Bryce Edwards Analysis: The Hugely damaging Barclay scandal
It’s become a received wisdom that in New Zealand political scandals don’t really hurt governments. But English is looking very damaged by the Barclay saga, and it’s no longer too far-fetched to specutulate on whether this could help deny National’s re-election.
It’s now Day Eight of the Todd Barclay saga, and it’s still the number one political story in the media. This will be hugely concerning to the National Party, especially because most of the critical coverage in the last few days has focused on Prime Minister Bill English. His integrity and leadership skills are being widely questioned and that makes this scandal damaging.
Talk of “sex and drugs” has also entered the scandal, which will propel it even further. Newsroom’s Melanie Reid has revealed this afternoon that Parliamentary Service officials told an employment lawyer that talk of “sex and drug matters” had been recorded in the electorate office – see: Parliament officials knew details of Barclay tapes.
Police investigating National again
The decision today by the Police to re-open their investigation into Todd Barclay merely reinforces how damaging this scandal now is. In the public mind it will simply add further legitimacy to the various allegations.
According to Stacey Kirk, the Police are focusing on the fact that Barclay’s statement on Tuesday appeared to accept that Bill English’s damning version of events was correct: “That statement is one of a number of new pieces of information police were assessing, in consideration over whether to open the police investigation. It could be treated as an admission from Barclay that he made recordings of Dickson without her knowledge and without being in a conversation with her – something police did not have before. The statement may add further weight to a text from English to the Clutha-Southland electorate chair that recordings existed” – see: Police reopen investigation into Todd Barclay.
Reopening the case also raises some serious questions for the Police. Prior to the announcement, Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis was reported as suggesting it wouldn’t happen: “What’s really needed to reopen the investigation is new information and basically everything we’ve been finding out has come from the police files … if police were to go back and reopen the investigation based on what we’ve heard it would raise real questions about why they didn’t proceed in the first place. So I doubt it” – see Emma Hurley’s Serial litigant threatens action over Barclay case if police don’t act.
Bill English’s grilling from the media
There is no doubt that the media is taking the Barclay scandal very seriously – the prime minister has been getting a grilling from journalists, and commentators and editorials have been scathing.
Today’s Southland Times – the newspaper published in Barclay’s electorate – has one of the most critical evaluations of English’s handling of the scandal. The editorial is titled, English wasn’t there for us.
The paper points directly to the attempts by English to downplay and spin the scandal as a “complicated employment dispute” and “kaleidoscopically moving series of claims and counterclaims devoid of political significance”. The Southland Times strongly rejects this notion: “This doesn’t wash. In what he has done and in what he has failed to do, English has himself become a party to the deception of the public.”
English has sent a message that he does not to regard truthfulness as important: “His reaction was not to make the MP come clean with the truth. Nor, by his account, to find out what the truth was.” This “is rubbish” according to the editorial. And English’s claim not to remember who told him about the recording “does violence to common sense.”
The paper also has a very interesting take on English’s highly-pragmatic orientation to truth and conflict. They quote a previous statement about politics from Bill English: “In a rural community, everybody has to work with everybody. You can’t choose who, because there are not enough people to do that. You need a practical approach to things. . . they don’t spend too much time arguing about the philosophy of it all.”
The response from the paper is this: “How very practical. You play the cards you’re dealt, working with the people you must. But politics is not a game in which bluffing and misdirection are to be placidly accepted as tactical necessities. Especially when straightforwardness is such an important part of your brand. It’s a brand English himself has perceptibly debased.”
Other editorials are critical too. Today’s Herald says: “This is election year and minor slip-ups are bound to be magnified. Political leaders come under intense scrutiny and rightly so. Incidents such as this are often less important in substance than for what they tell us about the qualities of those we may be about to elect” – see: Bill English puts his foot in his mouth again.
Many of these interviews have merely made English look worse, particularly because he’s tended to introduce new lines and theories about the scandal. But by the time of the PM’s post-Cabinet meeting, he was clearly keen to stop saying so much – see Nicholas Jones’ ‘I’ve got nothing to add’: Bill English on repeat over Todd Barclay controversy. According to this report, “English answered a number of questions and in doing so said he had nothing to add 12 times. He eventually refused to answer more questions.”
And the PM’s lines are being torn apart by various commentators. For example, blogger No Right Turn explains how it’s unbelievable that such a senior politician could plead ignorance about the law in regards to this case – see: Pull the other one.
How badly damaged is National?
Unsurprisingly, the National Party is publicly feigning confidence that this scandal isn’t hurting at all. Most starkly, the deputy prime minister, Paula Bennett, has been reported as doubting “the Barclay affair would cause any long-lasting damage for the party or the Prime Minister” – see Jane Patterson’s Barclay affair a ‘tap’, not a ‘fatal blow’ for National – Deputy PM.
