Simon Shepherd interviews Chris Simpson and David Collings
Simon Shepherd: For more on the extraordinary events of this week, I’m joined now by former National Party general manager Chris Simpson, and David Collings, chair of the Howick Local Board. Thanks for coming in gentlemen. David, first to you - Jami-Lee Ross now says he’s not going to resign. He’s staying on as MP for Botany, so in your ward. How do you feel about that?
David Collings: Well, I think that... First of all, can I just apologise on behalf of the local board to the Indian community, who are very upset about this. I don’t think he has a mandate to stay on there, quite honestly, and I think he really should do the right thing and resign.
And so apart from the Indian community, what else are you hearing?
Collings: Look, I think everybody’s pretty upset. I think they believed him for some time, for a while there, but with the allegations that have been coming out more recently, it’s pretty hard to have faith in his ability to continue.
So he has no mandate, do you think?
Collings: No, I don’t think he has. And I think he’s realised that, and I think that’s why he’s staying on, rather than being pushed. He knows he can’t resign and hold up in a by-election. He knows that now.
Right. So, Chris, the National Party’s put out a statement last night saying it’s considering all its options now that Jami-Lee Ross says he’s going to stay on. Doesn’t that mean Simon Bridges has to either invoke the waka-jumping bill, which he campaigned against, or he’s going to let Jami-Lee stay in Parliament?
Chris Simpson: Well, two options in the sense of... The irony is to actually invoke it, because legally, you can. So if you want to remove rot from within Parliament, then you invoke that. From a party perspective, though, you’d say, well, if you’re going to the back benches, you get lost in the political oblivion for the next two years. Bit of a media circus over the next couple of weeks, and then it just slowly dies down, and he just goes into oblivion.
So do you think that will be their option?
Simpson: Well, they’ve got two options, so they’ll be having those conversations right now.
Jami-Lee Ross can’t actually be kicked out for at least 21 working days, so there is almost a month in which he could do more damage.
Simpson: Yes, but it depends on when we – in the sense of the viewers – just get bored with it. Basically, what we’re hearing is that this man can’t be trusted. So that’s what’s coming through, versus, sort of, secret, recorded, hidden tape recordings, blah blah blah. It’s like, ‘Well, actually, we don’t trust you.’
David, you’ve known Jami-Lee Ross since, well, he was a teenager. So have the events of this past week shocked you?
Collings: Well, I’m even shocked from some of the things that have come out last night about how he’s been treating his staff in his office which many of us knew – lovely young girls. It doesn’t shock me in knowing his character. He’s... He’s a unique individual. But this – certainly, the level it’s getting at, the extremity, the kind of things we’re getting coming out about the ladies he’s had involvement with – it’s just horrifying.
Did you know? Did you know that things in his electorate office were like that?
Collings: Oh, no, not at all. I mean, I think he was a bit hard to work for, but not... I mean, just what I’ve read – basically berating his staff, throwing telephones across the room if he doesn’t get his way or not happy with things. Wow.
But he’s saying that he had a mental breakdown over all of this. He says he’s okay now. He said that a couple of times. Do you think we should be concerned about his mental health?
Collings: Look, one of the things I want to make clear is that mental health is a very serious matter. I was on the Counties Manukau District Health Board, and we have 60 people a year commit suicide in our district alone. And that’s young people, older people and middle-aged people. So we shouldn’t be making... If Jami-Lee feels that he is in that sort of way, then he needs to go and get himself checked out. I think the public... The public have a right to say, ‘Is this MP fit for the job?’ and for his own sake as well. If you don’t actually develop a... have a mental breakdown in the next week, you’re okay. If anyone will have a mental breakdown – it’s myself and, you know, my deputy chair has had a run-in with him for the last two years.
Well, let’s talk about that.
Collings: And the pressure he’s putting on, obviously, other people – females, his staff, colleagues.
So, you mentioned your deputy chair and the fact that you had a run-in with him, so that was when his wife went up against you for chair of the Howick Local Board. That got nasty?
Collings: Oh, it got very nasty.
In what way?
Collings: Well, he actually threatened, attacked my members, for support.
What do you mean, threatened?
Collings: Oh, the threats of, I mean, for example, my deputy chair has aspirations... And she’d be a great National Party MP. I’ll put her up for Botany, you know. But he’s used that over her to try and get his way – threatening her, ‘your political career will go nowhere’. Other members of the board. Even a sworn police officer – veiled threats about your employment, you know.
And against you?
Collings: I wasn’t even contacted. But obviously, I knew exactly what was going on, even was privy to... I think it was on the actual day of our meeting when we elected the chair. He called through – and I’ve said it before – in, like, a Darth Vader voice, ‘I can’t believe you’re willing to give up your political career.’ Sorry, I can do a better Darth Vader voice than that, but that’s what it was like. But like Freddy Krueger or something.
And how did you know it was him?
Collings: Oh, well, after, we said— we kind of laughed at first, and then he sort of... I’m not sure if he said it was him, because I was actually going to try and get my phone to try and record it, so I missed the end of it. But it was on – what do you call it – a cell phone that was untraceable, sort of thing – no number.
So, this bullying, as you’re talking about – what did you actually do about it? Did you do anything about it? Did you go to the National Party?
Collings: Look, we complained to the National Party. And Greg Hamilton, who was the manager at the time, was quite helpful. He said, ‘What you’re telling us is not right. An MP shouldn’t be getting involved in something in local government, particularly when his wife is involved.’ And Greg was quite helpful, but it didn’t stop. So I think I went back to him, like, a week later, and he said – I think I may have got the text message – ‘Look, I spoke to Jami-Lee last week, and I thought the matter had been resolved.’ And I said, ‘No, it hasn’t. There’s no way it has. He’s still having a go at my members.’ And not only my members. I remember in the room, the arts centre where we had our first inaugural meeting, he was there in front of his wife, doing this in front of his own wife’s face, so obviously even having a go at her, which is quite sad. And over this whole thing, we’ve got to be real sympathetic towards his wife, as much as we’ve had fallouts in the past. She’s a real victim in this, and it’s very sad for her.
One question – I mean, Ross says it went to mediation. There were privacy agreements or confidentiality agreements signed. Did the party do enough to shut him down at the time?
Collings: Look, I think they attempted to. I don’t think they really realised— nobody really realised the calamity of this and how bad it was. I mean, we knew, because we were experiencing it first-hand. I was hearing it from my members on a daily basis. But I think they tried to. They brought the two together and said, ‘Hey, look, guys. We don’t want this going anywhere. Let’s settle down. You’re both National Party supporters. Let’s work in the interests of the party.’ And Katrina did that. She’s been a great supporter for the party. But Jami-Lee has just gone rogue. He’s just... Everything...
Simpson: And that’s exactly the point. So, the party does everything in its power to actually help in these situations. Even if it is an NDA, it is actually, ‘What can we do to help a politician? What can we do to help those that are affected?’ A couple of things that happened, though, is that Parliamentary Services have an employee assistance programme, which you can always direct an MP to if you’ve got issues at home or if you’ve issues at work or if you’ve got any other issue that you may have – ‘Here, please use this programme. It is available to you. You can have as many sessions as you want.’ That’s up to the MP, or immediate family members of the MP may use it as well. So that’s always going to be offered. Regarding the party aspect, this is not their first rodeo. This has happened a lot since 1936. There are always MPs that go rogue. The opportunity, though, is for the party to go, ‘What’s happening here?’ But unless somebody turns up with a police statement, then it has to be dealt with at that level, and that’s the difficulty of it.
So you’re saying that the party probably did do enough at the time?
Simpson: The party always does a lot behind the scenes which the media will never report on in that sense. But that’s what it has to do, because the party is not Parliament. The party’s actually a business as well. When I was there, it was 45,000 members. You are running a business, so you have to do that well. However, an MP is elected by the electorate and is responsible to that electorate.
Because of your experience as a former general manager — Ross is claiming that there is rot inside the National Party. He was sent to deal with rogue MPs and difficult donations. In your experience, is that how the party works?
Simpson: So, me being a former general manager and a former director of research, the party is so governed by rules. So, Simon Bridges used to be on the Rules Committee, okay, and as a whip. And everything is also governed by the Electoral Act of 1983. And the Electoral Act is so, so detailed about what you can and can’t do. I used to have it sitting on my table, because I did not want to go to jail. And especially part 6, section 207LA says that if you adopt any corrupt practices and direct anybody in any way, shape or form, you’re liable to go to jail. So, yeah.
So, you’re sort of saying that Bridges would have abided by this?
Is there any way that he didn’t know about the $100,000 donation as he so claims?
Simpson: Well, it’s the sort of thing whereby, technically, if you’ve got an MP out there saying whatever MPs are saying, ‘I’ve got a lot of money; I’ve got $100,000,’ unless the leader has seen that money, he won’t know, okay? That money has to be receipted by the party secretary. And if it’s $100,000, it has to be notified within 30 days. Then the leader will know about it, if it’s after 30 days and it’s been receipted. If it's an MP going around big-mouthing, then…
Okay, so has anything that Jami-Lee Ross has revealed this week proved his claims against Simon Bridges?
Simpson: Not at all, because I looked through all the texts in the sense of the way that the current general secretary of the party, general manager’s covered it. If you look at those texts in detail, the general manager is trying to get the name of the donors. And that’s absolutely appropriate. If they hadn’t have done that, then yeah, absolutely, it would have been a legal issue.
Okay. Well, let’s move onto the allegations reported on the Newsroom website this week. I mean, David, were you aware, from women in your, sort of, area – were you aware about the bad experiences ranging from bullying, harassment to even sex?
Collings: Well, I mean, the sexual stuff is pretty bad. Some of the things with, what is it, brutal sex? I mean, you know, what are the—? But even now, last night, I read the report on the way he treated the lovely young ladies in his office. And I think that’s what he liked to employ, by looking back. But he just absolutely berated them. And it’s just a pattern here, from his colleagues to his... I don’t know what you call them.
Okay. Do you think that his behaviour changed as his reputation in the party changed or grew?
Collings: Well, I think the ego grew, I guess. And, yeah, definitely. And that’s one of the reasons... Look, we met with Melanie Reid. And thank you to Melanie for breaking the story. I went to Melanie because she broke the story on Todd Barclay. And I said, ‘Look, this guy, we’ve got a guy in our area that makes Todd Barclay look like an angel.’ But we knew nothing of this. This is, you know...
Was he like this as a teenager when you first met him? I mean, he was very ambitious.
Collings: Yeah, look, he’s what you’d call a career politician. He’s a political animal, and credit to him, he’s very good at that. But this is just going off the rails. This is unacceptable. It clearly comes from a lack of male role models in his life, because it’s all about women. I mean, he isn’t afraid to try and intimidate men as well. But it’s, um, yeah.
Okay. I want to bring Chris in again. I mean, one of the things that Jami-Lee Ross has done is the secret recordings, and those comments by Simon Bridges and him about, sort of, bringing in money and whether there’s any expectation that candidates would come in with that money. In your experience, if an MP does bring in lots of donations, does that give them more influence in the party?
Simpson: No, no, absolutely nil influence whatsoever. And it is purely because the party is a company, as such. So, I was sitting there as general manager. How do I make sure that my team are paid for their salaries? How do we actually look after the electorates and the likes? The party is very different to the— I used to call the politicians the salespeople, the retail arm. Their job was to go out and sell. There’s always a natural sort of a contest between the two organisations where the politicians will say to the party ‘we need this’, and as a party general manager I would say, ‘No, you can take that out of your leader’s budget, because we’re running a business over here.’
Simpson: And regarding policy, the way that you do policy is that you actually put your head down and you write policy. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work. So otherwise, it’s a lot of politicians being...
So, it’s been a remarkable week in politics – something that I have never seen before, and many people haven’t. Chris, the party says it’s united behind Bridges now. So how long is that going to last, and is there any way that Simon Bridges can survive this?
Simpson: Yes, absolutely he can survive this, because the irony is that it now brings the party closer together. And for two reasons – one, for a senior whip to do what a senior whip has done is genuinely appalling, even for somebody like me, who is seasoned in politics. Secondly, it brings the party together, because they kind of realise that, actually, the bad side is with them – cut it out, get back into focusing on policy, get on message, because there’s a government made up of three loose units somehow running the country. That’s what they should be focusing on. That brings them together.
And Jami-Lee Ross says he’s got more allegations to come. What do you say about that, David?
Collings: Well, quite frankly, Simon, I’m calling— In the words of Jami-Lee Ross, I’m calling BS on it. And I’m challenging him to a meeting and an interview with him and myself. I don’t care what programme it’s on, on the radio. We can have a public meeting in a hall somewhere. But if you are telling the truth, Jami-Lee, come and have a discussion about it, and I’ll challenge you on the comments you’ve made. This is your opportunity. Otherwise, if you can’t front up, the people of Botany deserve the truth. And I’m sorry, but Jami-Lee can’t handle the truth. If he believes he’s right, front up to an interview with myself.
David Collings and Chris Simpson, thank you very much for your time.