Bitter Southland political feud arrives in Wellington and trips up English
By Richard Harman (author)
A long running feud goes sour.
A long-running feud in Bill English's old Clutha-Southland electorate burst out into Parliament yesterday with questions about the integrity and credibility of both the current MP, Todd Barclay, and English himself.
Those questions came after both provided inaccurate statements about their roles in a police investigation into Barclay.
That investigation was into allegations that he had secretly recorded staff member was dropped after Barclay refused to co-operate with the police.
But information surfaced yesterday which showed that he had admitted the taping to English.
Despite this, both English and Barclay began the day by denying the claims but ended it with both having to admit that the recording had taken place.
Last night a meeting of about 50 dissident National Party members in Clutha-Southland called for the police investigation into Barclay to be re-started. (The electorate is believed to have around 1500 National members)
English yesterday faced intensive questioning from Labour Leader Andrew Little, and that can be expected to continue.
However when Little asked his questions, he was obviously unaware that just minutes before English had admitted what he had denied earlier in the day.
Later he issued a statement saying: "The Prime Minister's grasp of the truth in these matters has been found lacking.
"It's now a matter of the Prime Minister's leadership, integrity and credibility."
Meanwhile, senior National Party sources were discounting reports that the party had launched a formal investigation into how Barclay got re-selected last year.
Instead, they said they had charged former Minister, Kate Wilkinson, with trying to find out what was going on on the selection.
Depending on her report, they could, if needed, launch a formal inquiry.
Her's will be the second party investigation into claims and counter-claims coming from the electorate where passions are running hot.
The matter surfaced yesterday after a Newsroom report which produced two key bits of information about a police investigation into allegations that Barclay had secretly recorded taped a staff member who he was ultimately to dismiss.
Newsroom reported that English had texted a supporter of the dismissed staff member saying that Barclay had told him he had secretly recorded her.
Barclay had earlier denied to an electorate meeting that he had done that.
And English also texted that to end the employment dispute, money had been paid to the dismissed staffer from the National Party’s taxpayer-provided “Leader’s Fund”.
When English was asked about the texts on his way into Caucus yesterday, he said he could not recall who had told him about the recording. Meanwhile, Barclay not only denied telling English about the recording but denied that he had made any recording.
However later in the day, on his way into the House, English effectively threw Barclay under the bus by conceding that it was Barclay who had told him that he had recorded Dickson.
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The matter has not surprised senior figures in the party spoken to by POLITIK. All requested anonymity.
Barclay was 24 when he replaced English in the Clutha-Southland seat, and even some of his supporters wonder whether he was mature enough to become an MP.
He faced an entrenched and much older office staff who had been used to filling in for English who only visited the electorate infrequently because he was Finance Minister and Deputy Leader.
Relations between Barclay and the staff soon broke down.
And in April last year Glenys Dickson, the staff member at the centre of the row resigned.
Ever since Barclay has been the subject of a long-running campaign against him from Dickson and her supporters in the electorate.
One former electorate chair, Lloyd Anderson, a Gore real estate agent, described the dissidents as the "evil six".
Allegations and counter-allegations flowed through the year, so the National Party sent the chair of the NZ Racing Board and a member of its board, Glenda Hughes, to investigate what was going on.
She apparently inflamed things and seems to have ended up joining the criticism of Barclay.
She is said to have supported a challenge to him by merchant banker, Simon Flood, last December.
However, Barclay won the selection at a selection meeting that had over 100 delegates present and the Otago Daily Times reported that most stood and clapped and cheered when his victory was announced.
There matters might have rested.
But the Newsroom story showed, in the words of one senior party official, that having failed to get Barclay de-selected, the opposition were now using the media to achieve the same goal.
A measure of how high tensions in the electorate have been came with claims that Barclay recently tried to persuade National Party board members to terminate the party membership of the "evil six".
Party officials told POLITIK that this idea went nowhere because expelling members was likely to divide the electorate even more and that the party could not tolerate MPs demanding who should be expelled.
However it has agreed to have former Minister, Kate Wilkinson, run a low-key investigation into claims about delegate stacking at the selection meeting last year.
Officials said that claims that selection meetings had been stacked with ineligible delegates were frequently made because the National Party has a very loose system of appointing delegates to its selection meetings.
They thought it unlikely that even if some delegates were ruled ineligible in Clutha-Southland that it would have any effect on the overall vote count.
That’s what Wilkinson is trying to sort out.
There have also been allegations that NZ First has been involved in the machinations within the electorate, including a persistent claim that Dickson, was working with NZ First MP Ria Bond.
Last year at NZ First's conference in Dunedin, a party official promised media that there would be a revelation of National Party members from Clutha-Southland who had defected to NZ First.
But no further evidence was offered or names produced.
Last night, NZ First's Clutha-Southland candidate, Mark Patterson told POLITIK that though NZ First was picking up support from former National members, he was sure Dickson, who was an old friend, was not working with Bond.
“There’s widespread disappointment with Todd’s conduct and general performance,” he said.
He said Barclay was perceived to have not been active enough on local issues like the future of the Lumsden maternity hospital or the Telford Farm Training Institute.
But National’s real problems are not with Barclay and Clutha-Southland --- they are with the big dent that English’s credibility has taken because of the way he has handled the matter.
It’s becoming a truism of politics everywhere; that it’s usually not the scandal that matters but the cover-up afterwards.