The Chinese businessman and the National Party
By Richard Harman (author)
Botany MP Jamie Lee Ross who has resigned from National and is about to resign from Parliament believes the National Party has set out on a behind-the-scenes campaign to smear him.
He told POLITIK this shortly after National's deputy leader Paula Bennett said he had engaged in activity that was not appropriate for a married man.
Bennett’s comments are the most explicit comments about Ross and women to so far appear in public, but he told a press conference yesterday that he had been accused by Bennett and leader Simon Bridges of harassing four women who, he said, were employed by Parliamentary Services.
Yet despite the charges, he levelled during an extraordinary one-hour press conference in which he said he was resigning because he could not serve a corrupt leader who had engaged in illegal campaign funding activities, his now-former colleagues last night appeared stunned rather than furious as they had been on Monday.
Some last night were even talking of reaching out to him.
However, the shock of what he did won't last long.
There is little doubt though that he is right. There is a mood among many in the party to try and destroy his reputation. At the same time, he will be attempting to do the same to Bridges, and a by-election campaign (in which he will stand) will give him a platform for that.
Ross claims to have a recording of a conversation with Bridges in which Bridges asked him to essentially falsify an election donation return.
He is taking that to the police.
Bridges strenuously denied the charge at his own press conference but refused to answer detailed questions from reporters.
Ross claims that in May he and Bridges attended a dinner with Chinese businessman Yukin Zhang in Auckland and then a week later, Zhang offered to donate $100,000 to National. Ross said Bridges asked him to collect the donation but to ensure it was broken up into less than $15,000 parcels and therefore they would not declarable.
The next month, Ross troubled by Bridges’ request, recorded a conversation with him in which Bridges confirmed the detail surrounding the breakup of the donation.
Ross said he would take that tape to the police today and he will lay a complaint alleging that Bridges has contravened Section 207 of the Electoral Act which prohibits splitting donations. That is a “corrupt practice” and anyone found guilty of it could be liable for a prison term of up to two years or a fine of up to $100,000.
Ross said he was resigning from National because “I can no longer serve in a political party led by a corrupt politician.”
That resignation came yesterday morning while the National Party caucus was debating a motion to expel him.
POLITIK understands the motion was moved by one of the party's frontbench team, probably Paula Bennett.
Bridges, however, was emphatic that he had not broken any law.
And Party President Peter Goodfellow said the party could find no proof of the accusations and assertions made by Ross.
“The allegations made by Mr Ross appear inconsistent with the donor information we have to date, including information previously supplied by Mr Ross,” he said.
Asked by POLITIK what that information was and when it was supplied, Goodfellow said he had no more to add.
The party now knows it must dig in and defend itself against what it assumes will be a barrage of accusations from Ross as he contests the Botany by-election.
There were some heads last night calling for a calmer approach, suggesting that they should reach out to him and see whether they could moderate some of his accusations.
Others were predicting that there would soon be more stories about him to surface.
But most MPs contacted by POLITIK were saying nothing; apparently, either stunned by the way events had unfolded or worried about how the whole situation was getting out of control.
Ross, however, was happy to talk and he contested POLITIK'S account yesterday of his falling out with Bridges.
POLITIK was told by multiple caucus and party sources Ross had wanted to be not only Shadow Leader of the House but also Chief Whip and to be a front bench ranked MP; to be on the party board and to be in charge of polling.
After Ross contested the story, POLITIK checked back with two of the sources and a senior member of the front bench who all confirmed its essential detail.
However, Ross had a different explanation.
“So the real story is Bridges offers McClay foreign affairs, and me Shadow Leader of the House, in exchange for doing his numbers,” he said.
“When he realised after the leadership election that Brownlee was going to go, rogue, if he didn't get either foreign affairs or shadow leader of the house, Bridges decided I was the one of the two that he could backtrack on.
“Chief whip was offered up instead, which we agreed on.
“He then changed his mind a further time, and I asked to then stay on the Party Board, to continue to be involved in the strategy side of things.
“As for polling, he said he wanted a range of people involved in that, but ultimately Todd McClay held the pen, so to speak.
“So, essentially, all of these roles were individually offered up, AFTER the previous one was agreed to.
“As the situation changed, so too did the proposed role. Never did I expect them all to be there at the same time.”
There is nothing unusual about his sort of horse trading; it goes on every time there is a reshuffle in either of the two main parties.
Because the horse trading involves so many MPs, it is impossible to keep it tight which is why so many of the senior MPs knew what is said to have happened.
Now the party faces a by-election in a seat that on paper is true blue. Jami Lee Ross won 62.85% of the electorate vote there last election; the Labour candidate got 25.1% and the Green candidate 6.18% votes.
NZ First did not stand which is probably explicable because the seat has the highest percentage of migrants --- 50% -- of any in New Zealand. Most are Asian; both Chinese and Indian and it is a middle-income seat with most of its population working in white collar jobs. It has the highest percentage of sales workers of any seat in the country.
It runs up the Auckland isthmus from east of Otara to hit the Hauraki Gulf at Cockle Bay, to the east of Howick.
It was too early to get any ideas of candidates last night, but one possible contender might be Auckland councillor Daniel Newman who unsuccessfully contested the nomination which Ross won in 2011.
Given the campaign Ross is likely to run, aiming at discrediting Bridges, the party will want an experienced candidate who can handle what is likely to be a very rough campaign.
It has taken the party only two months from the original leak of Bridges’ expenses to the events of yesterday for the party of the rigid discipline of John Key, Bill English and Steven Joyce to unravel.
Ensuring that the rot stops for the next two months until the by-election and what should be the departure of Ross from politics must now be Bridges’ over-riding political priority.