UPDATED: This post is a different version from one published on RNZ this morning. It takes into account Trevor Mallard's decision to halt the inquiry into the leak of Simon Bridge's travel expenses. A decision that doesn't resolve anything
Well that’s as clear as mud. And, in way or another, rather sad. We now know that last Thursday both Opposition leader and Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard received a text from someone claiming to be a National MP and taking responsibility for the leak to Newshub of Bridges’ travel expenses. In a detailed text that Bridges later shared with police, the person claimed to be suffering from mental health concerns.
Speaking at parliament this morning Bridges, in echoes of Labour’s youth camp debacle, said he took expert advice on how to deal with the mental health issues claimed by the texter. Presumably he took legal and political advice from his colleagues as well.
Responsibly, he forwarded the text to police and they investigated. They reported back that they have identified the person, that while there were “wellbeing issues” those did not extend to “safety issues” and they expected the parliamentary investigation to proceed.
It may seem odd to many that the police will not tell Bridges or Mallard who sent the text. But police operations are properly independent of parliament and the person’s privacy must be respected by police.
That did not mean Parliamentary Services were bound to stop its work. Yet that's exactly what they did. Trevor Mallard announced several hours after Bridge's stand-up that the inquiry was off because the texter is "clearly disturbed" (an ill-judged use of language, I'd suggest) and his priority is to get them proper support.
Mallard and Bridges both say they don't know who the person is (at least Mallard's statement implies that). So how Mallard can diagnose from a distance, I don't know. Bridges at least has spoken with police, who say the person's "safety" is not at risk. He took "expert advice". Has Mallard?
However they reached their respective decisions, they disagree how serious the situation is. But whoever you agree with, it seems to me that an ill-judged inquiry that should never have been started in the first place is being called off on the basis of more ill-judged thinking.
As Bridges says, the second issue alongside the person’s wellbeing is “the integrity of the parliamentary system”. Legitimate questions should be asked about why a QC-led inquiry was needed in the first place. This was the most minor of leaks – public information released just a few days before it was to be made public anyway. The inquiry is a mallet being used to crack a nut and risks a chilling effect amongst those who may feel honour-bound to leak more serious information.
But, seemingly unintentionally, the person who sent this text has now raised the stakes. They told Bridges they had leaked the information because they found him “arrogant”; so it’s now clear the motivation was political and personal, not in the public interest. So while the person's individual health is important and he or she should be cared for, I'm wary of the precedent the Speaker is setting by simply calling off an inquiry, especially without any indication of what happens next.
Is he saying he no longer cares who leaked the information? Just nine days ago he said, "someone has deliberately undermined either an individual or the system. And I want us to if at all possible to get to the bottom of it". Does he still? Is he saying that the person is so unwell we can never know their identity?
Now, there are only a couple of options in terms of what really happened. And this is where it doesn't seem Mallard or Bridges have really thought this through.
One, this is someone impersonating a National MP. That is cynical politics if so and would reflect very badly on that person and who they represent. To play the mental health card if it is not genuine is in the worst taste; the seriousness of mental health issues have been underlined in the days since this text was sent with Greg Boyed’s death.
If, however, the police are correct and mental health issues are at play here, then the person must be protected, as Bridges and Mallard both said. Their emphasis on that is to be commended and shows how far we have come on these issues in the past decade. That does not mean the person necessarily escapes investigation, however. National MPs have the right to have suspicion around them lifted. While the crime was minor, the decision to impersonate an MP means transparency is now needed, as well as compassion. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Scenario two is that this is a National MP. This seems more likely, given the insider knowledge supposedly in the text. If so, it raises serious questions for Bridges’ leadership and can only undermine him. The case of Chris Carter comes to mind and his anonymous letter in 2010 attempting to destabilise Phil Goff’s leadership of Labour. A loyal Clark supporter, he couldn’t move on to the new leadership team and ultimately left parliament.
It’s interesting to note that Carter, in the days after being caught and exposed, said, “I guess in a way I was wanting to get caught”.
Mallard's decision, while seemingly compassionate, doesn't actually resolve things. If the person who sent the text is so unwell that he/she cannot stand public scrutiny, then they have no place serving as an MP. For their own health and the good of the people they represent, they should stand down immediately. It's OK to ask for help; I'm not sure if secrecy really helps. Further, you cannot be unfit for scrutiny yet fit for public office.
Of course this will necessarily reveal who they are. Anonymity cannot be preserved. But they need to stand aside and get better.
It’s time for the person who sent the text to step forward, account for their actions and get the help they need.