COMMENT: Could Simon Bridges' political year again be dominated by Jami-Lee Ross? Don't rule it out.
The rogue MP's impact on politics in 2018 was immense and the many issues raised by him – advertently or not – haven't gone away. And nor has he, despite going quiet over the last month.
The Jami-Lee Ross mega-scandal was the biggest political drama of last year and featured prominently in the end-of-year politics wrap-ups.
For example, Stuff's political editor Tracy Watkins scored his performance last year as 1/10 – see my column from Wednesday, NZ's worst performing politicians.
A huge impact on the year in politics
Although no one dubbed Ross the "politician of the year", he was certainly acknowledged as the top newsmaker of the year, for plunging New Zealand politics – or at least the National Party – into chaos and bewilderment.
Newshub political editor Tova O'Brien named Ross as performing the "best political move of the year" in his "kamikaze efforts" at Parliament – see Alice Webb-Liddall and Tova O'Brien's Political superlatives 2018: Tova O'Brien reviews the political year.
According to O'Brien, his efforts were "unprecedented", and "the way it was all done was absolutely mind-boggling".
Likewise, 1 News political editor Jessica Mutch McKay said Ross' revelations were "the biggest moment of the year" – see her four-minute evaluation of the year: From Jami-Lee Ross to baby Neve – 1News political editor takes a look back at 2018.
In another summary of the scandals of 2018, 1 News explained why Ross' downfall was important: "The news maker of 2018 dropped a nuclear bomb on his National Party leader Simon Bridges in October, after returning from 'leave', by revealing a huge falling out with Mr Bridges, that he was being fingered as the leaker of Mr Bridges' expenses, that he was innocent and that he'd taped phone calls with Mr Bridges and had plenty of dirt ready to dish out… When National later revealed Mr Ross was originally on leave after claims of harassment against females, Mr Ross admitted to adultery and disappeared from Parliament, taking off the final months of the political year on sick leave" – see: 2018 in review: Five who fell from grace.
Stuff's irreverent list of The best and the rest: Stuff's 2018 political awards includes four awards relating to the Ross drama, including "Quote of the Year" (Simon Bridges: "Maureen Pugh is f.....g useless"), and "The Best Shakespearean dramatist award: Jami-Lee Ross, the Brutus of the National caucus".
In the Listener, Jane Clifton awarded Ross "The Sir Geoffrey Palmer Prize for Not Taking Oneself Seriously Enough", explaining: "The long-time whip went postal after he was denied the jobs of chief party pollster, campaign manager and leader of the House. He only got promoted to the front bench. Being a modest, unassuming sort, he took this oversight in good part. Until he didn't."
According to the Herald's Steve Braunias, "JLR was an artist. He left all of us wanting more; he gave us so much, and yet he left so much to the imagination. The day of his epic 53-minute press conference was the central event of the ongoing JLR farce but the events leading up to it were also a rich comedy."
In his end-of-year Secret diary of 2018 Braunias declared: "With the limited power invested in me as New Zealand's longest-serving newspaper satirist (the Secret Diary, honking its rubber hooter since 2009), I hereby knight him for his services to satire in 2018."
Did the Jami-Lee Ross mega-scandal matter?
Some end-of-year commentaries have suggested that the whole drama ended up amounting to very little, when all was said and done.
Newstalk ZB's Heather du Plessis-Allan wrote: "Let's be honest. Few of us will remember the events of this year even this time next year. Most of us will have to Google Jami-Lee Ross to remember exactly what he did. It's easy, when you follow politics almost too closely, to get engrossed in the scandals and controversies. But, really, they are blips on the radar screens of history" – see: What a year that was.
Similarly, RNZ's Guyon Espiner concluded that in the end, Politics wasn't all scandal and leaks this year. He argued, "The Jami-Lee Ross rupture was explosive. But when the ash and smoke cleared the damage was limited."
Two commentators from The Spinoff website declared the whole affair a "flop". Alex Braae said: "Specifically the tapes that he claimed were evidence of corruption. They didn't sound good, and corruption might be going on, but the tapes didn't show that." And Simon Day: "What initially felt like quite an exciting moment in New Zealand politics was ultimately sad and quite gross."
