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Jami-Lee Ross accused of using mental health crisis to 'rebrand himself'

Author
Newstalk ZB,
Section
Audio,
Publish Date
Wednesday, 23 January 2019, 7:07a.m.
Former National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross.

A political commentator says former National MP Jami-Lee Ross is using his mental health as a way to "rebrand himself" and distract from the accusations he bullied and harassed multiple women.

Police have confirmed they are investigating a text sent to the former National MP which contained the words "you deserve to die".

This follows Ross issuing a public statement apologising for the hurt he caused when he leaked secretly recorded tapes last year.

The lengthy statement explains how he has been "to hell and back" since he was "forced" to take leave from the party last year.

He received the text, from a female MP, well before being sectioned to a mental institution on October 20 last year, but re-read it that day and after texting the MP to say she was going to get her wish, he ended up contemplating suicide.

Former National Party press secretary, Ben Thomas, told Mike Hosking Ross is trying to "rebrand himself".

"This seems like a standard PR playbook kind of move for 2019. Which is, when you're being alleged to have done some pretty terrible things to some of your colleagues and staff members, leading to your banishment form parliament, to kind of come back and rebrand yourself as a mental health crisis survivor."

"Really getting the focus back on his personal journey back from the depths and the struggles he's overcome and trying to take the focus away from what he did to get there and, by his own admission, what he did that provoked his mental health crisis."

Thomas said the media need to be careful in how they portray the former National MP.

"Should he be portrayed simply as somebody who has been through a mental health crisis."

"He's said he wants to provide a voice for people who have been through similar challenges, well actually very few New Zealanders have been through similar challenges... 20 per cent of New Zealanders suffer from mental health issues but very few of them are a result of breakdowns from secretly taping their leaders, harassing or bullying colleagues and staff members, and then being confronted with their actions and losing their political career as a result."

"Most of the time it's bad brain chemistry or having external challenges in your life you haven't brought on yourself," he said.

He also accused Ross of trying to divert blame onto the female MP who sent him the text.

"There's a very big question there about re-victimising someone who has already been a victim."

Yesterday, National Party leader Simon Bridges said he has no intention to engage with Jami-Lee Ross at all this year.

Thomas said that's probably the right move to make.

"All of these issues are basically dead and buried...and all of this is basically political revenge porn from beyond the grave, but there aren't any new issues here to address."

The National Party leadership might have this hanging over them for a while but it's unlikely to do any damage, he said.

Earlier, Newstalk ZB political editor Barry Soper told Mike Hosking Ross will clearly be seeking revenge when he is back in parliament.

"Even though he says he's not looking for revenge, he's not going after Simon Bridges, nor is he going after Paula Bennett, that's exactly what he's doing."

"He's got to be back in parliament, I mean, this man has been off since October saying that he had mental health issues and he really has to now front up to parliament."

Soper said the question on everyone's mind is whether the National Party will invoke the waka-jumping bill to get rid of him.

"Given the level of rhetoric that he is going, obviously, to undertake now I would suggest that the National Party would be well advised to invoke the legislation."

JAMI-LEE ROSS - FULL STATEMENT

The last time I actively took part in public debate, over three months ago, I found myself at the apex of a mental health crisis that became a life and death situation. My absence from Parliament and the media since then has understandably raised questions. I hope to now answer some of them.

I've been to hell and back. I almost lost everything, including my own life. I just can't be driven by hatred anymore, or the pursuit of getting even with Simon Bridges, Paula Bennett or anyone else in the National Party. Life is too short for that. My time and energy needs to be focused on doing everything I can for my family, my constituents and my country.

If I could go back in time, my biggest wish is that I could have spared Lucy from this painful experience. She never deserved any of this, and politics is always harder on those loved ones in the background, than on the MPs themselves.

I can't spare Lucy that pain or take back any hurt I have caused. But what I can do is dedicate myself for however long I have left in public life to making those around me proud of the good work that I can, and will, do.

My plea to the 70,000 people living in my electorate is that I hope they are willing to judge me on the decade and a half I have spent serving Botany and the wider Howick area, and not that one challenging and confusing month where things fell apart for a while.

I am still the same person that has always worked hard for them, that has never been afraid to speak up for them, or knock on their door and front up to them face to face. The only difference is that my life has been laid bare for all to see now, and I happen to be a flawed human being.

Last year showed me that I need to be a better husband, I need to be a better boss, and I needed to be honest with myself about my own mental health struggles a lot earlier. I have been working really hard on these things in the past few months.

