A Disturbance In The Force? The politics of countries like New Zealand are extremely difficult to derange. A politician like Jamie Lee Ross may give the political gyroscope the most almighty shove – causing it to wobble alarmingly – but in a surprisingly short period of time it will regain its equilibrium.
WHAT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING inside the National Party Caucus? Are we witnessing a genuine intra-party meltdown or merely the political and personal disintegration of a single individual? When all the dust has settled, will very much have changed?
In the bluntest terms, what we are witnessing is the fullest measure of a single Member of Parliament’s power to disrupt New Zealand’s political life. It is rare to see this power deployed so comprehensively, but the damage inflicted will, ultimately, be relatively light.
There will be costs, of course. Taxpayers will pick up the cost of the by-election which Jami-Lee Ross’ resignation has forced. The National Party – and all other parties choosing to participate in the Botany by-election – will have the costs of campaigning to shoulder. Ross, himself, if he follows through on his promise to stand for re-election, faces an especially heavy burden. The party organisation which formerly met his election expenses is now ranged against him. Everything: from pamphlets to bill boards; radio spots to social media; must now be paid for out of his own pocket.
To what end? The result of the by-election is a near certainty. National’s candidate will be elected by a huge margin, and Ross will lose the contest in the most humiliating fashion. At National’s victory party, the winning candidate will be applauded – but nowhere near as enthusiastically as the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges, who will be cheered to the echo. He will seize the opportunity of Ross’ humiliation to reassert his leadership of the New Zealand Right. The conservative media will amplify his words across all platforms. In all likelihood his popularity will spike upwards.
Jami-Lee’s full-throated attempt to kill Bridges politically will only have made him stronger.
If Ross’ “evidence” – the recorded telephone conversation presented to the Police this very afternoon (17/10/18) – turns out to be damning, then National’s caucus will be faced with the necessity of removing Bridges as leader. He may not be the only person to go. Paula Bennett’s decision to make reference to Ross’ private life: her insinuation that he is guilty of marital infidelity; may be regarded by her caucus colleagues as having crossed a line long-considered inviolable by all Parliamentarians. To reassure the members of all the other parties represented in Parliament that their private lives remain “off limits”, National may opt to lose its deputy-leader as well.
Such an outcome would provide Ross with some measure of satisfaction. The two politicians he holds most responsible for his “persecution” will have been brought down with him. Like Captain Ahab, in Moby Dick, he will have exacted his vengeance upon the Great White Whale – even at the cost of being dragged to his death by the dying monster.
The National Party itself, however, might not be all that upset to lose a leader that the country’s conservative voters had declined to take to their collective heart. Among the persons most likely to be dismayed by Ross’ extraordinary behaviour, therefore, are the members of the Labour-NZ First-Green coalition government. The strategists of all three governing parties undoubtedly regarded Bridges as a gift from the electoral gods. Up against the relentlessly positive sunshine of Jacinda, Bridge’s surly temperament was an electoral non-starter. The last thing Labour, NZ First and the Greens want to confront in 2020 is a National leader with oomph!
Perhaps it was this thought that drove Ross to “go nuclear” against is boss. Perhaps, somewhere beneath Jami-Lee’s fevered brow, the notion had taken root that only by the selfless sacrifice of his own career could the National Party be saved from the depredations of Bridges and Bennett. Though they would never admit it to themselves, Ross’ actions will thus have provided National’s Caucus with the opportunity to undo the damage it had collectively inflicted upon itself.
The politics of countries like New Zealand are extremely difficult to derange. A politician may give the political gyroscope the most almighty shove – causing it to wobble alarmingly – but in a surprisingly short period of time it will regain its equilibrium.
By the start of the New Year Jami-Lee Ross will, almost certainly, have been reduced to a political footnote. Simon Bridges, if he is able to disprove all the charges leveled against him, will have emerged from the whole sorry business stronger and with a firmer grip on his party. If he fails to do so, National will begin 2019 with a new leader. Whatever happens, Labour, NZ First and the Greens will remain in government. New Zealanders will have been forced to endure a great deal of sound and fury – signifying bugger-all.
Of Jami-Lee Ross, however, people will say, in the spirit of the old Maori proverb: “He died like a shark, not a flounder.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 18 October 2018.