Some commentators have also shrugged their shoulders about it all. About a week ago, Mike Hosking suggested on Seven Sharp that the scandal wasn’t going anywhere – watch: Todd Barclay drama won’t hurt Government in the polls – Mike Hosking. Hosking gave his optimistic advice to Barclay: “The trick in life is how you handle the tough days – if he learns from this, then he’ll be just fine.”
Not all are convinced. National Party member and columnist Liam Hehir went along to the party conference in the weekend and reported: “This gave me the opportunity to talk to members and activists about how they felt about the past week. Annoyance at the leadership and its advisers for being asleep at the switch sums it up” – see: National must watch out before the ‘arrogant’ label sticks.
Hehir elaborates: “I don’t claim to have access to fancy data, but I do make a real effort to talk to people who only have a passing familiarity with politics. The feedback I have received is very much along the lines of: ‘It’s not a good look for Bill English’. Will this affect the election? Maybe. Probably not to any material degree, though.”
Drawing attention to 2011’s Teapot Tapes scandal and 2014’s Dirty Politics, Hehir says: “those controversies failed to move the needle on the public’s voting intentions. In each case, National’s vote held despite voters generally disapproving of it in those matters. While sore losers will always blame this on voters being too dumb or venal, when it came down to that single, macro decision about how to use their sole party vote, people based their decision on other factors.”
Bill English’s credibility and integrity under threat
But it’s English’s reputation as a leader that really could be tarnished. His “brand” is under threat according to Tracy Watkins, who says: “He effectively put a match to his own brand, bringing himself down to the level of just another politician, someone who is prepared to dissemble and duck for cover, rather than tell the truth. The English brand was supposed to be above all that – credible, trustworthy, a safe pair of hands. But to be fair expectations are not that high. Most voters expect politicians to be economical with the truth. So English is damaged, but not fatally, and maybe not even as badly as he could have been” – see: One all on the political score card.
This brand is important, according to Audrey Young, “because over many years he has earned himself a reputation as the conscience of the party. It was mainly through his devotion to the social policy issues but the flow-on effect has been that he has been regarded as a man of substance and principle” – see: No comparison between Labour’s intern strife and National’s crisis.
Young also says this tarnishing of his leadership is crucial, because “leadership and judgment will be a huge factor in the election.” And she doesn’t believe that this was a minor fall for the PM, saying that last “Tuesday was National’s worst day in nearly nine years of Government.”
Other commentators have also shown how much English has to answer over the scandal. Jane Clifton says: “English has had months to get on top of this furore and be ready to face the inevitable public questions, as well as to discipline Barclay for his mendacity and to use his considerable influence to cool down the angry locals. He either neglected or disdained to do any of those chores. That’s a serious failure of leadership” – see: The demise of Todd Barclay and all the Gor-r-rey details.
Commentator Colin James doesn’t believe the scandal will have a big impact on support for National: “Of itself, the Barclay affair probably has little effect on voter decisions. Three years ago Dirty Politics didn’t stop people voting National. Voters think all politics is dirty.” But James does think that “it taints English’s Mr Reliable image”, and even a small full in support could lose National the election: “if you take the same 3% off National’s current 47% poll average that came off in 2014 between mid-June and election day, its three tiddler support parties don’t make a majority” – see: National: “Continuity and stability” into the 2020s.
Similarly, the NBR’s Rob Hosking says the scandal will cause voters to now look more critically at English and National: “Voters are going to be reassessing that package now – probably with a bit more of a beady, narrowing of the eyes” – see: Lessons from the Barclay boilover (paywalled).
Conservative blogger Michael Reddell is much more critical already: “I don’t care greatly about Todd Barclay himself. What bothers me is Bill English, long-serving Minister of Finance, now Prime Minister, about to seek election to a full term as Prime Minister in his own right. They are roles in which we should be looking for leadership with integrity. What is on display this week doesn’t look remotely like that – not much leadership, not much integrity” – see: Leadership and accountability.
Reddell elaborates: “It is pretty shameful conduct from the Prime Minister. And pretty feeble leadership even now. There is no sign of contrition. There has been no apology. Even now, Barclay is still not indicating that he will be cooperating with the Police, still not apologising. And yet he still sits in the National caucus. Meanwhile, media seem to find it impossible to get the President of the National Party to face the media on the issue – even though if the Prime Minister told him otherwise he’d surely be available almost instantly.”
All items are contained in the attached PDF. Below are the links to the items online.