Barclay's prospects growing dimmer by the minute

7:43 pm on 20 June 2017

Power Play - The National MP for Clutha-Southland Todd Barclay shows no sign of resigning, for now, but a short statement to reporters at Parliament - lasting exactly a minute - leaves serious questions unanswered.

Todd Barclay's Gore electorate office.

Todd Barclay's Gore electorate office. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

The media coverage about bust-ups with long serving staff and persistent talk of secret recordings after taking over Prime Minister Bill English's electorate was bad enough.

Now Mr Barclay has directly contradicted a statement the Prime Minister made in a police interview last year about a conversation they had about a dictaphone recording of electorate staff member Glenys Dickson.

Once the realisation dawned he had put his leader and himself in a difficult position, Mr Barclay apologised for making such "specific" comments.

He also said he had also read and accepted Mr English's statement.

But his refusal to answer questions left an important one hanging - had he just admitted to making a recording of his electorate staff without their knowledge?

The series of events - about who knew what, when - has also put a glaring spotlight on the actions of Mr English, while he was Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, throughout last year.

A Newsroom investigation has revealed a series of texts between Mr English and the electorate chairman Stuart Davie in February 2016 about the recording, which were detailed in police documents.

Mr Davie was seeking details from Mr English about what exactly had happened.

Newsroom reported that in one of his replies to Mr Davie, Mr English stated Mr Barclay had left a dictaphone running in the electorate office that picked up staff conversations.

In another text, he then said a confidentiality settlement was struck between Mr Barclay and Ms Dickson to "avoid legal action", that it was larger than normal because of the privacy breach and was partly funded by the Prime Minister's leader's budget.

RNZ approached Mr English the month after that text exchange to ask him about the departure of Ms Dickson, and by that time, the resignation of Mr Davie as electorate chairman.

Mr English replied he had "no concerns" about what had been happening in his former electorate office.

He also said he was not aware of any specific problems between Mr Barclay and his former staff, but there was "clearly a changeover" going on and the MP was "building another team".

If the police documents are to be believed, only weeks before, Mr English had told his former electorate chairman a National Party MP had recorded staff conversations on a dictaphone, which resulted in a confidential settlement, leaving "everyone unhappy".

Despite Mr Barclay's apology for the "specific" comments he made this morning, scrutiny should still be given to what he said, and what were emphatic denials.

He was asked directly whether he used a dictaphone to record one of his staff members - he replied: "I've seen the allegations, I totally refute them".

Mr Barclay also denied telling Mr English he had recorded Ms Dickson.

Both statements contradict statements Mr English made to police and to Mr Davie early last year.

There is also the question of taxpayer money being used to avoid "possible legal action" - according to one of Mr English's texts - caused by the actions of an MP.

Mr English is defending that as money available to Parliamentary Service, as Ms Dickson's employer, to settle an employment matter.

However, in situations such as an MP making defamatory statements, that liability would fall on their shoulders as an individual and they would not automatically be able to call on taxpayer funds to cushion them from the impact of legal action.

It is illegal for anybody to intentionally record private communications which they are not a part of.

However, an illegal recording by Mr Barclay has not been formally confirmed in a legal sense.

Now he is using the confidentiality agreement struck with Ms Dickson to dodge any questions about the details of what happened.

There was a police investigation but after Mr Barclay refused to speak to the police, the case was closed due to insufficient evidence.

He is using that as political cover saying police "investigated quite thoroughly", and until the Newsroom story, the matter had been largely laid to rest.

As Prime Minister, Bill English cannot force Mr Barclay to resign as an electorate MP.

However, as soon as an MPs actions start to cast their leader in a bad light, their political careers tend to become short-lived.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs