Analysis by Bryce Edwards.
The National Party has a major problem with standards, especially amongst its MPs and election candidates. The latest controversies involve the resignation of their longest-serving MP Nick Smith over an employment dispute, and allegations of abhorrent behaviour by election candidate Jake Bezzant.
The party has been beset by a series of scandals in recent times, including revelations that National had to get rid of their sitting MP Jian Yang who exited (alongside Labour’s Raymond Huo) after an intelligence agency briefing. And then, of course, last year the party was embroiled in scandals involving the downfall of MPs Andrew Falloon and Hamish Walker, alongside senior party figure Michelle Boag.
Does this mean the party is toxic? Or is it incompetence? Either way, who is responsible? And can the party clean up its candidate selection process to fix the problem?
Former National staffer Matthew Hooton has written about all this today in a must-read Herald column that argues the party’s current crisis is due to “poor candidate vetting and selection, and a lack of seriousness when allegations emerge, whether of spying, sexual harassment, bullying, fake CVs, poor business practice or just plain old not being up for the job” – see: National’s woes go right to the top (paywalled).
Hooton goes through a list of seven self-inflicted scandals in “four disastrous weeks” leading up to the 2020 election, involving Jian Yang, Hamish Walker, Michelle Boag, Todd Muller, Andrew Falloon, Nick Smith, Jake Bezzant, as well as the botched candidate selection to replace Nikki Kaye in Auckland Central.
Hooton lays the blame for all of this ultimately at the feet of party president Peter Goodfellow. Here’s his conclusion about the disastrous place National is now in: “That speaks to governance, identified as a serious problem in National’s still secret post-election review. Goodfellow has been party president since 2009. He has taken a close interest in all key candidate selections and all long-term strategic decisions, and would be responsible for them even had he not. After 12 years, whatever shape the party is in now is his legacy. In my opinion it is time for him to take responsibility and go, and for the party membership to elect a new board of competent people willing to deal with the current crisis – if they can find any. National will achieve no long-term operational success until its members demand accountability from those they elect to run the party’s affairs.”
The Jake Bezzant scandal
Goodfellow has been singled out as the person who allowed Jake Bezzant to stand for the party last year, despite a number of concerns being voiced about his character – see Jenna Lynch’s story from last night: National Party leadership wanted Jake Bezzant gone, but president Peter Goodfellow shut down concerns.
This story reports: “Newshub understands concerns were raised about Bezzant during last year’s election campaign when questions were swirling around embellishments on his CV. National’s campaign team came to the conclusion he should go.” This is all put to party leader Judith Collins, who directs attention to Goodfellow, saying “I think you’d need to take that back to the party president”.
Much more on this was published yesterday by Politik political journalist Richard Harman, who reports that “National did nothing for nearly 12 months about what they were told was a brewing scandal involving the North Harbour candidate” – see: Due diligence and leaked reports; the challenges of managing politicians (paywalled).
Harman outlines how last year he spoke to a number of Bezzant’s colleagues in a tech company who claimed “Bezzant was a fantasist who had run the company into the ground” and they “also raised questions about his private life”. Harman then put these allegations to the party organisation, which investigated and apparently cleared Bezzant. Harman says: “There the matter rested though there are suggestions that both leader, Judith Collins, and campaign chair Gerry Brownlee, were still concerned that Bezzant could be a liability.”
For Harman, “the whole affair has raised questions about how much due diligence National does when it selects candidates. That has apparently been discussed at some of the party’s regional conferences, with concerns about the Auckland Central selection being highlighted.”
For more on the allegations about Bezzant, see Derek Cheng’s National candidate Jake Bezzant cuts ties with party following explosive claims. Here’s the key part: “National candidate Jake Bezzant has parted ways with the political party following explosive claims that he impersonated his ex-partner online, shared explicit photos and even pretended to be her during cyber sex. Bezzant’s former partner, Tarryn Flintoft, has gone public with the claims in an hour-long podcast shared online this week. Bezzant, who unsuccessfully ran for the Upper Harbour seat last election, told the Herald there is no truth to the accusations. The National Party touted Bezzant as a promising part of its intake of fresh talent in 2019.”
The Nick Smith scandal
Nick Smith announced his resignation on Monday night, citing an employment investigation about him being carried out by Parliamentary Service, which he believed was about to be made public the following day. The media story never eventuated, and the details have been incredibly murky since then.
For the best overall account of what has happened with Smith, it’s well worth reading Jo Moir’s in-depth story published today on Newsroom, which outlines the whole saga – see: The warning that ended Nick Smith’s career. According to this account, back in mid-2020, “Smith lost his temper and had a yelling match with his young male staffer, which included swearing at him. Another National Party staffer, who didn’t work in Smith’s office, recorded the verbal altercation and reported the incident to Parliamentary Service (the employer of the National Party staffers).”
Moir reports that National insiders say Smith has a long history of volatility: “MPs and staff, both former and current, spoken to by Newsroom say Smith has a history of treating staff poorly, and it was well-known around Parliament. One former senior MP described Smith as having a ‘volatile personality’ and was often ‘outright rude to officials and staffers’. The former MP said Smith had entered politics at a very young age and had ‘never managed anyone and didn’t know how to deal with people’.”
This account is in line with how Hooton sums up the situation in his column today: “he had been behaving in roughly the same way he had been allowed to by successive leaders for 30 years.”
Newshub’s Jenna Lynch also uncovered a number of National insiders willing to speak out against Smith, albeit anonymously – see: National MP Nick Smith’s alleged ‘verbally abusive behaviour’: Former staffers open up about Parliament’s ‘worst-kept secret’.
For example, one stated: “Nick’s irrational and verbally abusive behaviour towards his staff was one of Parliament’s worst-kept secrets. Everyone from Ministerial Services, Parliamentary Services, the Prime Minister’s Office and the bullying inquiry knew about it yet Nick’s staff continued to be collateral damage.” In contrast, however, the article also quotes a number of current National MPs denying that the party has any problems with bullying.
So, was Smith pushed out? This is the focus of Richard Harman’s column on Wednesday: How Judith Collins forced Nick Smith to resign (paywalled).
Here’s the key part: “Collins told Smith last Friday a story would appear this Tuesday. Smith has said that it was his understanding that a story would appear which persuaded him to resign. But so far, no story has appeared other than those reacting to his resignation. It appears either by accident or intent that Collins forced Smith’s resignation because of her claims of the imminent publication of the story. It also seems likely that she had known about the incident that lies behind the resignation for nearly a year and not acted on that information.”
However, today Jo Moir reports Collins as stating: “Nick Smith is absolutely clear that at no stage was he ever told to leave Parliament”.
The Jian Yang scandal
The other scandal relating to National MP standards is Richard Harman’s revelation last month that both the National and Labour parties made an agreement to quietly get rid of their two China-born MPs, Jian Yang and Raymond Huo, “because of growing security concerns” – see: The cooling of relations with China: Why two MPs retired last year (paywalled). Harman says he “learned from multiple official and political sources” that the “almost simultaneous [retirement] announcements were orchestrated by the offices of Jacinda Ardern and Todd Muller working together”.
Matthew Hooton, who was working for then National leader Todd Muller at the time the two MPs resigned from Parliament, confirmed the report, writing his own account for the Herald, stating the “deal was based on briefings from the New Zealand intelligence agencies expressing concern about the two MPs’ relationships with the Chinese Government” – see: Chinese Government associates alleged to have infiltrated National and Labour (paywalled).
Hooton explained how he thought National had got into this situation: “Selection procedures in both main parties are well known to be lax, as evidenced by the quality of MPs we attract. Both main parties are keen for Chinese-born MPs, both for the votes from new immigrants they might bring, and also because of their fundraising abilities and political and commercial connections with New Zealand’s biggest export market. National Party President Peter Goodfellow, for example, is very proud of his fundraising abilities from the Chinese community.
RNZ confirmed the story, with reporter Craig McCulloch stating that “Another source also confirmed to RNZ that an agreement was reached during a meeting attended by the parties’ chiefs of staff” – see: Labour, National tight-lipped on former Kiwi-Chinese MPs’ departure.
Reforming the National Party
National is in a dysfunctional state, and it’s not clear that it can quickly or easily reform its culture and raise its standards enough to make it fit to govern anytime soon. As Hooton says today, National is “in a world of chaos and pain that not even Labour endured through the 2010s” and “is in worse shape than even Helen Clark’s Labour in 1995 or Bill English’s National in 2003.”
Heather du Plessis-Allan has also argued the party isn’t about to turn its fortunes around, given what the latest scandals say about its culture – see: National is the most toxic brand in Parliament.
Here’s her main point: “It always going to be tough-going for National to have a serious shot at the next election, but after two resignations in a week I’d say their odds just got that much longer. Simply because they are wasting valuable rebuild time on continuing to trash their own brand. Brands take a long time to build, and the clock starts again when you have something as repulsive as an alleged sex scandal and questions over whether the leader has engineered the resignation of veteran MP Nick Smith, who himself is facing bullying allegations.”
Jo Moir’s column today discusses the National Party’s new code of conduct, which sets out behavioural expectations for MPs, noting that Smith’s altercation “pre-dates this”.
Moir also explores the party’s “candidate college” process, used to vet prospective politicians, with the suggestion from both a former MP and a candidate that this is no longer fit for purpose. Moir reports the former MP saying: “Since about 2008 when the party decided it was invincible, the purpose of the College has fallen away”, and believing “the party no longer had any mechanisms operating that would vet the likes of Falloon and Bezzant.” Similarly, a former candidate is reported as being “surprised the vetting process wasn’t more comprehensive.”
This issue of quality assurance is also the focus of a column today by political commentator and National Party member Liam Hehir, who argues his party needs to raise standards, but also move away from looking for “stars”, especially “flashy and ambitious people claiming glittering careers in industries that themselves are known to have toxic cultures” – see: Reforming the National Party.
Hehir also has a number of other suggestions for improving candidate selection: “I believe some form of basic psychometric testing would be a good idea. That kind of thing is hardly foolproof since skilled manipulators are unsurprisingly good at manipulating testing. Still, it would weed out enough bad eggs to be a worthwhile exercise. Personal patronage is also something that ought to be discouraged. It is a serious barrier to renewal when existing party heavyweights do things like drive their champions to candidate selections. Informal practices like expectations around ranking existing members of caucus above newcomers on the party list ought to go.”
Finally, for satire on the state of National, see my blog post: Cartoons about the National Party since the election (updated).