Bryce Edwards: The mysterious cancelling of the limogate inquiry

Bryce Edwards: The mysterious cancelling of the limogate inquiry

Simon Bridges’ handling of the “limogate” saga may be contentious,  but his argument that the inquiry should continue is not. In a surprise twist in the saga, it was revealed on Friday that someone purporting to be a National MP had been texting both Bridges and Parliament’s Speaker Trevor Mallard in a (successful) attempt to get the official high-powered inquiry into the leak called off. The leaker cited mental health grounds, and the Police confirmed they knew the identity of the leaker but will not disclose this information.

There are different views on how well Simon Bridges has handled the whole “limogate” saga, and what impact it might have on his leadership. I’ve written a column for RNZ, arguing that Bridges has dealt with it relatively well, and it’s given him a chance to look strong and decisive – see: Expenses saga turns to political capital for Bridges. What’s more, given the leader’s hard-line stance, anyone in National will be less likely to leak again.

But there are plenty of contrary views. Today Richard Harman concludes that the whole saga is “Not a good look for a new leader struggling to gain traction in the polls” – see: National turns on the Speaker.

Harman thinks Bridges is failing a test of his leadership: “Simon Bridges has managed to turn a trivial inconsequential leak into a test of his leadership of National. It’s not a test in the sense of anyone challenging him; rather it is one of those events which should he stumble down the track will be looked back on as an early indicator that he was not up to the job.”

According to Heather du Plessis-Allan, the National leader has done so poorly that the Clock is ticking for Simon Bridges.

She says: “It doesn’t mean he’ll lose the job this week, this month, or even this year. But he’ll be gone eventually. How can Bridges stop the inevitable?” This is because, according to du Plessis-Allan, “Bridges is powerless.” She says, “this saga makes him look weak. Impotent even.”

Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking also views this as being terrible for Bridges: “This for a bloke polling at 10 per cent, a nationwide tour behind him and seemingly very little traction as a result, is a nightmare” – see: Simon Bridges hopelessly exposed on leak. Hosking concludes: “For a bloke who insisted on getting to the bottom of this, and was certain it wasn’t one of his own, he sits here this morning vulnerable, looking indecisive, wrong, embarrassed, and isolated.”

Challenges to Mallard’s cancellation of the limogate inquiry

There seems to be a near consensus amongst commentators that Parliament’s Speaker, Trevor Mallard, made the wrong decision on Friday in cancelling the inquiry that he ordered into the leak.

In her column, du Plessis-Allan challenges Mallard’s decision: “it’s curious that Mallard called off the inquiry into the leak on Friday. Just the day before, he’d been all guns blazing, appointing Michael Heron QC to head it. So why call it off? Nothing had changed overnight. Mallard had had the text for a week at least. The only new information was that police knew who it was and were confident the leaker had the mental health fortitude to handle the inquiry.”

Stuff’s political editor, Tracy Watkins, also points to the fact that Mallard made his decision with apparently no new information, and she challenges the Speaker’s logic in cancelling the inquiry because the text messages claim to be sent by a National MP: “Except Stuff has been told the text was by no means incontrovertible evidence of an inside job – and while some of the information supplied by the texter could suggest they were a National MP, that information could also have been picked up or deduced by a wider circle of people, including staff” – see: Prime Minister, Speaker fumble political bombshells.

Watkins can therefore understand why the National leader would have wanted the inquiry to continue: “Bridges has no way of knowing for sure whether that might be one of his MPs, a staff member, or even someone from the Speaker’s office. An inquiry might have allowed Parliament to find that person and put support around them if necessary. Alternatively, it might have found that the text was a smokescreen. But we may never know.”

Instead, “Speaker Trevor Mallard has also created a vacuum that would only be filled by conspiracy theories and unanswered questions.” Watkins says that the mystery of the leaker “makes it a story that won’t go away”.

According to Stacey Kirk, “to call off the investigation makes little sense”, and Mallard’s decisions has “only muddied the waters further – leaving far more questions than answers” – see: The foreboding sense there’s more to come in two capital scandals.

Kirk also deals with the sensitive issue of the mental health claims made by the leaker in their texts, and worries that this could establish a precedent: “mental health issues are not a free pass to avoid accountability either and Mallard’s decision makes it hard to shake the impression that Parliament’s institutions are now that much more susceptible to manipulation or worse, blackmail.”

