It was a week to contemplate responsibility and observe how two of our political leaders took very different approaches to the matter of blame when things went wrong.

Bill English ducked for cover when the Todd Barclay scandal came to a head this week.

Todd Barclay, who succeeded Bill English as Member of Parliament for the National-held seat of Clutha-Southland, is the youngest member of our Parliament and was elected in 2014 at age 24.

Like all MPs, he employed electorate agents and as a constituency MP with a sprawling electorate he was allocated three.


My experience is that friction between MPs and their staff members is not uncommon and the employer of these people, Parliamentary Services, has a smooth severance path when an MP wants to get rid of an employee.

Mr Barclay obviously fell out badly with one such electorate agent, Glenys Dickson, who was a holdover from Bill English's time as the MP.

Although Mr Barclay seems to have had friends amongst established National MPs, no one told him that removing an electorate agent wasn't difficult and that a declaration of something like irreconcilable differences was about all that would be needed for Parliamentary Services to write a severance cheque.

This obvious approach wasn't taken and what seems to have begun as a clash between the MP and Glenys Dickson descended into ferocious factional fighting, leading to a challenge to Mr Barclay for the National Party nomination for Clutha-Southland.

Mr Barclay survived this challenge but the problems festered.

Somewhere during this process, he left a dictaphone machine running and allegedly recorded Glenys Dickson criticising him.

Recording someone's conversation without their knowledge when you are not part of the exchange is a crime punishable by two years in jail, and a police investigation began.

Section 216B of the Crimes Act is quite explicit about this.


Somehow Bill English got involved and Glenys Dickson received a large severance payment, part of which came from the Parliamentary Leader's fund.

This is a pile of money for the use of the PM, which is not discoverable under the Official Information Act.

The National Party factions were by this time leaking like sieves, as anyone who consults the Whale Oil blog will discover.

This payout with a confidentiality clause, inevitably branded hush-money, was rumoured to be $100,000.

This confidentiality clause was what Todd Barclay hid behind when questioned but this didn't stop Glenys Dickson spilling the beans to Newsroom.

Inexplicably, when a phone call would have sufficed, Bill English sent a text message to the former electorate chairman, Stuart Davie, who Whale Oil identifies as one of the "Evil Six" dissidents opposed to Mr Barclay.

This text message confirmed that Mr Barclay had indeed made the surreptitious and illegal recording and that the leader's fund cash was involved in the settlement.

Mr Barclay maintained the falsehood that no illegal recording had occurred until Bill English, who had also been a stranger to the truth in these matters, took fright and released his deposition to the police investigating the illegal recording containing the damning text messages Mr English had sent to Stuart Davie.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that there has been a high-level conspiracy to cover up a crime.

The Prime Minister's reaction has been disappointing to say the very least. He was clearly deeply involved in this nasty sequence of events yet there has been no explanation or apology.

Andrew Little was also put in a difficult position last week but had a very different response.

Matt McCarten, no longer on Mr Little's payroll, had masterminded a programme to bring interns from overseas as volunteers to work on a campaign to encourage young people to vote.

This kind of international exchange has been encouraged by both National and Labour for many years and while President of the Labour Party, I introduced a fund with the explicit purpose of sending young Labour supporters overseas to gain experience in election campaigns.

I got this idea from the New Zealand National Party.

In the four general election campaigns I managed, there were always at least a few Australian and British Labour Party activist volunteers.

The problem seems to be that Mr McCarten got many more takers than he expected and the exercise turned sour when a few of the participants complained about their marae accommodation.

Andrew Little's response to what boils down to a very trivial matter was in stark contrast to that of Bill English over the Barclay scandal.

Mr Little agreed that the issue was an embarrassment to his party, took responsibility and vowed that any problems would be quickly sorted out.

He could have denied all responsibility with some justification but did the decent thing and ordered a clean-up.

The week was a test of character for both Bill English and Andrew Little. Mr Little came out ahead.

* Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.