But for a strong argument for why the issues arising out of the Jami-Lee Ross scandal continue to be relevant, it's worth reading journalist Graham Adams' very good column Strange lessons of 2018: What goes on when we're not looking. In this he celebrates Ross as the "most prominent stirrer of the year", and he bemoans that "he is never referred to by the media as a whistleblower".
Adams suggests the reluctance of the media to give credence to all of Ross' allegations quite possibly springs from the close relationships that journalists have with politicians.
In terms of the issues Ross raised, Adams says "he has given us valuable insights into how Chinese money may be corrupting our politics and how political donations can be disguised to hide their source". He also argues that this focus led to the media giving more attention to the situation and the scholarship of Anne-Marie Brady, who had spoken out on similar issues.
In his end-of-year column, John Tamihere also saw merit in the issues raised, because it helped the public understand the realities of how politics works: "The Jami-Lee Ross saga exposed the true underbelly of politics — both from a party frame and from a parliamentary frame. Most people vow to protect the party brand. Jami-Lee Ross chose not to, and disclosed what a good time some MPs have with one another in Wellington" – see: Marking the Government's cards.
Writing at The Spinoff, Max Harris also concluded the scandal was important: "That saga revealed distrust and suspicion in the Party, and some disquiet about Simon Bridges' leadership, but it also revealed a failure to take seriously enough sexual harassment and bullying (a cultural problem that no doubt exists more broadly within New Zealand political and corporate culture)."
John Armstrong's end-of-year column focused more on the Jami-Lee Ross scandal than anything else. He labelled it a "political horror story to beat all political horror stories", and declared "Ross' clandestine taping of his phone conversations with a supposed close friend and political ally" to incriminate him as "a new low in the handbook of dirty tricks" – see: Like him or loathe him, Shane Jones delivered big time in a drama, intrigue-filled 2018.
Armstrong had some concluding questions: "Did Ross exploit public sympathy for his suffering mental health issues? Did he blame his ailment for his actions? Did he use his medical condition as a shield to hide behind and to handicap how Bridges was able to respond to his treachery?"
What happens next in the Jami-Lee Ross saga?
Right from the start, the Ross saga has been extremely difficult to chart. It has also been very difficult to forecast where it will go.
But there seems no reason to believe that the story has come to an end. Bill Ralston's latest column in The Listener predicts more drama: "You can reasonably assume his return to the House will result in a steady drip, if not a torrent, of further embarrassing leaks and accusations about his former boss. This will serve to further destabilise Bridges' already wobbly leadership" – see: Grab your popcorn, there's plenty more political drama to come.
Some commentators are expecting the National Party to use the newly-passed "waka-jumping law" to expel their former colleague from Parliament, thereby forcing a byelection. The Stuff parliamentary gallery journalists have included this as one of their predictions for the year: "National will trigger the waka jumping bill to remove Jami-Lee Ross from Parliament after he becomes a thorn in their side following his return to Parliament".
But National Party blogger David Farrar has responded to this, saying "Whether it gets triggered will depend on what JLR does when he returns." And Bridges still sounds unenthusiastic about using the law, reminding the public in December that his party "voted against this law" and "There is politics but there's also principle, we think it is a bad law" – see 1 News' Colmar Brunton poll: Should Simon Bridges boot Jami-Lee Ross from Parliament using waka jumping law?
This article reports a survey in which "44 per cent of those asked said Mr Bridges should remove Mr Ross from Parliament using the new law. Twenty-four per cent disagreed, and 31 per cent did not know."
Of course, there are plenty of other ongoing elements relating to the Jami-Lee Ross saga to watch out for this year: the police investigation into Ross' allegations about breaches of donation disclosure laws, whether the media name the National MP who Ross reportedly had a three-year affair with, and National's own internal review into its culture.
Finally, for Steve Braunias' satire relating to the whole saga, see: Secret Diary of Jami-Lee Ross 1 ; Secret Diary of Jami-Lee Ross 2; Secret Diary of Judith Collins and Secret Diary of Simon Bridges.