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NZ POLITICS DAILY: Todd Barclay's downfall – who loses and why

The biggest long-term impact of the scandal might be to contribute to a nascent anti-Establishment feeling within the New Zealand electorate.

Thu, 22 Jun 2017

The convoluted story of what went on between Todd Barclay and his staff may prove to be a fleeting political scandal, as the news media and public move on to other issues. This is nicely summed up in two minutes by Mike Hosking in his video from yesterday: Is Barclay issue too beltway? Hosking believes the scandal is mostly only of interest to political obsessives and won’t impact on Bill English: “This won’t in the grand scheme of things damage him. This is the beltway part of the story – the fizz, the pop, the drama. It will be gone as quickly as it popped up … On balance, this looks more beltway than a full-blown scandal.”

Such a reading of the situation misses the fact that this scandal has plenty of ramifications that will resonate strongly with the public. Below are some significant lessons the public might learn from the rise and fall of Todd Barclay.

1. Distrust politicians
The main observation voters are likely to take from the scandal is that politicians in general are dishonest. The public might not take an interest in every allegation, detail, and U-turn but will certainly see that the whole Barclay controversy revolves around allegations of deception and subterfuge – see the original story broken on Tuesday by Melanie Reid – see: Politicians, police, and the payout.

Since then, there has been more apparent economy with the truth, and the overwhelming impression is of secrets and lies. 

Of course, the public already has a heightened distrust of politicians. In fact, this is one of the main drivers of politics throughout the world at the moment, including New Zealand. The New Zealand public’s view of politicians can only worsen after a scandal that merely confirms what many of us already assume – that politicians lie, and politics is a dirty game. No wonder voters are increasingly turned off or turning to anti-politicians.

The winner could, therefore, be Winston Peters and New Zealand First, who are positioning themselves – along with Gareth Morgan – as the anti-Establishment choice for voters (and non-voters) who want to “keep the bastards honest.”

2. Distrust the “political class”
Todd Barclay has personified a particular breed of modern politician – the career politician. This is the type of politician who becomes an elected representative at a relatively young age, after working in associated areas of politics, such as for a party at Parliament. These politicians see themselves as having a life-long political career, rather than coming into politics following on from a career elsewhere where they have gathered real-life experience.

The rise and fall of Barclay is likely to reinforce the questions being asked about the increasing number of MPs coming into politics without life experience outside of student associations, media jobs, the lobbying industry, and other areas close to politics. Some younger MPs could be unfairly tarnished by Barclay’s downfall – but a healthy scepticism might be created about the trend of bringing in new politicians whose only experience of working life is the Beehive bubble.

NBR’s Rob Hosking writes about this today, suggesting that “perhaps National needs to reconsider the rising tendency of using mostly young, former political staffers as candidates” – see: Lessons from the Barclay boilover (paywalled).

Hosking argues National has mistakenly joined other parties in this trend toward promoting young career politicians: “Historically, National has been reluctant to do this. It has been a useful point of differentiation between National and the country’s left-wing parties. Its MPs are not, unlike Labour and, to a lesser extent the Greens, just products of the university-union-political staff-MP sausage machine. For non-partisans, a big advantage is that National MPs have had a broader life experience. Those MPs who have come through that sausage machine – no matter which party they are – possess an extraordinarily narrow view of what is important in life and it means the country is less well governed.”

For satire about Barclay’s youth, together with a plea for more experienced politicians, see Raybon Kan’s Note to Govt: Don't hire till they're past puberty. He makes a suggestion: “Let me throw this out there. I propose a new law: You can't enter politics if you're younger than 30. Below that age, you only get to enter Junior Politics… Adult stuff gets left to adult politicians. I want politicians who have lived a little.”

Perhaps even the young might have some sympathy for this. After all, there is a certain irony that the type of behaviour that has been so often identified with turning off young voters has been so clearly on display by Parliament’s youngest MP.

We can expect the term “political class” to be used more and more in New Zealand. It’s a term used in other countries – not only about politicians but also the staff who work with them, such as spin doctors and researchers. This is because these various careers are seen as overlapping.

It’s the arrogance associated with the political class that is particularly galling for many of the public, and the gulf between the public and our politicians is widening. Todd Barclay has exhibited this sense of entitlement in spades – see Russell Brown’s Barclay and arrogance.

Even the terms of the departure will anger many. He’s not resigning but leaving Parliament when it suits him and his party – at the election. He will continue to receive a lucrative income, while possibly not doing much work – see David Fisher’s Todd Barclay and his $80,000 exit package from Parliament – but what will he do for the money?

And the use of taxpayer funds to pay off Barclay’s former electorate office staffer will also resonate very negatively with many voters – see Sam Sachdeva’s Barclay payout raises questions over leader’s fund and Patrick Gower’s National owes the taxpayer for Todd Barclay's hush money.

