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.

Comments (23)

by Alan Johnstone on August 24, 2018
Alan Johnstone

"If, however, the police are correct and mental health issues are at play here, then the person must be protected"

Ehh, no.

The jails are full of people with mental health problems, "please let me escape the consequences of my actions because I'm fragile" isn't a defence. It's blackmail.

Bridges started this when he kicked off a witch hunt, implying it came from withing the civil service or Labour.

He cast suspicion on all these people. Witch hunts have a habit of running out of control, but when you start one you need to see it through and burn the witch, regardless if it's in your family. 

by Nick Gibbs on August 24, 2018
Nick Gibbs

I agree Tim. If no action is taken then Bridges is destabilised because anonymous agents (supposiedly in his own party) are working against him and he is unable to taken any action. He will be seen as weak. Goff removed Carter. Bridges has to do the same with the leaker.

by Nick Gibbs on August 24, 2018
Nick Gibbs

So Mallard cans the enquiry and Jacinda axes Curran. Coincidence? I think not.

by Chris Morris on August 24, 2018
Chris Morris

Tim

You may wish to correct the spelling in your article. You have Mr Carter's first name as Christ or has he now got sainthood?

by Tim Watkin on August 24, 2018
Tim Watkin

Thanks Chris(t) Morris. I'm not sure what part of my sub-conscious that reveals!

by Tim Watkin on August 24, 2018
Tim Watkin

Alan, that's a really interesting point. I don't think two wrongs make a right and anyone with mental health issues should get more care. But it's a bloody good point that 'what's good for the goose is good for the gander'.

by Anne on August 24, 2018
Anne

I, too, am uneasy about the way this saga is being handled. It is all very well showing compassion for someone who is mentally unwell, but if they have committed a serious misdemeanour [and indeed they have] or worse still, committed a fraudulent act by pretending to be a MP [and this possibility can't be ruled out either] then they must be held to account for their actions.

By all means offer compassion and assistance, but to categorically state [as the police appear to have done] that it is... "a mental health issue only and the identity of the person will not be revealed"... smacks to me of one rule for some and another rule for the rest of us.

This is definitely not OK.

by Ross on August 25, 2018
Ross

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.

A person's privacy must be respected by police? Really, Tim? So why did police go to Westpac and inform it that Nicky Hager was under investigation for fraud? No, police will respect an individual's privacy when it suits police. 

by Ross on August 25, 2018
Ross

By all means offer compassion and assistance, but to categorically state [as the police appear to have done] that it is... "a mental health issue only and the identity of the person will not be revealed"... smacks to me of one rule for some and another rule for the rest of us.

If an MP has an extended leave of absence from Parliament over the coming weeks, it presumably will raise suspicion that they were the leaker. If a National MP resigns in the near future, that is likely to result in similar speculation. It also raises conjecture over at least one National MP, who has previously taken stress leave and who has dropped well down the National list rankings following Bridges' appointment as leader. By not publicly identifying the leaker, suspicion will linger. I can't see how that can possibly help National.

by Alan Johnstone on August 25, 2018
Alan Johnstone

Why was the text message forwarded to the police ?

In what way is this a criminal matter ?

by Kyle Matthews on August 25, 2018
Kyle Matthews

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.

Tim, I have to stronly object to this view on mental health. Firstly, there will be several MPs who face mental health issues in their day to day work. From time to time that may get more serious and they may struggle to complete work, but like many people they will cope fine with what life throws at them 99% of the time, and take time to deal with stuff the other 1%.

Presuming this story is true, this person has put themselves in a very difficult and stressful situation. It's not surprising that this has caused their mental health issues to get more difficult. It may be that this makes them unsuitable to a MP, but it's much more likely that they can move on from this situation after a period of time and spend the rest of the year doing good work.

We have had MPs take time off to be treated for cancer or other medical issues, have babies. We need to start thinking of people who are living with mental health issues as normal, rather than excluding them from contributing to society. If we treat it as normal, and then step up to support when life does get too hard, then maybe as a society we'd deal better with the issue?

Apart from anything else, maybe if we had more MPs able to talk openly and deal with their own mental health issues, parliament would represent the massive proportion of our population that are working through this as well, and do a better job in supporting them. That's not possible if we call for them to resign because sometimes it causes them problems.

Nga mihi, Kyle

by Lee Churchman on August 25, 2018
Lee Churchman

There’s also the possibility that Mallard has a pretty good idea who it is and has stepped back because it’s the least damaging option (or the most). 

by Anne on August 25, 2018
Anne

"Presuming this story is true, this person has put themselves in a very difficult and stressful situation."

There is no question about that. But what we don't know is the back-ground of the person concerned. I'm not suggesting that the mental health issues have been over-stated, but what if this person has committed other serious misdemeanours in the past that would likely come to light in the event they are identified. Such a scenario would certainly prompt the person to do everything possible to avoid public identification.

It is an unlikley scenario but is still worthy of consideration until such a time as the truth is revealed. 


by Ross on August 25, 2018
Ross

this person has put themselves in a very difficult and stressful situation. It's not surprising that this has caused their mental health issues to get more difficult. It may be that this makes them unsuitable to a MP, but it's much more likely that they can move on from this situation after a period of time and spend the rest of the year doing good work.

That could well be true. I think that most people with mental health issues are able to work effectively. I certainly don't think that the leaker is necessarily unfit to be an MP. Clare Curran has stuffed up at least twice and remains an MP and a Minister outside Cabinet. The difference, however, is that Curran's poor judgment has been revealed and she's been demoted. She's also apologised and shown remorse. But I'm not aware that any action has been taken against the leaker, and I've heard no remorse from them. Nor has there been a public apology. How is that satisfactory for a senior public servant? 

by Dennis Frank on August 27, 2018
Dennis Frank

Ross wrote:  "A person's privacy must be respected by police? Really, Tim? So why did police go to Westpac and inform it that Nicky Hager was under investigation for fraud? No, police will respect an individual's privacy when it suits police."