The assumption that non-National people in the Parliamentary complex are now absolved from suspicion are also challenged by Kirk. And, “None of the questions that prompted the inquiry to be called, have been answered.” She argues that Mallard was the wrong person to end the inquiry: “the only person who should have put an end to it was the leaker, by owning up.”

This point of view is shared by RNZ’s Tim Watkin, who has made a thoughtful and extensive argument that it’s Time for leaker to come clean and get help. He sums up the whole saga like this: “an ill-judged inquiry that should never have been started in the first place is being called off on the basis of more ill-judged thinking.”

The possibility of the leaker simply “impersonating a National MP” and using mental health issues as a smokescreen is raised by Watkin: “That is cynical politics if so and would reflect very badly on that person and who they represent. To play the mental health card if it is not genuine is in the worst taste”.

Not everyone disagrees with Mallard’s cancellation of the inquiry. Notably, Newshub political editor, Tova O’Brien, who set the whole scandal in motion by reporting the leak of Bridges’ travel expenses, is troubled that the media and politicians aren’t taking the mental health concerns of the leaker more seriously: “When a person is upset, struggling with mental health issues and asking for help always – ALWAYS – err on the side of supporting that person and ensuring their safety and wellbeing. Do NOT question their sincerity or do anything that could put them at further risk” – see: Bridges should have called off inquiry himself.

O’Brien thinks Bridges has made some wrong calls: “Bridges should have got in before Trevor Mallard and requested the inquiry be called off himself. Having received that same text as Simon Bridges I was surprised that he not only chose to push on with the witch hunt, but suggested the person should be named and even called into question whether the message was genuine. Newshub chose not to report on the text message after we received it last Thursday. I held grave concerns for my source’s safety and wellbeing.”

It’s  hard to sympathise with the leaker’s position when it appears they are unapologetic for the leak. This is the point made by David Farrar: “the tone of the text is without contrition. It is basically attacking Bridges further. If the text was along the lines of ‘I made a terrible mistake under pressure. I was angry about x, and gave the spending figures to Newshub, and regret it’ then that is more plausible” – see: The mystery deepens.

Farrar is far from convinced that the leaker is a National MP, and he reports that this is also the view of other MPs: “within National there is huge skepticism that the texter is an MP, as they claim” – see: Watkins critical of PM and Speaker. He theorises about who the leaker could be: “They may well be a National staffer, but the language used in the text (such referring to themselves as a member of caucus rather than just as an MP) just doesn’t sound like an MP. One person who has seen the text told me it sounded like a millennial.”

National Party’s war with the Speaker

It is clear now that National and Speaker Mallard are on a collision course – with Tracy Watkins predicting the increase in tensions “will make for a near-unworkable Parliament”.

Many in National are raising the stakes. Shadow leader of the House, Gerry Brownlee, is clearly unhappy with Mallard, and on Friday he said: “The Speaker … was happy to appoint Mike Heron but today it’s all off because he’s decided that all the guilt lies with our caucus. That’s a pretty unacceptable position for a Speaker to put themselves in” – see Lucy Bennett’s Speaker Trevor Mallard ‘obfuscating’ on Bridges leak inquiry, Brownlee says.

Brownlee has continued with his strong messages for Mallard: “Clearly there is a duty to find that person. I think he’s obfuscating his duty as a Speaker, quite frankly, if it turns out to be a staffer, [Mallard] is the head of the Parliamentary Service and he has a duty of care to every person who works in that place, and he’s walking away from that.”

Last night Bridges raised the stakes even higher, calling into question the neutrality of the Speaker. According to Audrey Young, Bridges “lashed out” at Mallard “suggested he had been influenced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. He said if Mallard or Ardern had any new information, they had a duty to share it with National” – see: Simon Bridges says if leaking issue is not resolved, Trevor Mallard is to blame.

Bridges pointed to Ardern’s statements calling for the inquiry to be cancelled, adding: “Surprise, surprise, Trevor Mallard then changed his position”. Young comments: “The criticism of Mallard is in itself a new twist in the saga that is likely to see Bridges at the very least forced to apologise to Mallard if not referred to the privileges committee.”

Finally, for one of the more entertaining discussions of who the mystery leaker might be, see Newshub’s NZ First MP Darroch Ball’s bizarre presentation on expenses leak in Parliament.