The prime minister of New Zealand, Bill English, has been hit by his first major political scandal just three months out from the general election, after a government MP resigned amid claims he made illegal tape recordings of a former staff member.
Backbencher Todd Barclay was investigated by police in February 2016 for allegedly recording a staff member’s private conversations in his electorate office without the staffer’s knowledge.
English gave a statement to police during their initial investigation into the alleged secret recording, but police later dropped the matter due to lack of evidence and Barclay’s refusal to be interviewed.
They are now assessing new information and English is under pressure in the media after a seemingly contradictory statement about what he knew and when.
It is illegal to secretly record other people’s conversations in New Zealand.
The prime minister initially said he couldn’t recall who had told him about the case, then later clarified that he had in fact given a statement to police and was aware of the recording Barclay had made, because the MP had admitted to him in a face-to-face meeting that he had recorded a staffer criticising him in the electorate office.
The staffer who was the subject of the alleged recording, Glenys Dickson, told the Newsroom website she felt "horrified” when she learned an illegal recording had been made of her office conversations, which included personal and sensitive issues she had discussed with women in her electorate.
"I felt completely violated,” Dickson said. "I couldn’t believe anyone would be so desperate to do something like that.”
Barclay, who initially denied the recording but later said his previous denials were misleading, has now said he will not stand in the election due in September, a decision English welcomed.
"The business about the recording has never been quite established,” the prime minister said on Wednesday. "But there was a statement yesterday morning that Todd acknowledged himself was untrue ... he has made a very difficult decision as a politician but I think it is the right one.”
English has been widely criticised for downplaying the initial incident, and for defending Barclay – who hails from the same tiny farming town as the prime minister.
Barclay took over as MP for the Clutha-Southland district in 2014 from English. He had approached him a number of years earlier asking for a job, and had been employed as an intern.
Questions have also been raised over a significant payout Dickson received when she resigned, from then prime minister John Key’s leader’s budget, with allegations the payout was hush-money to make the issue go away.
Critics say the scandal has seriously jeopardised the National party’s election campaign and the public’s faith in English as a straight-down the line politician.
Labour leader Andrew Little accused the prime minister of a cover-up.
"They were doing everything they could to conceal this from the public,” he said.