Guest Post: Messy political divorces

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Simon Bridges vs. JLR – how does this compare with past messy political divorces?

As the Simon Bridges – Jami-Lee Ross affair continues, with fresh developments happening daily if not hourly, I thought it would be interesting to compare this evolving political tempest – and God knows where it will end – with similar political fallings out between political friends  in the past. In short, there has been nothing remotely close to this in living memory. On the political richter scale, is a 10/10.

The most recent faintly similar case was former Labour MP Chris Carter leaking to the media that then leader Phil Goff was “a nice guy, but he just can’t win”. Goff you will remember took over from Helen Clark, and whatever he did he just couldn’t raise his prospects in the polls. He bought a motorbike, starting dying his hair, he even changed his manner of walking for God’s sake, all to no avail.

No-one outside the Labour caucus of the time knows what really went on behind the scenes, but Carter apparently decided  someone else was more likely to return to  him the Ministerial perks he had enjoyed. Carter’s  discontent began from the moment Labour lost, and he could no longer take junkets around the world on the guise of “ministerial business”.  The first signs of stress emerged when news of Carter’s lavish travel spending as a minister – in particular expenses incurred on  a trip to Tibet –  was about to become public, and threatened to embarrass the embattled  Labour party still further.

Carter’s first shot was the “nice guy but just can’t win leak”, and when that didn’t do the trick, he sent an anonymous letter to members of the Press Gallery claiming there was a leadership challenge against Goff.  Carter was quickly identified as the author of the letter, and suspended from the caucus on 30 July 2010. Carter apparently threatened to dish the dirt on his colleagues if he was kicked out of the party, and either because of those threats or for other reasons, he was not actually expelled from the party until 12 October 2010, after a last ditch attempt at a lengthy Labour Party Council meeting to avert his expulsion.

 In another echo of current events, when Carter was first suspended from the caucus  then political colleague and current Speaker  Trevor Mallard publicly suggested that Carter was “unbalanced” and that “he’s always been an eccentric”. On the richter scale of internecine party conflict and messy partings of the ways, the “Carter Affair” – covering a messy four months in 2010 – scores perhaps a 3.

To find something more dramatic we need to go back thirty years to the split between Roger Douglas and David Lange. In one of his memorable turns of phrase, Lange had said, during the early days of the turbulent economic reforms that followed the Labour win in 1984,  “there isn’t so much as a cigarette paper between me and Roger Douglas”. By 1988 that happy comity was all over; Lange declared that the government needed to stop “for a cup of tea”, while Douglas argued – and still does – that the best way to get over the pain which naturally flowed from the necessary radical economic reforms was to increase  the pace, and get the economy on a new footing as quickly as possible.

Crucially, the barbs that flew between Lange and Douglas are as nothing compared with those JLR has levelled at his leader over the past few days. Douglas revealed that Lange had told him the pressure was “killing him”, and Lange in turn made unflattering remarks about Roger’s lack of sensitivity and compassion. The worst Roger said about Lange – and at the time that was bad enough – was that he, Lange, had lied to Roger.

Roger confirms that in early 1988 he was heading overseas, with a full economic reform package – including the flat tax  and guaranteed minimum family income proposal – still firmly on the agenda. Roger says Lange shook his hand before he departed for an economic forum in Switzerland,  and said they would talk about it some more on Roger’s return.  While on a stopover in London, in the earlier hours of the morning London time, Roger learned that Lange had unilaterally cancelled the package. The relationship between the two former close political allies was irrevocably destroyed, and they did not see each other again for 16 years.

Crucially, at the time all this went down, both Roger and the rest of the Lange cabinet knew Lange was in the midst of a passionate affair with his speechwriter and later wife Margaret Pope.  Roger tells me that he would never  have dreamed of putting that into the public arena, despite his deep sense of betrayal by Lange, something he never forgave him for. On the latest drama, what appals Roger most is JLR taping conversations with his boss.  But back to Lange-Douglas. Perhaps that fallout rates a four or five on the richter scale.

John A Lee was a former soldier seriously wounded and  decorated for gallantry in World War I, and later a member of the first Labour government of Michael Joseph Savage, the latter still today a saintly figure to some Labour politicians. On his return from the War, Lee  was elected to parliament, but failed to gain a cabinet place after the first Labour government was elected in 1935 because of suspicions about him held by Savage and his successor Peter Fraser.

 In 1938, while a parliamentary undersecretary, Lee published Socialism in New Zealand, which advocated “pure” socialism as New Zealand’s only way forward. In a sense, he was the Roger Douglas of the late 1930’s, albeit with diametrically opposite views from Sir Roger. Lee became increasingly critical of Savage and Fraser’s more cautious and measured approach to reform, and in 1940 he was expelled from the Labour Party for attacking the terminally ill Michael J  Savage, who died shortly thereafter. In one of those delicious quirks thrown up by a small society, one Norm Douglas, Roger’s father, left the caucus in sympathy with Lee. He never regained a place in cabinet as a result.

In the time honoured fashion, Lee founded his own party, the Democratic Labour Party, but he was never re-elected – a fate which surely awaits JLR if he is foolish enough to contest the by-election in his Botany electorate. Lee never forgave his old enemies, including the dead Savage – so much so that he apparently used to take his dog for walks  to the Savage memorial on Bastion Point so the said dog could “piss on the old fraud”.  The Lee-Savage-Fraser parting of the ways was by modern standards at least as dramatic as Lange-Douglas, so let’s give it a five on the political richter scale.

So, back to Mr Jami-Lee Ross. I am writing this on Thursday 18 October, on a day when it is claimed that Ross conducted what can only be called abusive and manipulative sexual  relationships with at least two women, with two others alleging that he mistreated and abused them, albeit not sexually.  Ross denies the allegations, but they have been made by a well respected senior journalist who claims she has been investigating Ross’s personal relationships for a year. There is certainly more to come on this aspect of the story.

So where are we? Ross and Simon Bridges, formerly close political allies if not personal friends, are now bitter enemies, with Ross alleging serious criminal conduct on the part of Bridges, and Bridges claiming – correctly – that Ross has made highly damaging defamatory claims about him, claims which Bridges vehemently denies. I am informed that Ross is now utterly without friends in the National caucus, which would  seem to be supported by the fact that no-one has literally stood behind him, either at the unprecedented almost hour long stand up in parliament on Tuesday, or when he lead a group of journalists down to the Wellington Central Police Station to lay his complaint about Bridges.

The thing which elevates the current debacle way above anything  which has ever gone before is SEX. Savage was almost certainly a closet homosexual, something which his colleagues must have strongly suspected, if not known for sure in those less open times. Despite his hatred of him, Lee never even hinted at Savage’s sexual orientation, even after his death.

David Lange was bonking his speechwriter at a time when Roger Douglas feels he was utterly betrayed by Lange, and all of Lange’s cabinet colleagues knew what was happening. Back then however, a members private life was just that, and whether because of the possibility of mutually assured destruction or otherwise, members’ sex lives remained off the agenda. Admittedly, Lange-Douglas took place in a very different time, pre internet, and with a much more compliant media.

Taking everything into account, I believe what is unfolding as I write is a political cataclysm the likes of which has never been seen in New Zealand before, and may never be seen again. And we are only four days into the scandal: JLR is still, until 5pm tomorrow, an MP with the ability to say anything he likes with impunity – so long as he says it  in the House. The by election which he may or may not contest is at least weeks away.  God knows what else will emerge between now and then. Who ever said that politics was boring?

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