Nats' internal scars could bite worse than Barclay

6:11 pm on 22 June 2017

Opinion - Matters such as the Todd Barclay affair leave their scars. The scars are not always visible.

Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Right Honourable Bill English during a stand up with media, after a walk through of a drug rehabilitation centre in Te Atatu today.

Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Right Honourable Bill English during a stand up with media, after a walk through of a drug rehabilitation centre in Te Atatu today. Photo: RNZ / Brad White

The visible ones, this time, are certainly easy to identify: blemishes to Prime Minister Bill English's reputation for being - by political standards anyway - a reasonable straight-talker, will not quickly fade.

It also looks very messy. Citizens generally like their governments to project at least an impression of some competence, and this looked sloppy.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has now also filed privileges complaints against Mr English who, he claimed, had misled Parliament.

Todd Barclay

Clutha-Southland MP Todd Barclay has announced he will not contest the seat in the coming election. Photo: Facebook / Todd Barclay

Those are the public scars.

Some were left by the departure of Clutha-Southland MP Todd Barclay after he recorded a staff member and insisted he had co-operated with a police investigation when in fact he refused to talk to police.

Other wounds included revelations Mr English knew a lot more about it than had been let on, and that there had to be a sizeable payout from the Parliamentary leaders fund to the disgruntled staffer.

Those scars may flare up again next week, when the police - who have decided to take another look at the affair - will decide whether to show a bit more interest in the matter than they did the first time around.

The less-visible scars may turn out to be more damaging.

Internally, it has caused divisions within the National party caucus and within the wider organisation.

At an electorate level, there is clearly a divided Clutha-Southland party organisation, and some of this division is symbolic of a wider division within the National Party.

You can characterise it in crude terms as the division between Queenstown and Dipton: between the wealthy and somewhat flashy new arrivals into the district and the more traditionalist farmers and rural service parts of the National Party coalition.

This is why Mr Peters - never slow to make mischief for his old party and possessing an acute sense of just where the pressure points within the National party coalition are - has been gleefully stirring up more trouble.

Winston Peters in Committee

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Anecdotally, at least some of the disgruntled Clutha-Southland National Party staffers who fell out with Mr Barclay are working, at least informally and on a voluntary basis, for New Zealand First.

And you can take that to other parts of the country, particularly in the more populous fast-growing areas between, roughly, the Hunua Ranges on Auckland's southern fringes and the Paekakariki hill north of Wellington.

So, this weekend's National Party conference may contain a bit more tension than is desirable three months out from a tight general election.

If those scars can be soothed with sufficient balm however, the Todd Barclay affair may yet have done National a small favour.

There has been too much complacency in the government. The run of incidents involving arrogant, dismissive or sloppy public performances - from Jonathan Coleman, Maggie Barry, Alfred Ngaro and Nicky Wagner - are not big things on their own.

But coming together, over the past month, they show an increasing high handedness and a belief among too many in the second and third tier of the government that they have the election pretty much in the bag.

The Todd Barclay affair should have jolted them out of that. If nothing else the divisions it has opened up within the party will remind people that if they slip up, other National MPs will be waiting to take advantage.

There could be more scars, yet to be opened up.

* Rob Hosking is a freelance journalist specialising in economic, tax, financial and superannuation issues, and regulatory/legal matters. He is a regular contributor to NBR.

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