By Pattrick Smellie
Oct. 16 (BusinessDesk) - A defiant National Party leader, Simon Bridges, has emphatically denied claims by his dissident former colleague, Jami-Lee Ross, that Bridges was involved in arranging to conceal a $100,000 donation from a Chinese businessman.
Of those allegations, Bridges told journalists: "They are baseless.
"In relation to the Electoral Act, they are entirely false and I invite Jami-Lee Ross to take those matters to the police and I invite the police to investigate them fully and promptly because they have zero chance of success, given they are false."
Ross claims to have a recording of a conversation with Bridges in which the party leader is said to have discussed ensuring a $100,000 donation was split into several smaller sums to avoid disclosure rules under the Electoral Act.
Ross announced his intention today to resign as an MP on Friday, an hour before Bridges said the National Party caucus unanimously voted to expel him.
"Everything about his behaviour: the lies, the leaks, and other matters as well" disqualified Ross from further involvement with a party for which he had held the Auckland safe seat of Botany since 2011, when he was briefly the youngest MP in Parliament, said Bridges, flanked by deputy Paula Bennett, and senior colleagues Amy Adams, Todd McClay, and Mark Mitchell, three of whom are seen as among contenders should Bridges face a leadership challenge.
Ross claimed his "dramatic falling-out" with the Opposition leader in part related to sinking personal approval ratings for Bridges in internal National Party polling.
Bridges refused to discuss that or to give straight answers on whether he was aware of a $100,000 donation, which journalists suggested had been offered by Auckland property developer Zhang Yikun.
"The reality is that I’ve not heard tapes. I don’t know what Jami-Lee Ross is putting up. He should go to the police and make sure they investigate this and promptly," said Bridges.
Under repeated questioning on the question of the donation, Bridges said: "Here’s the thing. Nothing will come of it in relation to me, at least."
The allegations were "baseless", he said. "I don’t have a sense of them all but I know that I have done absolutely nothing wrong. I’ve complied with the electoral laws at every single moment."
He would not waste his time pursuing legal action against Ross.
"We are going to draw a line under this," he said, saying the National Party was "resolutely and strongly united and focused on the things that matter to New Zealand".
He claimed there would be publicly released political polling in the near future that would confirm National remained the most strongly supported political party in the country.
Internal Labour Party polling is believed to show National and Labour neck and neck at a little over 40 percent each. That indicates National's vote has held up well since the September 2017 election, when they ceded power to a three-way government led by Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Ross was stood down from his portfolio responsibilities and took leave three weeks ago for medical reasons amid mounting suggestions he would be found responsible for a damaging leak of Bridges' travel expenses from a national tour after he took over as party leader earlier this year.
An investigation by audit firm PwC and conclusions from it drawn by John Billington QC found that Ross was the most likely person to have leaked the expenses details - a finding Ross denied again today, saying Bridges had been moving to silence him.
Ross said he intends to release the recording he says he has of Bridges discussing how the donation should be handled after giving it to the police tomorrow, and will resign from Parliament on Friday. He also revealed that Bridges and Bennett had sought to sack him, claiming they had received reports from four women that he had sexually harassed them.
He denied those claims and likened his situation to that of newly appointed US Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh, who was facing Senate confirmation hearings where claims of sexual attacks were being heard at the same time as Bridges came to Ross with the harassment allegations.
The Botany by-election will have no impact on the balance of government. In the unlikely event that someone other than Ross or the National Party's candidate were to win the by-election, it could increase the government's majority.
Ross said it was true that he had suffered a "medical emergency" at the time Bridges stripped him of his portfolios and put him on medical leave.
"A doctor has said I'm fit to make decisions and to speak publicly," Ross said.