Gordon Campbell on counting the cost from the Bridges leak

0The care and protection being extended to the alleged mental health problems of the anonymous texter/leaker of Simon Bridges’ travel costs now seem to have got utterly, insanely out of proportion. The leaker is either a National MP or (less credibly) a National MP impersonator with an extensive knowledge of what goes on inside the National caucus. In order to continue to protect the identity, health, and future career prospects of this person, we are – apparently – willing to call into question (a) the integrity of the Speaker’s office and (b) the PM Jacinda Ardern as well while, in the process of obfuscation, (c) continuing to cast suspicion upon every person working for Parliamentary Service and (d) leaving the public entirely in the dark about what was done, by whom.

Right now, the only proper course of action open to Speaker Trevor Mallard is to re-open the promised forensic inquiry and release the text at the centre of this issue – for the public good, to protect the innocent from baseless suspicion, and to ensure the leaker really does get the help they claim to require. Bridges would have brought this belated set of revelations entirely on himself. So far, Bridges has given every indication of being afraid and/or unwilling to concede that there is a rat in his ranks who wants to undermine him. An undermining that has been carried out not for a noble public good, but for petty personal reasons. Bizarrely, some commentators have begun praising Bridges for persisting in choosing the route of least plausibility.

That’s just so, so weird. Initially, the leaking situation had appeared to be mainly comical in nature. Someone in his own caucus wanted to take down Bridges because the culprit said he felt Bridges to be “arrogant”. Could it have been Miss Judith Collins in the billiard room with the lead pipe, Colonel Nick Smith with the dagger in the drawing room, Professor C. Finlayson in the conservatory with the revolver, or any number of other suspects? At first, the blanket of secrecy had been merely irritating, in that it was so obviously a stalling device.

Surely, the public footing the bill for the relevant travel costs would not be left in the dark forever, about the identity of the person who had tried to make political capital out of this privileged information? Unfortunately, yes. As a result, the only safe course of action for the public has been to treat every single member of the National caucus as being potentially mentally unwell, until proven otherwise.

Yet at close of play last Friday, Speaker Trevor Mallard suddenly announced he had shut down the promised forensic inquiry, even though only a few days before Mallard had been promising that, in the public interest, this Holmes-like sleuth would not rest until justice had been seen to be done:

It’s important to ascertain how this breach of trust occurred and to identify whether there is a systemic issue or an individual is responsible, and if so who that person is.”

That still seems like the right thing to do. Mallard has not yet explained his subsequent decision to do the opposite. Presumably, he shut down the investigation because the staff of the Parliamentary Service – the department from whose budget the inquiry costs would have been met – have been proven (to Mallard’s satisfaction at least) to have played no part whatsoever in the leak. So the systems are safe, Mallard concluded, and this is now entirely a National Party matter. But what about the public’s right to know? It seems to have become another casualty of this peculiar war of words.

Reportedly, the anonymous texted confession had been known to all the key players (Bridges, Mallard, the Police) since Thursday August 16. Since Sunday, August 19, the Police had known the identity of the culprit. That short timeframe is quite telling. Between the Thursday and the Sunday – which doesn’t leave a lot of time for casting the net wide, and doing a lot of digital forensic sleuthing – the Police established to their satisfaction that (a) the leaker and the emailer were the one and the same person, and that (b) the Police knew their identity. But they won’t publicly release the name, for “privacy reasons”.

Right there is where things began to get ridiculous. Because it’s such a bad look for him – a rat in the ranks! – Bridges has kept on blowing smoke that we can’t be entirely sure it’s a National MP, and therefore he wants the Mallard inquiry to proceed. Yeah right. Like O.J. Simpson, he wants to find the real killer.

Gerry Brownlee, in a supporting role, has also chewed the scenery and acted incensed at Mallard for calling off the inquiry, since – goodness gracious – Mallard is thereby conveying the impression that he’s convinced someone within the National caucus might be the guilty party. (You think?) And with the Nats running their own inquiry into who on earth the culprit might be we can all trust them to leave no stone unturned and string it out, until the news cycle runs out of interest.

Mallard must surely be feeling really, really tempted to call their bluff if only because (and to repeat) Bridges and Brownlee are continuing to impugn the integrity of staff of the Parliamentary Service and others, by desperately trying to widen the pool of suspects. IMO, Mallard now has an obligation to call back in the forensic hounds and expose the villain, mental health issues or not.

Mental As Anything

Talking of mental health… it would be nice to think we could take this incident as providing evidence that New Zealand has finally turned a corner in its workplace treatment of people with mental health issues. I fear not, though. In fact, the ‘mental health’ plea to justify the blanket of secrecy looks more like a scam. Once again, politicians seem to want one rule for themselves, and vastly different rules for everyone else. Does anyone think for a moment that if the leaker had been a Parliamentary Service librarian there would have been any mercy shown to them, regardless of how the exposure might affect their mental health? Especially given that, unlike the apparently traitorous National MP, the guilty librarian would have lost their job. The lynch mob likes of Act leader David Seymour wouldn’t have had it any other way:

ACT Leader David Seymour called for an investigation into the leak. “It is outrageous that a bureaucrat from the Parliamentary Service saw fit to leak details of Mr Bridges’ travel expenses to media. “This smacks of a politically motivated attack. New Zealanders expect an independent, professional public service.”

