COMMENT:

In the midst of the best week National has had in a long time - exposing failures in the Karel Sroubek immigration decision – the saga of Jami-Lee Ross still lurked.

It raises the question, if Ross is still a distraction while he remains on leave, will it be worse when he gets back or is he losing his impact?

Jami-Lee Ross authorised two events which demanded news attention. First, on Monday was the leak of another private conversation he secretly recorded, this time with leader Simon Bridges and deputy leader Paula Bennett on why he was being forced to take leave from Parliament. And he reached an agreement for New Zealand First to cast his proxy vote while he is away from Parliament.

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Why New Zealand First leader Winston Peters decided to make a captain's call on the matter over the interests of his own party is not clear.

Peters may simply have agreed to it because National refused to exercise the proxy. That is a reflex position for Peters. The fact that it contradicts New Zealand First's trenchant position that MPs who divorce their parties must resign from Parliament was a minor consideration.

It is hypocrisy in the extreme, just as it would be if National chose to trigger the waka-jumping law it vehemently opposed in order to get Ross' seat declared vacant.

Ross has shown he is capable of conducting his campaign to destroy Bridges inside or outside of the National caucus and inside or outside of Parliament.

But returning to work as an independent MP would give him some platforms he doesn't have now, and the protection of parliamentary privilege in the chamber similar in speaking entitlements to Act's David Seymour.

Assuming he returns to Parliament, Ross will get one five-minute speaking slot in the general debate about every 10 sitting weeks, which works out to three or four times a year. In that arena, he could talk about anything.

That is where he will be able to make the most impact if he has anything more meaningful to say than that Simon Bridges is not popular.

He will get one primary question in Question Time every eight sitting weeks, and two supplementary questions every week - which seems exceedingly generous in the circumstances.

He could pick up speaking slots on bills from New Zealand First if it chose to give any away but that would be a step too far for members who are uneasy with the association.

Jami-Lee Ross was expelled from the National caucus after being identified as the likely leaker of Bridges' travel expenses – he resigned simultaneously. How he left is immaterial to the consequences.

He can behave as an independent MP - but if he admits in any written correspondence with the Speaker that he is an independent MP, or if Simon Bridges similarly writes to the Speaker saying so, his Botany seat will be declared vacant and a byelection triggered.

Given the complexity of the problem, the secret recording this week suggests that Bridges and Bennett performed better behind the scenes than they did publicly.

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Such a move could result in protracted and distracting litigation, as happened in Donna Awatere-Huata's case against the Act Party.

The reason National might trigger the waka jumping provisions in the law would be if Jami-Lee Ross' presence at Parliament become intolerable for some people.

Simon Bridges copped a lot of criticism for holding the inquiry into the expenses leak, including from me.

An inquiry seemed at the time an overreaction for an act which may have been a spontaneous act by an MP who may have regretted his or her decision.

In light of the evidence from the inquiry, and Ross' attitude to Bridges that sat behind it, in hindsight it was a sound decision to get to the bottom of it.

Bridges and Bennett have made mistakes. He shouldn't have used the word "embarrassing" when announcing Ross' health leave (unrelated to the leaking) and Bennett shouldn't have moralised over affairs.

But given the complexity of the problem, the secret recording this week suggests that Bridges and Bennett performed better behind the scenes than they did publicly.

Anyone looking for a lesson in how to deal compassionately with someone with mental health issues, need go no further than the this week's recording – which pre-dates the leaking evidence.

There is one truth that persists throughout the 18-minute conversation; they all acknowledge Ross has a real health problem, and Bennett and Bridges insist that he needs proper help and time to get well.

Towards the end, it is as though Ross has forgotten that he was secretly recording them. He shifts from a self–conscious demeanour to distress at his own misfortune. The support he is offered is quite moving.

They smother him in support and repeatedly offer him the prospect of future promotion from what is effectively No 56 in the caucus.

Importantly, though, what is clear from the tape is that they had decided that Jami-Lee Ross was going to be demoted off the front bench whether or not he went on leave for health reasons.

While the health issues were genuine and the concern seemed genuine, he was not being demoted for them.

He was being demoted because Bridges had lost confidence in him due to "disloyalty".

Exactly what comprised that disloyalty is not spelled out and the conversation pre-dated Jami-Lee Ross being identified as the likely leaker.

But the allegations of disloyalty had been itemised at a previous meeting and are thought to have involved repeated bad-mouthing of Bridges to colleagues and undermining his leadership.

Ross was offered a deal he could not refuse at the time: either be demoted and have the leader announce the demotion publicly for disloyalty; or be demoted for disloyalty, take leave to address genuine mental health issues and have the leader only say it was for health reasons.

It was an option that suited both Bridges and Ross. Bridges avoided having to admit one of his most trusted front bench MPs had turned against him and Ross decided it was preferable to have enforced leave for health problems than be demoted for disloyalty.

In the sense that neither of them told the whole story, they were both guilty of hiding the truth.

But it is more a distraction. It does not have the impact a revenging Ross might wish for.