Clifton: post-mortem on the Barclay fiasco

A “post-mortem on Todd Barclay fiasco” (and the McCarten fiasco) has just popped up on Noted after being in the Listener a couple of weeks ago, with any interesting analysis of the complexities that most of the media failed to address.

On Barclay:

Given his youth, affluence, career and party affiliation, Barclay was always going to struggle to get the benefit of the doubt in any political stoush. But the more that emerges about this affair, the more simplistic the popular media take on it seems;: that it’s all about Barclay abusing local staff and members. To refine something this column said last week, Barclay was probably more sinned against than sinning.

After months of intense local parsing of gossip, factoid and eyewitness account, National Party members voted by a considerable margin to reselect Barclay as their candidate. Either they didn’t believe the half of what his detractors said or they reckoned it didn’t matter. Maybe, too, they made judgments about people’s motives. When a new MP moves in, the old guard in an electorate can suffer an attack of that age-old complaint called relevance-deprivation syndrome.

The kernel of the complaints was that Barclay lived it up a little too much, threw his weight around and paid more attention to townie business than rural folk. One could fairly ask, what twentysomething living in Queenstown wouldn’t party, and if not, what the heck was wrong with them? Tourism and property development are the district’s rocket fuel, so the local MP is obliged to prioritise them. And as MP, he’s the electorate boss. Staff have to do things his way, even if they reckon he’s wrong. These, at least, were the conclusions of the majority of Nats who reselected him.

That should have been an end to it. His foes relitigated their dissatisfaction with a slew of formal complaints to the party board, but these were rejected after an investigation led by lawyer and former Cabinet minister Kate Wilkinson.

How would anyone, let alone a novice MP, feel if they believed people who were supposed to support them – including some who were being paid to do so – were accusing them of criminality and licentiousness?

Let’s hastily say that trying to catch one’s accusers out with illicit bugging would not be a correct or proportionate response. But it’s now clear that, to whatever extent bullying took place, it went both ways.

Despite those rumours having swirled for a couple of years, Barclay has never been investigated for anything other than the taping allegation, so this tattling has to be seen as spite. If anyone genuinely thought the MP was involved in such illegality, the correct thing to do would have been to tell the police. Whether or not Barclay sought to psych out his foes by bugging or a bluff of bugging, it’s now pretty clear some of them had first sought to psych him out by slanderous rumour-mongering. They might count themselves lucky that defamation is a civil rather than criminal matter, or police might be investigating them as well.

There was obviously a comprehensive campaign run against Barclay over several days using an obliging Newsroom (who as far as I have seen may scant attempt to balance their coverage with any investigating of the other side of the story).

On Bill English:

English’s peculiar hedging over aspects of Barclay’s electorate’s protracted squabbles have now damaged his reputation as a rock-solid leader. His seemingly needless hemming and hawing may be down to his uneasy conscience at the knowledge that he could have done more to stop the young MP’s plight becoming unsalvageable.

A further fact that Barclay’s foes must confront is the amount of political firepower arrayed in his defence, particularly within the National caucus. That support appears to remain solid, despite – and possibly because of – the suggestion that not all MPs are happy with English’s handling of matters. Ambitious, experienced MPs with big careers ahead of them have openly supported Barclay throughout his tribulations.

That’s not to say that ministers including Jonathan Coleman, Maggie Barry and Judith Collins and rising stars like Chris Bishop and Todd Muller have not told Barclay he’s been a blithering idiot. But they wouldn’t have telegraphed their support – several attending the selection meeting to back him – if they believed he’d been the primary menace in this mess. Nor would they risk their reputations if they thought he was a useless MP or a liability.

In any caucus, loyalty comes second to self-preservation. Few MPs in big trouble get that level of overt endorsement from colleagues. National’s Aaron Gilmore and Richard Worth didn’t get a sniff of it on their way out the door. Collins herself, when she was in shtook last election, would have welcomed a fraction of the ballast Barclay has had. English can’t be in any doubt that many of his MPs now feel he let Barclay down rather more badly than Barclay let down the party.

A further key difference – indeed, a Key difference – is that the MP-overboard outcome has not made the Prime Minister look strong. When John Key disciplined or dispatched errant MPs, he always emerged looking like someone who would not stand for any nonsense. English, by contrast, made himself look part of the problem rather than the guy who put a stop to it.

It was a big reality check for English, showing that he can’t just stroll through the campaign to the election. He has ground to make up after this slow motion slip up.

In conclusion:

For the Government, the Barclay fiasco is also proving damaging, but more in the way of storing up internal trouble for later. It may make voters re-examine their assumptions about English’s steadiness at the helm, but it’s unlikely to be a game-changer. The major damage is the doubt and resentment he’s seeded within the caucus and party. When one day National’s polling falters, he’ll pay for the Barclay affair.

How this pans out will probably be largely determined by the election result. If National hang on to power English should be safe for a while at least. But if they lose the political knives are likely to be aiming at English’s back fairly quickly.

4 Comments

  1. duperez

     /  July 24, 2017

    You can imagine some sober staid stalwarts becoming upset by someone they see as an upstart. Dismissing their attitude as a reaction to “What twentysomething living in Queenstown wouldn’t party?” is just that, dismissive.

    Was the “more simplistic popular media take on it” more simplistic than the take that “Barclay lived it up a little too much, threw his weight around and paid more attention to townie business than rural folk”? Threw his weight around? Was he an arrogant little prick who they’d had gutsful of? Did the rumours which “swirled for a couple of years” and “intense local parsing of gossip” grow gradually from genuine disquiet about poor behaviour?

    “Scant attempt to balance coverage” must come with the territory. Jane Clifton mentions “English’s peculiar hedging over aspects of Barclay’s electorate’s protracted squabbles” and the political implications for the PM. The more informative peculiar hedging surely was English’s peculiar hedging about his own part in the events and his accounts of that.

    Electorally none of it is of significance anyway except that a few disenchanted southern stalwarts won’t put their usual effort in this time around.

  2. oldlaker

     /  July 24, 2017

    Clifton thinks Barclay was unfairly treated but she doesn’t make a very good case. It seems to me that he was too young, too arrogant and too stupid to realise who oiled the party machine in his electorate — which is to say who could make or break him.

    • There’s a good case to make that he was “too young, too arrogant and too stupid”.

      But there are number of signs too that done over by a person or persons, with the help of some of the media who seemed to have little interest in looking for (or publishing) any balance to the story.

      I’ve seen a number of claims that Barclay was poorly treated.

      And there is also evidence that he had a quite a bit of strong support from a number of MPs with indications he wasn’t solely to blame for the mess.

  3. Gezza

     /  July 24, 2017

    Clifton writes well. The excerpts you chose look to me like she made a pretty good analysis of that whole situation & the bumbling way Bill handled an awkward & potentially damaging situation. I’m not sure whether he’ll learn from it – it was likely a one-off because the Party hierarchy will probably be more alert to danger signals if anything like this situation looks posdible again elsewhere.

    But I think it really is a storm in a teacup for most folk. The online print media might be doing their best to keep it going, but it looks to me like the tv media have lost interest now. They’ll be looking for fresh, new blood in the water. Luckily, Metz has come to the party there. No doubt there’ll be other opportunities fir media feeding frenzies over lesser scandals as well.