Is the Todd Barclay scandal the National Government's 2017 version of Dirty Politics? Of course there are key differences, but there are also plenty of parallels. Either way, National will be hoping it's a scandal with as little impact on the final election result.
Nicky Hager's 2014 Dirty Politics expose gave the public an important insight into how politics really happens behind the scenes, and the Todd Barclay scandal is a useful refresher.
In Heather du Plessis-Allan's must-read column from the weekend - see 'This rot goes right to the top' - she makes a direct link between the Barclay scandal and what happened in 2014, suggesting it will be a pity if the scandal dies down now, due to Barclay's resignation: "The National Party is a party that knows how to silence a crisis. We saw it in 2014. The party sacrificed then Justice Minister Judith Collins in an attempt to shut down the Dirty Politics questions. Fast forward three years, Judith's back and the questions remain unanswered."
But du Plessis-Allan's main point is that the latest Dirty Politics-style events indicate how serious the machinations have been at the top of the National Party: "We got an insight into how the National Party runs and, folks, it's ugly. There are claims of hush money, claims of interference with a police investigation and claims of a cover up. It's like a plot from House of Cards, minus a murder on the train tracks. Where's the accountability from the Prime Minister? Bill English said Barclay had privately confessed to making the recordings, yet he allowed the junior MP to deny the same fact publicly for a year. Where's the accountability from board member Glenda Hughes who allegedly advised the staffer to withdraw the police complaint? If proven, that seems like obstruction of justice. That comes with a jail term of up to seven years."
In the Herald yesterday, Paul Little also drew direct parallels between the 2014 and 2017 scandals, suggesting that the latest one "did answer one question - whether the sorts of practices Nicky Hager called dirty politics and which its practitioners like to call by the self-romanticising name 'the dark arts' are still part of political culture? You bet. The least reprehensible of these practices is diversion - preventing people from looking at things you don't want them to see" - see: The dark arts are still with us.
Little argues the whole crazy Barclay saga occurred because the young MP was simply operating in line with the culture of his party: "As it is, he can't be blamed for having his own go at dirty politics, because, although for some people that book was the record of a scandal, for others it was a how-to guide."
Political scientist Bronwyn Hayward asserts something similar: "This week raises questions about the prevailing culture within our politics, and especially the National party. Lying, dissembling, concealing the truth, spinning, call it what you like, these are powerful tools of dictators, autocrats, and populists but they also techniques that can undermine democracies" - see: Truth, lies, and democracy.
And she points out that other forms of subterfuge concerning the way National operates in Government have recently come to light: "The Barclay fiasco emerged in the same week as it was confirmed that the former Minister of Trade Tim Groser used New Zealand's GCSB to spy on competitors in his bid for the top job in the World Trade Organisation."
If one of the main lessons of Hager's 2014 book was that opportunism was overtaking principles in how politicians operate, then this has simply been proven again. Newstalk ZB's political editor Felix Marwick writes about this today: "The mess we've seen in the last week is the perfect example of what happens when politicians put politicking and self interest ahead of honesty and integrity. There's simply no other explanation for the astounding level of idiocy that's been on display from all involved" - see: Astounding levels of idiocy in Tapegate scandal.
The extreme attempts to control the political PR - as detailed so well by Hager - seem to be strongly at play again in 2017, and Marwick emphasises that it was this PR-related determination to close down any damage that ultimately made it much worse, leading to a serious erosion of Bill English's public integrity. He says the delay in revealing the problem was critical: "when extra details were revealed it blew the whole gory spectacle wide open. The delay in their reveal makes the earlier actions to sweep the issue under the carpet look even worse. As a result we've see the Prime Minister make a series of changing, and at times conflicting, statements on what he knew, and when, about the matter. In short his credibility, and that of the Government he leads, has been severely tested. The strongest currency any politician can ever have is the truth. They debase it at their peril."
So overall, the public perhaps benefits from a further insight into how politics really works. In this sense, it's worth reading two very good overviews of the story - see: Jane Clifton's The demise of Todd Barclay and all the Gor-r-rey details, and Tracy Watkins' 'This is not how we do things': How National's composure was shattered by the Todd Barclay affair.
The National Government has gone into overdrive in its attempts at spinning this issue. And that probably explains how the prime minister has ended up making the scandal worse in recent days. When politicians are focused on PR instead of just being guided by principles and truth, they can easily make missteps in how they deal with such issues.
Hence, we've seen the spectacle of English giving further life to the scandal, in a rather incoherent fashion. First, in an interview with The Nation broadcast on Saturday, the PM claimed "It's never been established that the alleged incident around the recording actually occurred" - see: 'I'm not a lawyer' - Bill English on Barclay scandal.
And then on Sunday at the National Party conference he took a new line, revealing that "Barclay offered to play him the tape of his electorate agent's conversations last year. English said he did not take up the offer" - see Audrey Young's Bill English says Todd Barclay offered to play him tape.
As Duncan Garner suggests, "The current PM is certainly no John Key when it comes to sprinting backwards, blindfolded, out of a raging inferno without getting so much as singed" - see: In a week of slip-ups and sweatshops, Winston Peters wins.