Wasn't National government then?  Police policy around applying privacy law to operational decisions would have to be in accord with whoever is in government.  Consistency would create the false impression in the public mind that tradition and convention no longer apply.

The current minister of police could call in the commissioner and direct him to adopt a policy of consistent application of the privacy law regardless of whoever is in government.  It would help to get the advice from the governments top legal office prior, to ensure a suitable outcome.  It would also help to ask the commissioner, when scheduling the meeting, to provide a comprehensive rationale for why Hager's privacy was not protected by the police in accord with the law.  Always useful to require a police commissioner to demonstrate competence.

Machiavelli

by Tim Watkin on August 28, 2018
Tim Watkin

Ross: The police clearly got it wrong with Hager and got pinged for it in court. But by and large they respect privacy. And this isn't investigation over-reach, it's just 'we've checked but it would be wrong for us to tell you more'. Lower level stuff.

Alan: If you feared someone may be a danger to themselves but didn't know who they were, you'd ring the police wouldn't you? That seems entirely reasonable to me. 

by Tim Watkin on August 28, 2018
Tim Watkin

Lee, the concern is that it could be the more cynical bracketed part of your answer. I can't get into his head and maybe it's more innocent, but the fact that he's left himself open to such speculation and gone on holiday with this hanging over the decision does not seem like a great stewardship of the Speaker's role.

by Tim Watkin on August 28, 2018
Tim Watkin

Kyle you make good points. My concern is two-fold, as I wrote. Both for their own health and for the people and institutions they represent. 

The suggestion from the text is that this person is very fragile and Mallard says they are "clearly disturbed". That suggests something more than a passing blip. All National MPs, as far as I know, are going about their daily jobs. Certainly anyone taking urgent leave now amidst this messy process would raise suspicion and so everyone is determinedly carrying on. But if this person is unwell, even just in this stressful situation, the stress goes on as does National's inquiry, so it doesn't seem like a conducive situation for them to get better. For their own sake, I was arguing they should come clean and get help.

If we really want to be transparent about mental health, as you rightly say, and talk about it openly, I don't see how this secrecy helps that. 

You may be right that this could pass. But if the issues they are struggling with are at a more minor level (and the police seem relaxed enough), should they not be expected to be able to say so publicly? 

Then there are the issues of the office. Of course people with any kind of mental health issues should be able to serve - and do. But are we comfortable with that justifying anonymity and a lack of accountability? My argument is not that people with mental health issues can't serve, but rather if you have any sort of health or related issues that mean you cannot stand up and be held accountable for your actions, then perhaps politics is not the best career choice.

I'm not trying to stigmatise in anyway and may be wrong, but all those other examples are done transparently. Ie babies, cancer etc. Not hidden behind anonymous texts. This is, after all, not a mountain of pressure that has built up unbidden or unforeseen, but the consequence of their own political game-playing. So I'm wary.

If, for example, as you say this scenario has put them under pressure but they will soon move on and get back to good work, would you expect them to go public as the leaker then?

by Tim Watkin on August 28, 2018
Tim Watkin

Dennis, I would be utterly appalled if a Police Minister did any such thing. There's no need for clarity, the proper action is well esconsed in our institutions. Police operational matters are no place for ministers of the Crown. Simple as that. Hager was an appalling exception to that rule for which police were rightly punished in court.

But no minister should be directing police in operational matters; that would be a terrible abuse of state power. And there is already an age-old consistent policy. That is - butt out.

Remember the Urewera raids? Clark and King were only briefed the night before. Permission wasn't sought or given, they were simply told as a courtesy and to prepare them for resultant public discussion and media coverage. Such things are down to police decisions, not politicians'.

by Dennis Frank on August 29, 2018
Dennis Frank

Tim, it looks like you didn't read what I wrote carefully!  I specifically differentiated between policy & operations in order to conform with that convention.

The point I was making is that rather than the traditional policy of favouritism towards the government of the day, a consistent policy ought to be adopted by the police so as to enhance their credibility.  Public resentment of their arbitrary judgments would abate.

by Tim Watkin on August 30, 2018
Tim Watkin

But Denis the point stands. It has always been expected that police not favour the government of the day. That has long been accepted policy. If it fails, it is a failure of a clearly articulated policy. And whatever words you use, a Police Minister calling in a commissioner and giving instructions on the application of a law is wildly inappropriate.

by Dennis Frank on September 02, 2018
Dennis Frank

Well Tim, the Cabinet Manual says "Appointed ministers are responsible for the actions, successes and failures of their departments."

So I can't see that you have any legal basis for your claim.  Can you find one that validates it?  Can you explain how you think a minister can exercise their legal responsibility without instructing the Commissioner how to apply government policy?  What seems missing in your comment is explanation of how a Commissioner's mistakes can be corrected.  I see no point in having a minister if they are merely an impotent figure-head - and I find it hard to believe they are!

by Dennis Frank on September 03, 2018
Dennis Frank

Also, I found this in regard to the current Minister of Police:  "Responsibilities include oversight of the general conduct, functions, and duties of the Police, and the effective, efficient, and economical management of the Police."

Seems obvious that I'm right.  How the hell can he rectify the Commissioner's mistakes  without exercising his responsibility `for the effective, efficient management of the police'?  Do you really believe he can do so without directly intervening and taking corrective action?

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