Making Him Deny It: Dramatic allegations, of the sort leveled against Simon Bridges by Jamie Lee Ross, are intended to force the targeted person onto the defensive. Requiring one’s opponents to deny the accusations leveled against them, all-too-often produces the paradoxical effect of rendering those accusations more – not less – believable.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON, on 17 November 1973, declared to a gathering of newspaper editors: “I welcome this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.” This infelicitous sentence would, of course, come back to haunt Nixon as the Watergate scandal that brought down his presidency ground remorselessly on.
Hearing Simon Bridges solemnly reassure the Parliamentary Press Gallery: “I have done nothing wrong”, couldn’t help but remind me of Nixon’s exculpatory performance. Not, I hasten to add, because I believe the Leader of the Opposition to be guilty of the charges leveled against him by his former colleague, Jami-Lee Ross, but because it’s in the nature of such allegations to force the targeted person onto the defensive. Requiring one’s opponents to deny the accusations leveled against them, all-too-often produces the paradoxical effect of rendering those accusations more – not less – believable.
In terms of political theatre, the initial performances of Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges offered some telling contrasts.
As befitted a man with very little left to lose, Ross spoke clearly and compellingly and answered the assembled journalists’ questions with impressive composure and a minimum of prevarication. To borrow once again from the Watergate lexicon, he opted for the “let it all hang-out” approach – openly divulging information which, in the normal course of political events, is kept under wraps.
Bridges’ performance was nowhere near as open, or impressive, as Ross’. Over and over again he declared his former colleague’s accusations to be “baseless”. Over and over again, he referred to Ross as a “liar”, a “leaker” and a “lone wolf” guilty of “appalling behaviour”. What he refused to do, however, was respond in detail to the charges of corrupt electoral practice and political blackmail which Ross had leveled against him.
During Watergate, a refusal to respond expansively to journalists’ direct questions was termed “stonewalling”. It is not a good look. I was disappointed that the Leader of the Opposition did not opt to match Ross’ earlier demonstration of candour. Laying to rest “baseless” charges surely requires nothing more than a frank description of what happened and why. In the United Kingdom, persons charged with an offense are cautioned that “it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something you later rely on in court.” These are wise words, which politicians facing judgement in the Court of Public Opinion would do well to remember.
What remains to be seen is whether or not Simon Bridges and his caucus will be able to “draw a line under Jami-Lee Ross” and “move on”. I suspect the future of the National Party and its leader will turn upon the quality of the “evidence” (a recorded telephone conversation) which Ross promised on Tuesday to place in the hands of the Police. Much, too, will hinge on whether Ross’ allegation that he was threatened with false accusations of sexual harassment (a threat which, he claims, caused him to experience a mental breakdown) can be verified.
If fire is detected among all this smoke, then National faces a grim future. Having voted unanimously to expel Ross from their caucus, National’s 55 remaining MPs have voluntarily roped themselves to their precariously positioned leader. If he falls, they are all at grave risk of falling with him.
Reverting, once again, to the language of Watergate: if Ross is in possession of a “smoking gun” capable of bringing down Bridges; and if his caucus refuses to cut through the rope binding them to his fate; then the possibility opens up for Ross to run for re-election in Botany not as an independent (his current intention) but as the harbinger of a new and uncorrupted conservative movement.
Paradoxically, such an eventuality might ultimately rebound to the National Party’s electoral advantage. A new conservative party, located to National’s right on the political spectrum, would be ideally positioned to supply New Zealand’s dominant right-wing party with what it so sorely lacks at the present moment: a natural coalition partner.
The problem, to date, has been how to set up such a party without the voters dismissing it as a mere National Party contrivance. Well, problem solved. Whatever else may be said about the enmity between Bridges and Ross – it certainly isn’t contrived.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 October 2018.