return, which almost guarantees his caucus rolling him if he doesn’t resign before they get the chance. Almost every single political commentator in the country is calling on Simon Bridges to step down, saying he has almost no chance of winning the 2020 election. What is for certain, however, is that this gigantic storm has seriously tarnished Simon’s reputation as leader, and as the burns from this bomb slowly fade away, chances are it won’t be long before a thermo-nuclear one is dropped, and there’ll be no turning back.

 

ETHAN GRIFFITHS is TEARAWAY’s Political Editor. Young, passionate and a wannabe babysitter for Jacinda’s baby, Ethan won’t stop talking about politics. Likes a bit of cricket, wearing trendy ties and is in love with Jeff the purple wiggle. @KiwiEthan

AZARIA HOWELL is a huge politics nerd living in Christchurch. She also loves snowboarding, Beagles, and wearing clunky boots. @MakeAzariaGreatAgain

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