OPINION: Simon Bridges has ordered a review of the National Party's culture following the Jami-Lee Ross saga. Such exercises tend to set up by those who have a pretty clear idea of the outcomes they want to see and who are likely to be dismissive if they're not duly delivered, writes Bryan Gould, the former UK Labour MP was appointed to lead a review into the NZ Labour Party after the 2014 election defeat.
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The standard response of most politicians to a problem that has no obvious solution is to set up a review. The current government has made it into an art form.
The announcement of a review, it seems, offers several advantages – it buys time while suggesting that something concrete is being done, it hands the problem over to someone else, and it might, in the fullness of time, come up with a solution that could perhaps, once longer views have been taken, be acceptable to most of those affected.
True to form, Simon Bridges' response to the Jami-Lee Ross debacle has been to set up a review – to inquire into, it is said, the National party's "culture". A decision along these lines might well have been expected, except for the fact that the National leader's last experience of setting up a review was hardly a happy one.
That review, it will be recalled, was set up (against the advice of many in his own party) to explore a similarly complicated issue – the question of who from within the National Party had leaked the leader's travel expenses to the media. It was that ill-fated exercise that – by pointing the finger at Jami-Lee Ross – drew him into the picture, and plunged the party into crisis; the rest, as they say, is history.
It is a measure of the desperate situation in which Simon Bridges now finds himself that he is willing to run the risk again. This time, however, he has tried to take out an insurance policy. The review, we are told, is to be of "the National party's culture" – a transparent attempt to suggest that the responsibility for the debacle lies with the party as a whole and with amorphous issues like "culture", and not with the failings and rivalries of identifiable individual National MPs, like Bridges and Ross themselves, and Paula Bennett (whose role in the affair has not yet been fully revealed).
The reference to "culture" is of course an attempt at distraction. The implication is that the issues that now need to be dealt with are whether the organisation as a whole has reacted appropriately when issues of mental health are revealed or when allegations of harassment, sexual and otherwise, are made. The intention is to give the impression that these are issues that are likely to be found in any large organisation (such as, it seems, large law firms) and that the National party is commendably getting ahead of the game by instituting an inquiry.
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There is no recognition that the issues revealed by the affair are not about organisations but about individuals – and especially about individuals who put themselves forward to the public as deserving their support and who offer themselves as guardians of our national standards. The questions raised by the Jami-Lee Ross saga concern the personal behaviour and attitudes to matters of legality and public policy of the leader and of other senior members of the party – matters, in other words, that are specific to National's political pitch to the voters and that go well beyond internal organisational responses to social issues.
The outcomes of reviews are never entirely predictable and seldom justify the decision to set them up. I make this comment with some feeling – it is made on the basis of personal experience.
Following the Labour party's election defeat in 2014, the party's Council wished to see what lessons could be learned from the defeat and what course should be set for the future. They decided on a review – and I was asked to lead it.
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Three colleagues and I worked hard over a period of a couple of months. We consulted party members and MPs, and reviewed the party's finances and organisation, its methods and structures, and its policies and its understanding of how society was changing.
The review, when completed, was handed over to the Council and to the wider party. It made a number of recommendations and suggested that Labour needed to understand better the nature and significance of the politics that its opponents had successfully sold to the New Zealand public. It advocated a return to the values of the party's founding fathers.
I can only surmise, however, that it contained too much strong meat for some tastes. It was quietly buried and most members have never seen anything of it (though today's party, I am glad to say, does seem closer to its spirit).
My conclusion is that reviews are often set up by those who have a pretty clear idea of the outcomes they want to see and who are likely to be dismissive if those outcomes are not duly delivered. There is no reason to suppose that the latest review ordered by Simon Bridges will be any different. If it were to suggest that the party's leading figures had failed to meet their responsibilities – especially if it were to recommend that heads should roll – we can be confident that it will be quietly parked in a siding.
In the meantime, Simon Bridges will try to keep his head down, sheltering beneath what he hopes will be its protective cover. He will no doubt try to appoint someone to lead the review who can be trusted to wash the party leadership clean. But unless that person is seen to be incontrovertibly independent, those conclusions will not be taken seriously and the review will have been a waste of time.