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John Armstrong's opinion: Jami-Lee Ross may have inadvertently done Simon Bridges a big favour

To suggest that Jami-Lee Ross of all people has been more than helpful to National in their desperate quest for a viable coalition partner is to invite being deluged with derision and disdain.

The view that some good for National has come out of the ugliest of fracas generated by the party’s former front-bencher, one-time chief whip and current MP for the Auckland seat of Botany is unlikely to gain much traction anytime soon — especially among National loyalists.

Yet, incredible as it might sound, National’s current public enemy No.1 may have inadvertently done Simon Bridges a big favour as the latter grapples with National’s number one problem.

Ross would similarly dismiss such a left-field analysis of his blitzkrieging of Bridges last October — something which judging from Ross' hollow, half-hearted and hopelessly belated apology for his behaviour at the time looks odds on to continue in much the same vein for as long as the media provides him with an audience.

Rather than talk of a "blitzkrieg," it might be more apt to use "kamikaze".

One of the striking features of Ross' outright treachery and wholesale betrayal of confidences is that he appears to have had no qualms about wrecking his own political career if that was the price he was required to pay in order to destroy Bridges.

Ross' wreaking of havoc had the opposite effect of that intended, however.

National’s caucus circled the wagons. Bridges survived the onslaught. In large part that was because no political party can tolerate one of its number seeking to remove its leader in such warped fashion. Ross resigned from the party. But he would have been booted out post haste had he not done so.

Ross' plan for toppling Bridges had so many flaws that it read like political death-wish.

It ought to have been obvious to him from the moment that he leaked Bridges' embarrassingly-high travel expenses that he was on course for expulsion from National and could wave goodbye to ever again standing under National’s banner in his Botany electorate. It may have been the case that he deluded himself into thinking he would be able to maintain his grip on his electorate as an independent MP.

Assuming that National does invoke the provisions of the resuscitated law which enables party leaders to evict so-called "party-hopping" MPs from Parliament, Ross' chances of returning to the House as an independent after next year’s election are precisely zero.

In so disastrously closing the door on his own career, Ross has inadvertently opened it wider for Bridges.

So self-obsessed is Ross that it might not have occurred to him that his pending exit from politics offers National a heaven-sent opportunity to reach another electoral accommodation with a minor party of the kind which has applied in the seat of Epsom and served as a parliamentary lifeline for ACT for nigh on a decade.

The public does not like such deals. National is thus likely nervous about replicating the Epsom model elsewhere.

But the brute reality is that the party has little choice in the matter.

If National is to have any chance of emerging the victor in next year’s election, the party is going to have to reach accommodations with other parties in other seats.

National is going to have to take further advantage of the "coat-tailing" provision in the Electoral Act. That rule renders the 5 per cent threshold null and void if a party wins one or more constituency seats.

If National is going to be able to marshal enough seats in next Parliament to outnumber Labour and the Greens, it will need backing from parties which are capable of registering a party vote at a level sufficient to bring at least two or three MPs into the House.

National now has long experience of signalling to its supporters when to cast their electorate vote for a minor party so that it wins an electorate seat. The problem now is finding a minor party which, is registering a party vote high enough to make the aggravation involved in establishing an electoral accommodation worthwhile.

Up till now, The Opportunities Party has been the only outfit which comes anywhere near to fitting that bill. Hence the excitement following the news that serious discussions have been under way on the possible launch of a "Blue-Green" party.

It has long been assumed that the refusal of the Greens to be party to any governing arrangement whose membership includes National has left a gap in the political marketplace which could be filled by a new party whose modus operandi has economic growth and protection of the environment working hand in hand.

Bridges professes to know little about this project. That is hard to believe. But Bridges is obliged to maintain the charade. If National is seen to be manufacturing such a political vehicle, that will kill it.

That is why those backing the setting-up of such a party are being very careful with the language they are using. Of special note is their insistence that any Blue-Green party will be "centrist" — thereby making it possible for it to coalesce with Labour as well as National.
The centre is the most crowded part of the political marketplace, however.

You will therefore be lucky to find anyone willing to put money on such a party cracking the 5 per cent threshold at next year’s election.
National cannot risk such a Blue-Green party falling below the threshold and turning what might be a large chunk of centre-right votes into wasted votes. The coat-tailing provision thus offers insurance as much as opportunity to the major Opposition party.

It is at this juncture that Ross' departure from its ranks could yield an unexpected, but most welcome pay-off for National.

Gifting an electorate to a minor party is never straightforward. For starters, it must be an electorate where National voters are in the overwhelming majority. If not, there is a risk of Labour coming through the middle and capturing the seat. By example, at the last election close to 11,000 voters in Epsom cast their electorate vote for the National candidate despite National silently but obviously urging them to back ACT’s David Seymour. There were still sufficient numbers of National supporters giving their electorate vote to ACT’s leader for him to cruise to a comfortable victory.

Those numbers highlight the much less comfortable fact that voters do not necessarily like being told what to do even when it is in their best interests to follow that advice. The numbers would likely fall in a similar pattern in Botany, which like Epsom is a rock-solid safe National seat.

The other big headache for party leaders when it comes to striking such deals with minor parties is that they require the National candidate be sacrificed for the greater good of the party.

Not surprisingly, the number of sitting MPs willing to give up their seats runs the gamut from none to nil. It is thus extremely handy for Bridges that there is one National seat without a sitting National MP. There is thus no-one to upset. The party hierarchy can thus make it clear to whomever is selected as the party’s candidate in Botany in 2020 that they might well be required to do their utmost not to win the seat. In return, they might be rewarded with a high enough slot on National’s list which will get him or her into Parliament anyway.

A large volume of water will have to pass under the bridge before such a scenario starts to eventuate — if at all. Presuming Ross has now flung all the dirt that he has on Bridges, the latter may well get the last laugh in this tawdry affair.

Ross still has one weapon he can wield against Bridges. He could force a by-election in Botany by resigning from Parliament and then stand as a candidate in that contest. A by-election would be about the last thing Bridges needs to land on his plate. It would provide Ross with a fresh platform to continue his misguided crusade.

But a by-election would prove to be very costly to Ross in terms other than the political. His resignation would see his name removed from the parliamentary payroll in short order.

Sticking with the status quo will have him still picking up the $164,000 annual salary paid to backbenchers — and moreover for the best part of the next two years. For someone who has made himself virtually unemployable, there is not much choice in the matter.

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"I think we can all sort of have a guess what my lowlight is," he told Breakfast today while reflecting on the year. Source: Breakfast