"Embarrassing" is the word of the week for the National Party. Leader Simon Bridges applied the term in various ways to MP Jami-Lee Ross, when explaining that Ross' personal circumstances required his temporary departure from Parliament. Bridges described Ross' personal situation as "perhaps actually embarrassing. A lot embarrassing, potentially".
It was then Bridge's turn to be embarrassed when the focus quickly shifted to why Bridges insisted on using that term, before later retracting it. Some saw it as a sign of incompetence and a lack of empathy for the beleaguered Ross, and others saw it as a sign that Bridges was somehow signalling that the departing MP is in fact connected with the leak inquiry, or is suffering from mental health issues.
As most commentators have said, the timing of Ross' departure and the leak inquiry is either unfortunate or very telling. It's natural that speculation has fallen on Ross as being the leaker within National who was trying to undermine his leader. And Audrey Young reported that "Jami-Lee Ross is among a handful of National MPs who have been quietly suspected as a potential leaker among colleagues for some time", and therefore "the timing of his time-out from politics is cruel. Because if he is not the leaker, many people are left wondering whether he is" – see:
Bridges had no choice, according to Young, but to announce in his press conference that Ross' departure is unrelated to the inquiry, regardless of whether he is under suspicion. But she points out that if it turns out Ross is eventually announced as being involved in the leak, then "he would be in the best place to endure the fallout – away from potentially unforgiving colleagues and the limelight."
It seems possible, therefore, that Bridges' repeated use of the term "embarrassing" about Ross was consciously or unconsciously designed to intimate that, although Bridges was formally saying that his departure was unrelated, it was in fact highly-related.
There has been a backlash against Bridges for his use of the word "embarrassing". According to Newshub's Duncan Garner, Jami-Lee Ross was also very unhappy about it. Garner says: "A senior source inside the National Party got hold of me yesterday to say Jami-Lee Ross, who stood down for personal reasons, is 'highly pissed off' with Bridges for saying the matter was embarrassing" – see:
According to Garner, "The source went on to say what is embarrassing is National's internal polling which has Bridges' internal favourability collapsing".
The National leader has now expressed regret, telling reporters: "I regret it, I think it was a poor choice of words" – see Newshub's
The same article also reports that "The investigation commissioned from PwC by National, is expected to report back in as little as a week. Bridges said today he expected it would be made public."
Garner refers to a lengthy phone conversation with the National leader about the use of term "embarrassing" and whether there was a connection between the leaks and Ross: "Bridges got stern during the chat when he said Ross isn't the leaker of his travel expenses and this is not some kind of manufactured cover up in advance of the investigation… He almost pleaded with me to believe that" – see:
There were other bizarre things said by Bridges at his press conference, such as: "You think you know your colleagues very well, but you don't always know everything that's going on". Mike Hosking responds to this statement about Ross, saying: "What do we take out of that? We take out of that, he's done something wrong", and therefore Bridges "made matters a hundred times worse" – see:
Hosking also speculates on Ross' own statement about his need to put family and kids first: "which is [normally] code mainly for an indiscretion, or as the British so eloquently put it, you've been playing away."
Bridges "looked spooked, rattled, and ill-prepared. Hence his bumbling performance" says Hosking. But perhaps that was simply because the situation is incredibly untidy: "So none of the speculation is surprising, and the pressure is now on National to make this look a lot tidier than it appears. Unless, of course, it can't be tidied. Unless, of course, we have our leaker." And he says that Bridges response to journalist's questions about Ross' innocence was "Not at all convincing."
Veteran political commentator Richard Harman has thrown more petrol onto the fire, reporting further details. He conveys rumours that "Ross was being advised by National Party board member, Glenda Hughes", who has previously helped other beleaguered MPs such as Todd Barclay – see:
Harman also puts a lot of attention on the claims of Winston Peters to know who the leaker is. The statement of Peters in Parliament a couple of weeks ago is reported: "Peters continued: 'There are members over there that should be very nervous'. Peters was standing in his usual position, two seats below Ross but on the other side of the House. He then said "I won't look at them" and then he turned to face where Ross had been sitting. He then said: "Or look where they should be, because if I do, then the suspicion will be cast on them without us getting the reward for disclosure."
Harman draws attention to a blog post from Cameron Slater, which also deals with Peters and the leak in more detail – see:
Slater concludes: "I believe that Winston Peters does know who the leaker is. It is pretty much an open secret now among National people. I understand that the leaker has admitted as such to some Young Nationals in Auckland. I also know now who it is, and that is from many sources, all saying the same name. The clock is ticking. Observant and well informed journalists will also know as the leaker is now being shunned by caucus."
All of this has turned into something of a disaster for Simon Bridges this week. Newspaper editorials have been scathing. The New Zealand Herald says about the inquiry: "This can not end well for National" – see:
The editorial notes that "Ross, in his own public comments, implied his problems might not be confined to health." But it's Bridges who gets the worst evaluation: "The way an Opposition leader handles problems in his or her party provides an insight to their credentials for a more important job. So far, Bridges is not passing the test" – see:
The Press also draws attention to Paula Bennett's description of Ross' personal situation as "traumatic", which it says "again could increase public speculation and curiosity" – see:
The newspaper complains that Bridges hasn't dealt with Ross' departure with "maturity and discretion" and expresses surprise that he used the word "embarrassing" about his MP "not once, not twice, but three times." It concludes that Bridges "looks like a man who knows his days as leader are numbered."
Leftwing political commentator Chris Trotter also sees the end in sight for Bridges, telling Duncan Garner yesterday that "When you see politicians gripped by this kind of paranoia, you know that things are very bad inside their party because why else would they be looking over their shoulder all the time?" – see:
Trotter elaborates: "National is entering that terrible deadzone where all eyes are only on the leader – not on policy, not on the party, the deadzone that Labour lived in for nine long years." The article also reports that Trotter believes "Bridges' days could be numbered, with hints of a plot to roll him forming".
The political editor of Stuff has some similar analysis: "Bridges' pursuit of National's travel expenses leaker is shaping up as one of those pivotal moments by which his leadership will be defined. If there were seeds of doubt in Bridges judgement before among his MPs, they must have blossomed into full grown dismay that Bridges' decision to order an inquiry keeps blowing up in his face" – see Tracy Watkins'
Finally, for some light relief from the National Party leader, watch the three-minute video of him doing comedy, which aired last night on the Jono and Ben show – see: