(First published in The Dominion Post, June 30.)
Two things you never stop learning as a journalist is that there are usually two sides to a story and that things are often not quite what they seem. I was reminded of this by the media feeding frenzy over Clutha-Southland MP Todd Barclay.
On the surface, it looked straightforward enough. Here was a cocky young MP, a political careerist ordained by the party’s high priests and priestesses as an up-and-comer, brought down in a steaming heap of ordure – and committing the unpardonable sin of splattering his leader in the process.
As I watched the story unfold I couldn’t help but think we’d been here before. Then the name came to me: Aaron Gilmore.
Gilmore, you may recall, was the National MP with an over-developed sense of entitlement who had a career-ending confrontation in 2013 with a Hanmer Springs hotel waiter who refused his demand for more drinks.
In one of those delicious “don’t you realise who I am?” moments, Gilmore reportedly threatened to have the waiter sacked. As things turned out, it was Gilmore’s career that was terminated.
Barclay seemed at first glance to have something in common with the hapless Gilmore, namely a large dollop of hubris. His downfall had all the ingredients of a modern morality play, which is how most of the media played it.
It was several days before Fairfax political editor Tracy Watkins and Jane Clifton in the Listener weighed in with more nuanced accounts of the affair.
Reading Watkins’ article last Saturday, it was obvious that Barclay had a lot of National MPs, including one or two heavy hitters, on his side. He wasn’t hung out to dry, as he undoubtedly would have been if he was regarded as not worth the time of day.
You could also see how the mess had happened. Stolid, phlegmatic Bill English had been succeeded after 18 years as electorate MP by an apparently brash young upstart who, although born in Dipton and raised in Gore, bore the imprint of a man whose preferred habitats were hedonistic Queenstown and power-obsessed Wellington.
Factor in an electorate stalwart who had been running English’s Gore office for more than a decade, and who apparently had her own way of doing things, and you had a situation ripe for friction. With English away in Wellington much of the time due to his leadership obligations, she was often left to run the show and was very likely a centre of power in her own right. Small wonder that things turned ugly.
To anyone reading Watkins’ and Clifton’s accounts, it clearly wasn’t a simple case of an arrogant young man spitting the dummy because he couldn’t have his own way. It was far more complicated than that.
Barclay’s big mistake, of course, was to secretly record office conversations, presumably with the aim of uncovering disloyalty. In any circumstances it would have been underhand. Unfortunately it was also illegal.
And what made matters immeasurably worse was that his boss was drawn into the imbroglio and then seriously messed things up by not being straight with the media. Fatal.
Even so, you have to wonder how much impact all this had on the public. The press gallery got very excited, as it always does when it sniffs blood, but you sensed that people out in Voter Land wondered what all the fuss was about. It didn’t help that much of the media coverage was confused and confusing.
There’s one more point to be made about the Barclay affair. As with Gilmore, National had a problem with a young man who exhibited a surfeit of self-confidence.
The Nats seem to attract such princelings from time to time. It might be a slight exaggeration to say that they exude a born-to-rule aura, but it’s not altogether far from the truth.
I suspect it’s worse in cases where they are elected on the party list and don’t have an electorate to keep them grounded, and worse still when National has been in power for two or three terms and they assume this is the natural order of things.
In the Wairarapa, where I live, we have a slightly different issue. Our National MP, Alastair Scott, doesn’t have a reputation for arrogance, but he does give the impression that he thinks all he needs to do to win re-election is turn up at public events and smile for the camera.
This has been noted in the electorate and it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets a bit of a fright in September.