Had I known at the start of last year what I know now, all this could have been different. I was recognising in myself early in the year that things weren't right. I wasn't feeling myself. I was privately becoming emotional over things I wouldn't normally have. And I was hiding how I was really feeling from everyone around me.

I should have been honest with myself and asked for help earlier. It wasn't until another National MP sent me that now infamous text message telling me to kill myself that I finally cracked and I sought help from an old friend and counsellor that worked with me when I was a teenager. He quickly realised that I was in need of actual medical assistance, and so I was being treated by a psychiatrist for the later part of last year.

The normal rules of politics say I should do everything I can to hide my own health. But it's no secret I eventually ended up being sectioned to Middlemore Hospital's acute mental health facility in October. We don't always see positive stories of the country's mental health services, but I can't speak more highly of the people working there.

I am so thankful for the amazing individuals that save lives through our mental health system. I am also grateful for the dedicated men and women that work in our emergency services. They displayed to me the kindness of human nature at a very difficult time when I was so emotionally distressed that I had tried to harm myself.

I hope to add my voice to those trying to educate New Zealanders, particularly young people, that it isn't weak to speak up about how you are feeling. I've learnt the hard way that it is okay to not feel well, it's okay to ask for help, and that there is usually a huge amount of kindness and compassion out there in the community.

I don't have hatred or animosity towards Simon or Paula anymore for the way they treated me. At the time they were doing all they knew how to do with the skill set they have.

But I still take responsibility, because it wasn't fair on them. It wasn't fair on Simon and Paula for them to be put in a position where they had to choose between helping someone with a health issue, or to put that person under more pressure because it was the better political move to make.

I do want to say thank you to the people that tried to help. I have subsequently learnt that at least two of the four women in the October 18 Newsroom story first spoke to the National Party leadership because they were concerned about my health and wellbeing. They identified that I was struggling and they were doing what they thought was the right thing. I want to thank them for caring.

Should the National Party's response have been to send them out to talk to the media? Probably not, but people don't always do very rational things in the heat of a political crisis when they are under pressure.

I have received a personal apology from one of the women that was sent to the media by Paula. I am grateful for her apology, but I more feel sorry for her that she was put through that traumatic experience. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for her to have her boss request she hand over all her personal text messages. Then to also be asked to talk about her personal life so National could "combat" me during that week – it can't have been easy.

I also know the National MP that sent me that text message has been suffering a lot of personal pain and family heartache in the last year. She was once my best friend in the caucus – there must have been a lot of personal stress in her life for her to end up sending me a late night text message inciting me to commit suicide.

We shouldn't have hurt and betrayed innocent parties in the way we did. I obviously wish she hadn't given an anonymous interview to the media, but I know how hard it can be when the leadership is pressuring you in to doing something.

One of the things that I have been coming to terms with is the comments in the second Newsroom story from some of my ex staff members and how they were so unhappy working for me. That was so terrible to hear. Clearly I was not a good boss, but worse than that I didn't even realise. I never knew they felt that way. I didn't realise that my actions were creating such an unpleasant workplace. How terrible is that?

I thought I was a good boss and that I had mostly good relationships with my staff. That clearly wasn't the case and reading about how I made some of them feel was gutting. I am so ashamed about this and I have been working with my psychiatrist to make sure that never happens again.

I wondered why Parliamentary Services never brought this to my attention at the time, so I asked – turns out it's because they had never received any formal complaints about me and never had need to investigate me like they have other MPs. But even so, people that worked for me have obviously felt hurt by the working environment I created, and for that I am sorry.

I do want to say though – while I have been a bad boss and I must do a lot better in that area – I was led to believe by the leadership that there were allegations of sexual harassment. I have never sexually harassed anyone, and never had any complaints made about me of that nature.

I know people are naturally wondering how Simon and I went from close friends to political adversaries. It's true, less than a year ago I was doing everything I could to help him achieve all his own personal goals. And I was proud to be doing so. Somewhere along the way our friendship sadly deteriorated.

Simon has had nearly a year as leader and he's tried his best. You can't blame him for trying. But I was in his leadership team and I was one of about half a dozen that saw the full polling we were doing each week – the detailed polling report that the rest of the Caucus isn't allowed to see. It didn't matter how much we tried to do, each week Simon's personal favourability kept going backwards further and further.