3. Distrust the Prime Minister
Did he lie? Was he involved in a cover up? Those will be the questions that dog Bill English for some time yet. English certainly has a case to answer. Bernard Hickey explains: “The Prime Minister now faces some tough questions about why he took no action in early 2016 when he learned about the recorded conversations and why he accepted Barclay's decision not to take questions from police. After all, English had agreed to take questions from police. Why would the MP at the centre of the allegations refuse to talk if he had nothing to hide? It seems extraordinary that English was prepared to accept the re-selection of Barclay as the MP of an electorate that is not only close to his heart – it's his family home” – see: Bill English’s worst day as PM.

In the same scathing column, Hickey explains why this is so bad for the PM’s reputation: “Make no mistake, there has been a hit to English's reputation as a straight-down-the-line politician who doesn't prevaricate or fudge or suffer the same 'brain fades' as his predecessor.”

This is elaborated upon by Tim Watkin: “This is a politician whose greatest asset is his fundamental decency. English doesn't have the charisma, so he trades on judgment and decency. How will voters react to a PM who knows of potential illegal actions by one of his MPs, and hushes it up?” – see: Two bad decisions, one awful day for National

This loss of trust is significant according to Patrick Gower: “Bill English has faced his first political test – and failed. He's looked shifty on the Todd Barclay issue and there is no question that his political mana has been damaged. He can recover, and it may blow over – but there is a question about whether he will have lost trust with some voters. Mr Barclay may be gone but so many questions remain about why Bill English did nothing until his involvement in the recording scandal became public” – see: Bill English has damaged his political mana.

The fact that Bill English has been so reluctant to apologise over the issue will also not sit well with the public. Audrey Young comments: “The disturbing part about the events of this week at Parliament is the lack of contrition from English. Of course he is terribly sorry that it has come to this – Barclay's premature retirement from politics. He and Barclay seem terribly sorry for themselves and their party. But English has failed to admit any wrongdoing or apologise for the way he handled things” – see: English ought to show more contrition.

Young also points to the fact that English has been much less forthcoming about the issue than he has suggested: “He did not inform the police in order that the matter be investigated. He talked to police because they had come across his text to Stuart Davie in the course of its investigation. He then sat on the information and watched while Barclay deflected questions from media and more importantly Southland electors on an issue they had a right to know about, and did nothing to encourage Barclay to cooperate with the police investigation, which was dropped.”

Similarly, Claire Trevett writes today that Bill English’s integrity was previously seen as a strong point: “In 2014, English held himself aloft from the slurry of Dirty Politics – and in fact even condemned the cynical behaviour it catalogued. He takes pride in his own integrity. So many were gobsmacked this week when it was revealed English was complicit in Barclay's public comments by staying silent, denying any direct personal involvement, and believing the matter tidily dealt to by way of a settlement. English has claimed innocence, saying he spoke to the Police about it. But there is more than a taint of a coverup about it when it comes to the public – and that may chip at English's own trust stores” – see: PM Bill English's feet of Barclay.

4. Distrust the political parties
Political parties in general – and National, in particular – might find their democratic credentials tarnished by this scandal. This is because much of this infighting and intrigue has occurred at the local level, rather than in Parliament. This is best conveyed in Sam Sachdeva and Melanie Reid’s article, Investigation underway into Barclay’s Clutha-Southland selection, which details the allegations of manipulation at the branch level.

David Farrar argues Barclay’s local opponents in the National Party also come out of the scandal looking bad. He paints a picture of unprincipled National Party activists running a campaign against their own MP – see: About Todd Barclay.

And there’s also been the suggestion of intimidation by senior party figures – actions which might even be crimes, given that they appear to have attempted to stop complaints about Barclay being made to the Police – see Andrew Geddis’ It's not the crime, it's the coverup, and Nicholas Jones’ Police take another look at Barclay secret recording investigation.

5. Distrust the Police
The status of the Police will also be tarnished in many people’s minds due to their questionable role in investigating the allegations against Barclay. This is best explained by Audrey Young: “The police investigation took 10 months and was then closed. The police released documents to the Herald relating to the investigation under the Official Information Act but they redacted the text message sent by Bill English, which incriminated Todd Barclay, and they did not include the statement English made to them. Comparison have been made between the vigour of the police investigation in relation to John Key's complaint about the teapot tapes, when he was accidentally taped by a cameraman with a radio mike, and the complaint by Barclay's former electorate secretary Glenys Dickson that she had been taped” – see: Let me count the ways the Barclay scandal matters.

This has angered some. For example, the No Right Turn blogger has complained that the Police too easily gave up on the investigation of Barclay when the MP refused to be interviewed as part of the investigation: “We now know that English told them that Barclay had recordings. The legal standard for obtaining a search warrant is reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence has been committed and that evidence of that offence will be found. That standard appears to have been met simply by Bill English's statement to them. They'd certainly conclude that in any other case (and did in the case of Bradley Ambrose). So why didn't they do so here? I think the answer is obvious: because the police don't want to rock the boat or potentially endanger their funding. Faced with an allegation against the powerful, they grovelled to power rather than investigating it” – see: Grovelling to power.

Finally, for the cartoonists' views on the Barclay scandal, see my blog post, Cartoons about the fall of Todd Barclay.

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NZ POLITICS DAILY: Todd Barclay's downfall – who loses and why