Jonathan Milne: Why the Prime Minister is caught in a bind over missing MP Todd Barclay
OPINION: When I first met Todd Barclay, it was over a pleasant lunch at Prego restaurant on Auckland's Ponsonby Rd.
He was corporate affairs manager for the Philip Morris tobacco company; I'd been invited to lunch so he and his colleagues could discuss their concerns about a series of articles we'd been running on the harm caused by cigarettes.
At the end of the lunch, they moved to pick up the bill. I politely declined: I'd prefer to pay for my own lunch rather than be in hock to Big Tobacco.
It surprised some that the National Party would select two tobacco lobbyists, Barclay and his Philip Morris predecessor Chris Bishop, as candidates at the 2014 election. Even the smokers among us agree there is a stale smell around the tobacco industry that doesn't wash off easily.
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It was even more surprising that the party's leadership continued to back Barclay as details emerged of his acrimonious disputes with staff and party stalwarts in the Clutha-Southland electorate – loyal and long-serving staff and volunteers who had previously worked for Bill English when he was the local MP.
Now, as police prepare to again dig into allegations that Barclay secretly recorded one staff member, it appears there was no love lost between the young MP and his predecessor.
By English's account, Barclay told him that during a fractious employment relationship, he'd secretly recorded conversations with one staff member, Glenys Dickson – and English disclosed that to police.
So why did John Key's Government broker a secret payout to Dickson to keep her quiet, while at the same time volunteering the allegations of covert recordings to the police?
A generous explanation of English's statement to the police is that he felt conscience-bound to disclose possible law-breaking, even though he had no legal obligation to make a statement. A less generous explanation would be that he was compromised by his loyalty to his former staff.
It is not yet known who Dickson was talking to in the recorded conversations. But one source says phone records reveal she was in constant communication with English, her former boss, over that period – up to 10 phone calls and text messages a day.
The police may never obtain copies of any covert recordings, but they are able to seek a warrant to see the phone and text records.
English will want to be confident that he wasn't overtly undermining his own successor in the Clutha-Southland electorate, using his staff to wage a proxy war with the young pretender. There would be nothing illegal about that – but it would damage his claims to lead a united Government.
And Barclay? From that day in June when he walked out of Parliament to when he clocks off as an MP on election day, he will have run up $90,431 in salary and allowances, including three months' gardening leave for retiring MPs.
He hasn't been seen at any of the scheduled electorate engagements that he's paid for – the only reported sighting of him has been out at the Pig and Whistle pub in Queenstown.
He still believes, it seems, that there is such a thing as a free lunch.
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- Sunday Star Times