Garner gives his very negative - yet probably quite correct - assessment of how politicians now operate when it comes to potential bad news: "What I learned in my time at Parliament was two things, sadly sceptical and breathlessly cynical, but this was my experience of a 17-year lag in the place. 1: The truth usually comes out, and 2; an MP's default setting, when under pressure, is to lie."
Of course, the upshot is that the obfuscation and overt spin doctoring repeatedly on display leads the public to want to "drain the swamp" according to Radiolive's Mike Roke: "We are tired. Tired of the lies and the spin that we get day-to-day from the people we have elected to represent our interests. Trump, Brexit, Theresa May's disastrous snap election - what more proof do politicians need to see that the people have had enough?" - see: Politicians like Todd Barclay are why Donald Trump won.
According to Roke, the spin-focused politics and Barclay-type cover-ups mean a new type of politics is necessary: "He is only 27 and was already showing signs of a career liar in the making. Imagine what kind of sociopath he could have become with another couple of decades in the Beehive? As much as I despise the phrase and despise the man who said it even more - let's drain the swamp. Time to get rid of these career politicians. The ones that have been in the game far too long and have forgotten why they are there in the first place. To serve the people of New Zealand. To look out for the best interests of the people in their electorate. Let's get some fresh blood in there. Young minds with fresh ideas that aren't there for the money, cars, travel and benefits. Fresh ideas to fix up the absolute mess the 'experienced' politicians have left us in with housing, immigration, water etc."
Dirty Politics inside the National Party
The Barclay scandal also helps illustrate some of the internal National Party machinations and in-fighting that the public wouldn't normally be aware of. After all, at the centre of this scandal was a war going on between, not just one MP and one staff member, but also between wider factions, officials and agendas.
The most interesting new aspect in this regard is revealed in Melanie Reid's latest must-read Newsroom article, Barclay affair: What the board knew. This deals with some of the attempts that were made within the local Clutha-Southland National Party branch to get Barclay de-selected, and also some of the involvement of the National Party's president and board members.
Apparently, prior to Barclay's reselection as the National candidate in December last year, local activists made the party president and board aware of why they regarded the MP an inappropriate representative. According to Reid, "The National Party President Peter Goodfellow and its board allowed Todd Barclay to be selected as a candidate for the upcoming election despite knowing he was clearly unsuitable to be an MP." She says that "In total, the board received at least nine letters outlining Barclay's unsuitability as an MP."
And for more on the involvement of key National board member Glenda Hughes, see Bernard Hickey's Hughes stonewalls Dickson questions. This report from the National Party's weekend conference, also tells of how Barclay's retirement was dealt with: "Retiring MPs were welcomed onto the stage to receive a gift from English. Barclay was not present and when his name was read out, he was the only one who was not applauded by the conference."
The division between Barclay's supporters and opponents in Clutha-Southland also seems to be replicated in the wider party and caucus - and today Richard Harman explains: "There is considerable sympathy for Barclay both within the caucus and around the party board table where some people were familiar with the persistent series of allegations levelled against him by the so-called 'evil six' group of Clutha-Southland party members who opposed him being the MP. That group is said to have been close to English when he was the Clutha-Southland MP" - see: The Barclay issue unravels - attention turns to English.
Also writing about these divisions, Rob Hosking says, "At an electorate level, there is clearly a divided Clutha-Southland party organisation, and some of this division is symbolic of a wider division within the National Party. You can characterise it in crude terms as the division between Queenstown and Dipton: between the wealthy and somewhat flashy new arrivals into the district and the more traditionalist farmers and rural service parts of the National Party coalition" - see: Nats' internal scars could bite worse than Barclay.
And there's another "Dirty Politics" dimension to these divisions, with supporters of Barclay tending to be close to the Judith Collins faction in caucus. Unsurprisingly, then, Cameron Slater has been blogging in Barclay's favour and against Bill English. As Mike Williams says, at the time that Barclay's scandal started unfolding, "The National Party factions were by this time leaking like sieves, as anyone who consults the Whale Oil blog will discover" - see: Tough week for two political leaders.
If you do consult Cameron Slater's blog today, you will find posts like HDPA on the Bill's balls up. In this post, Slater aims squarely at the Prime Minister: "It's not over yet. There is disquiet amongst the backbench, serious disquiet. Ministers are also speaking in hushed tones, and these are ministers you'd never have thought would speak against the leadership so wedded they were to John Key and then to Bill English. Bill English has lost control of his caucus, with many thinking that if he is prepared to get involved in local electorate petty grievances and let his personal animosity cloud his thinking then perhaps he shouldn't really be leader much less Prime Minister. The rumblings are there, they will spill over if this ends up before the Privileges Committee. The fact that Bill English can't shut up, and every time he opens his gob he adds more intrigue suggests his time might be up one of the other. The media smell blood, and they know Bill is lying. It is not going to end well."
Finally, for satire on the scandal, see Steve Braunias' Secret Diary of Todd Barclay.