ANALYSIS

Clear gaps have emerged in what the National Party knew about adverse behaviour by rogue MP Jami-Lee Ross and what different parts of the organisation communicated to each other.

It has become clear National Party president Peter Goodfellow had fielded a complaint about Ross at least 18 months ago.

The complaint was heard, Ross was told off and the complainant was offered and accepted a confidentiality agreement.

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Goodfellow said: "Any issues that we were aware of that were raised, were dealt with at the time. We have nothing further to add at this time."

Goodfellow has had nothing further to add since, despite requests for comment.

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Skip forward to October 1, 2018, when National Party leader Simon Bridges said he learned Ross had behaved with women in ways which compelled him to force Ross home on a leave of absence.

He said this week: "Within a day of learning about these things, I confronted Jami-Lee Ross about them and made sure, actually, at the end of all of this, he is no longer part of our caucus."

The discussion about suspending Ross from the National Party caucus happened on October 15 - two weeks after Bridges learned of untoward behaviour.

As it happened, Ross jumped ship even as his former colleagues were meeting.

And caucus met only to discuss him apparently being the person who leaked Bridges' travel expenses - not to talk about his behaviour towards women.

Questions have been sent to Bridges' office in an attempt to reconcile statements that appear to clash with timing and facts.

The questions also ask whether Goodfellow or National Party general manager Greg Hamilton, who also fielded a complaint, ever passed information from the party organisation to the political wing.

There are those inside the party who believe, if it had, then greater caution would have been exercised by those who allowed into their inner circle the young, ambitious MP with access to the huge pools of donor cash in the immigrant Chinese community.

In January 2011, Goodfellow ushered in Ross as National's candidate for Botany, saying: "It was a difficult decision given the very high quality of candidates who put their names forward."

National Party president Peter Goodfellow and wife, Auckland councillor Desley Simpson. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
National Party president Peter Goodfellow and wife, Auckland councillor Desley Simpson. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

He said despite the difficulty, Ross had been chosen.

"The calibre of the nominations underscores real excitement and enthusiasm within the Party as we move into election year."

Goodfellow had a different interaction with Ross after his extreme behaviour in Auckland local politics.

Ross had been campaign manager for the team challenging for re-election to the Howick Community Board, of which wife Lucy Schwaner was an elected member.

Once the victory was secured, Ross switched from supporting the team to backing his wife to be chairwoman.

David Collings, the returning chairman, was stunned. He says Schwaner's attendance over the previous year had barely hit 50 per cent and there was no hint of anyone wanting to challenge.

Collings had hoped and planned to stay chairman. "I didn't expect anything."

The battle for the role quickly turned ugly. Collings called Ross' behaviour intimidating and threatening. It saw one member - a public servant - told of the MP's possible influence over their career.

Another elected member, national politics aspirant Katrina Bungard, was pressured to back Schwaner - then offered political advantage (through so-called political strategist Simon Lusk) if she bowed to Ross' wishes - or trouble is she did not.

Collings was "hearing some really horrific things" so contacted National Party general manager Greg Hamilton.

"(Ross) was being a dickhead and a bit of a prat and I wanted him to stop. Greg said he would have a word with him, but it carried on."

Collings raised it again and received a text from Hamilton saying he had spoken to Ross.

It didn't stop, even though Schwaner failed in her bid for the chair then quit days later.

Bungard, who was involved in the National Party locally, continued to come under pressure.

It's important to realise the imbalance of power which existed. Bungard was an elected member of a small board in the larger Auckland Council, with hopes of one day running for Parliament. She would stand later in 2017 for the Manurewa electorate, lifting the party's share of the vote.

Ross, by contrast, was a member of the National Party board, chief whip and photographed with figures of national standing.

He was the Botany Bagman, whose personal power was accentuated by his ability to funnel cash into party coffers.

The digs, infractions and almost impossible to prove slights took a toll on Bungard. She spoke of seeking medical respite for stress.

Then she turned up at a senior citizen's morning tea only to have Ross' electorate chairman trespass her from the event.

Finally having something concrete, she went to the National Party and complained.

The Herald has been told what happened next deviated from normal practice.

The normal practice, an informed source has explained, would see the board handle the matter. In this case the board included Bill English - and Ross.