This was frustrating. And I was feeling frustrated because when I was questioning Simon's personal polling and what we could do about it, more and more I felt squeezed out of the inner circle. Some leaders welcome those that challenge them, others close up and listen to the voices they like the sound of. I wasn't one of those voices.

My mistake was I took my feelings and started sharing them with other MPs. And this was viewed, probably rightly, as me being disloyal. And Simon treated my dissenting voice as something he felt he needed to jump on. And he jumped pretty hard.

So when you saw me go on medical leave in early October that was actually me being pushed out for the rest of the year for disloyalty. And this is where my mental health struggles and my disagreements with Simon started to converge pretty heavily.

A colleague that's still in the caucus and leadership team rightly observed that if you back a wounded animal into a corner they'll either curl up and wet themselves, or they will bite back as hard as they can.

I clearly wasn't thinking straight at the time. I clearly wasn't coping. And I was in a sort of hate-fuelled daze. And so when I was put under immense pressure, with my whole personal and professional life threatened, I decided to bite back as hard as I could. These weren't the actions of someone in a good state of mind. But it's where we got to, and the whole country was watching.

I'm happy to put my hand up and say I should have reached out for help a lot earlier. Maybe we could have avoided that whole saga had I done that. We probably could have avoided the collateral damage too.

I feel so sorry for people like Maureen Pugh, who is nothing but a lovely person, who had to hear what Simon thought of her in a taped conversation. That wasn't nice. And those incredible public servants like Chris Finlayson and David Carter – they shouldn't have had to hear me and Simon discussing their careers so flagrantly. They all deserved better.

I'm also sorry for the hurt I caused the good, hard working, National MPs, most of whom were my friends. What normal person goes and hurts the people they are closest to? These people weren't just colleagues – they were my political family. My friends. There are some great people in that caucus and they deserve to have the chance to be back in government one day.

I'm deeply sorry for my actions that have hurt people. And I have a lot of repairing to do. But I also know I was put under enormous pressure too. When that PWC report was released to the media, I had only been told of it about an hour earlier. I hadn't had a chance to read it, to understand it, or to seek advice on it. To this day the full report with the QC's opinion hasn't been released to me.

I didn't know at the time that Simon and Paula talked to the media (because I hadn't read the report) that it never actually identified wrong doing on my part. It never identified me as having done anything. What it did was draw together communications, which were unrelated, and formed a view that should never have been able to be formed, as well as saying that the evidence was not conclusive.

After everything that's happened I struggle to feel any animosity towards him anymore, but I do wish Simon would have given me the opportunity, like I pleaded for, to at least read the report and talk to the Caucus before it was released publicly. I reckon we could have avoided this whole situation had he not refused my request for natural justice. But that's all history.

My focus now is on the future, and being positive. My health is considerably better and I am working on greater resilience. I am still the MP for Botany and I owe it to many people to do good for them. I also think it is important not to run away from this difficult time. As the highest-profile New Zealander in recent years to have attempted suicide and survive I want to use the platform I have as an MP to do what I can to help other New Zealanders like me who have had a temporary breakdown but remain good people.

I also want to go back to being the type of representative I was earlier in my career, free from political party posturing, to just speak up for the people that voted for me.

I wish as a National MP we had done more to cut red tape and regulation to fix the housing crisis that means young people can't afford to buy a home. We should have put more in to the country's underfunded health services and public transport systems. And we should have realised that we let the Auckland Council get out of control and that's costing Aucklanders more and more each year.

These are the type of issues I want to get back to speaking up for on behalf of my constituents. We spend too much time in Wellington fighting with each other over petty things when we should be focused on what will improves lives and what helps a family's back pocket.

But as well as returning to being the best MP I can be for my community, I also need to be a better husband and father. In those dark moments when I felt there was no hope and no way forward – when my world had crashed down around me so much that I found myself thinking I had no option but to end everyone's pain – it was the vivid picture in my head of 3-year-old Charlotte's little happy face that stopped me from actually going through with doing something dumb.

No amount of political point-scoring is worth hurting other people, or crushing the happy face of my little girl. We all got in to politics to try to make the world a better place for the boys and girls of the future. In October we forgot that. And we let many people down.

I am reminded at this time of a famous Mandela quote from his time leaving prison on Robben Island: "as I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."

I am still the same person that has been proud to work hard for Howick and Botany for a decade and a half. But I can admit, last year, I didn't get everything right. I am sorry. I will do better.

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:

• LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

• SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633

• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)

• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)

• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757

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