Which, in this instance at least, seems to be exactly what New Zealanders have got. (No apology yet from Seymour though, for publicly claiming otherwise.)
I’m all for restorative justice… but – to repeat – this level of sensitivity wouldn’t have been shown to any guilty staffer from the Parliamentary Service, or from any other job location. They’d have been out on their ear in no time for trying to publicly humiliate the boss for reasons of personal animosity – and without the comfort of privacy, without counseling care, and without a compassionate cone of silence being dropped over their identity and actions.

Footnote : Thank goodness we will soon have the waka jumping legislation in place, to ensure that any other erring wretches are forced to remain in caucus, where they can get the re-education help they need.

Turnbull’s Sydney Carton Moment.

Judging by how last week’s events across the Tasman played out, Malcolm Turnbull made a great exit. Too bad he didn’t show anything like the same spunk during his time in office. While PM, Turnbull surrendered everything he believed in try and to placate the extreme right wing of his caucus. So much so that ultimately, even the Peter Dutton plotters couldn’t rationally explain why they were moving against Turnbull. Hadn’t he always caved in to their demands?

Sure, the coup had something to do with the bad by-election results for the LNP coalition six weeks ago in Queensland. But as a columnist at the ABC observed, the leadership change seemed to have more to do with the fact that after extracting all the concessions imaginable from Turnbull, the hardliners finally kicked him out because they knew he wasn’t a true believer. He was never one of them, and they just couldn’t stand it any longer.

With his back to the wall though, Turnbull fought back hard. In a brilliantly executed last ditch campaign, he and Julie Bishop bought the time that enabled Bishop to enter the leadership race. According to some observers, Bishop was the moderates’ tool to deny Dutton a first ballot victory; in a more unlikely version, she was the hardliners’ tool to try and deter Scott Morrison from entering the race at all. Whatever… Bishop has since said she’s had enough, and will not seek re-election.

What we do know is that the eleven moderates induced to vote for her shifted (crucially) in the second ballot to Morrison, always the lesser evil among the hardliners. Of course, Dutton’s defeat is of no benefit at all to New Zealand, which will have to hope even more fervently for a Labor victory inside the next 12 months.

Footnote : For Oz train spotters, the Longman by election in July (in which the LNP coalition lost the seat to Labor) was the final straw, given that elsewhere in Queensland, a few other coalition MPs only barely squeaked back – including Peter Dutton in the Dickson seat, where Dutton’s majority was reduced to a 1.5% margin. Currently, the LNP coalition holds 21 of the 30 seats in Queensland, but is petrified by the way its support keeps rapidly draining away rightwards to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Three of the endangered Queensland seats – Capricornia, Forde and Flynn – are currently held by the LNP coalition by margins of 1% or less.

Scott Morrison’s initial dilemma? He has to quickly decide whether to steer immediately to the right to shore up those Queensland seats – even if, by doing so, he will probably alienate moderate voters almost everywhere else in Australia. Since the LNP coalition enjoys only a wafer thin parliamentary majority, he hasn’t got much room for experimentation, either. At least Malcolm Turnbull plainly doesn’t intend to stick around and keep Morrison on a policy leash by threatening to resign on principle at any moment, thus taking the government’s one-seat majority out the door with him.

That dreadful prospect may arise as soon as Friday, given the Aussie media is reporting that Turnbull will announce his resignation on that day. If so, this will trigger a somewhat scary by-election for the LNP coalition, and leave a deadlocked Parliament unable to pass any legislation until the by election result is declared. Sure, Morrison could gamble all his cards and call a general election. Yet given the LNP coalition’s current state, calling an election would be like turkeys asking for an early Christmas.

Barry Goldwater, George C. Wallace > Scott Morrison

A few appropriate songs then, as Australia heads off further to the right of the political spectrum… Exactly fifty years ago, the US equivalent to Donald Trump (as the racist, rabble-rousing champion of the white working class) was a former Alabama state governor called George C. Wallace. If you want to disappear down a political wormhole, try searching Youtube for the Wallace ’68 and ’72 campaign songs. And/or try searching for 1960s American conservatism’s answer to Joan Baez, an anti-communist folksinger called Janet Greene. “Fascist Threat” and “Commie Lies” are two of Greene’s vintage wake-up calls to America, with the latter being sung to the tune of “Blue-Tail Fly.” Take that, Pete Seeger.

Lets start with neo-liberalism’s original standard-bearer, Barry Goldwater – who gave us Reaganism which when married to Thatcherism, gave birth to Rogernomics. Here’s the Goldwater 1964 campaign theme song, “Lets Carry Barry To the White House”… Back then Goldwater’s ‘small government/tax is theft’ ideas were widely considered to be politically batshit notions. It was a different time.

And here’s when the George Wallace bandwagon got rolling in 1968:

and again:

Finally, here’s “Commie Lies” by Janet Greene:

An account of Greene’s volatile life story – and her interlude as the anti-Commie weapon against the folksong movement was only one part of it – can be found here.