Instead, Goodfellow handled the complaint with one other board member. An agreement was mediated and Ross received a clear message Bungard was to be left alone.

Bungard, it is understood, agreed to cloak the complaint in confidentiality. She has no issue in how the party dealt with the matter and considered it did all it could with the evidence available.

It is unknown if English was ever informed of the complaint, or how it was handled, or whether any member of the political wing of the party knew other than Ross.

There is also no evidence the National Party investigated more widely.

These questions, along with the handling, could be clarified if Goodfellow or Hamilton responded to requests for comment.

Ross sailed on through 2017, retained his safe National seat and positioned himself to support Bridges as leader.

He rallied support, cut out the opposition and was rewarded (although apparently not as well as he would like) with a high-ranking position on the party's front bench and the infrastructure and transport portfolios.

Then on October 1, by Bridges' account, there were details which emerged of behaviour later described as "inappropriate".

We know now Bridges discussed complaints from four women with Ross. He told him it could be 15 women - it was a statement Ross classed as a threat from Bridges but which sounded more like a warning.

Whatever it was, Bridges would later class it as so serious it warranted removal from caucus.

Rogue MP Jami-Lee Ross during one of his press conferences this week. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Rogue MP Jami-Lee Ross during one of his press conferences this week. Photo / Mark Mitchell

At the time, this was not how it was presented.

Instead, Bridges told the public on October 2: "In recent days I have been talking with Jami-Lee Ross.

"He has asked for some time away from Parliament to deal with some personal health issues and I have granted him that."

After Ross began to self-destruct, spewing accusations at Bridges, the message changed.

First it was deputy leader Paula Bennett, who said on October 16: "What was put to him was inappropriate behaviour that is unacceptable from a married Member of Parliament."

Then Newsroom published allegations from four women, including those who had relationships with Ross outside marriage.

The Herald then published Bungard's story.

On October 18, faced with evidence of adverse behaviour by Ross, Bridges explained: "I knew nothing before the [Bridges' travel expenses] leak investigation of any of these sorts of things. It's only in very recent weeks."

He said: "Certainly, as soon as I was aware of inappropriate conduct I acted immediately, and right now what that means is that he's out of our caucus."

The statement clashes with the fact Ross quit before he was suspended, or expelled.

It also only emerged after days of maintaining Ross was to be removed for allegedly leaking the travel expenses.

The discrepancies could be answered by Bridges' office but have not been, despite requests.

Also unanswered are questions over whether the National Party president and general manager told Bridges of previous issues with Ross.

Ross - whose statements this week have struggled to meet the facts - told Newstalk ZB: "The president of the National Party Peter Goodfellow and regional chair Andrew Hunt assisted to cover up that issue and keep it quiet."

It also strongly suggests Goodfellow and Hamilton had told Bridges nothing of the issues they had been forced to handle.

National Party leader Simon Bridges faces the media this week, supported by colleagues. Photo / Mark Mitchell
National Party leader Simon Bridges faces the media this week, supported by colleagues. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It is also unknown whether Goodfellow told Bridges' predecessors - Prime Ministers Sir John Key and Sir Bill English, and if so, whether it was they who left the man from Tauranga in the dark.

Dr Bryan Gould is a former British Labour MP, university vice-chancellor, academic and internal political party machinist and strategist.

With 45 years of membership in British and New Zealand Labour parties, he has a view from a particular perspective - but also a lifetime of experience in understanding how politics works.

"It was only when they sought to destroy Jami-Lee Ross' credibility that the public was allowed to see all this."

Confidentiality agreements, Gould says, are "quite Trumpian". "This is what Trump did with his difficulties ... to get people to sign confidentiality agreements."

Not the most striking aspect, says Gould, but it gives an insight into what he sees as the National Party's desire to "shut down" something awkward, or embarrassing.

"He [Ross] was, at that time, a National Party MP of good standing. They wanted to protect him and they wanted to protect the party. At that time, their real concern was to protect themselves from bad publicity."

Gould says he would be amazed if Bridges, or English, had not known of Goodfellow's actions.

"It is inconceivable they would take action or have information they kept from political leaders."

And yet, this is what Bridges has suggested this week. He said he did not know.

There are many gaps in the National Party's chain of events.

As yet, it is refusing to answer questions.