Review – Simon Bridges meeting in Rotorua

Comment by Barrie Sargeant with views on a political meeting Simon Bridges had in Rotorua recently:

Simon Bridges is the young, new-ish National Party Leader. Historically National has had more turns at running things than the other parties. For this reason he is probably somebody to take notice of, even if not in power at the moment. Bridges is currently doing a tour of regional towns in order to gauge the mood out there and to introduce himself to the many who are unaware that he has spent the past 10 years in parliament.

A member of AWSM [Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement] had a front row seat as the leader arrived late for his public meeting in Rotorua. This is a summary of the main part of the meeting…

The audience waited patiently for Bridges to appear, giving time to scan those who had assembled. They numbered about 200, which has to be a pretty good turnout for lunch time in a town where not much happens politically. Of that number, only 10-15 didn’t have grey hair. To some extent that could be the reality you’d expect with the working age population being at work at that time of day. Though perhaps if they really wanted to turn up, they could’ve made the effort, so maybe it speaks to the apathy of people who would rather be in the lunchroom eating their ham sandwiches than listening to a ham.

It might also simply be an indication of the sort of demographic the National Party has in the regions and therefore a cause for concern if they stopped to consider the implications for the future. It’s probably a combination of all this, it’s hard to tell.

Upon arriving, Bridges scanned the crowd then opened with a potted auto-biography. This combined a number of points that showed why his succession to the leadership was probably welcomed among the party spin doctors. He stressed being a kid from a non-political family (just an ordinary bloke), yet one who had been a member of the party since a teenager (so a solid operator who won’t rock the boat), being Maori (they don’t all vote Labour) and an experienced lawyer who went to Oxford (therefore appealing to lower middle class voters with aspirations).

This scattergun set of attributes was then rounded off with a folksy joke about when he met his wife for the first time, though tellingly it was more about her meeting him. Finally he closed with a story about taking his father-in-law to a rugby game (like any good kiwi joker) and encountering ex- Labour Leader Andrew Little and buying the poor guy a beer (generous to his opponents). While he seemed to hold the audience’s attention up until this point, the last anecdote fell surprisingly flat. Perhaps it sounded patronising coming from someone who hasn’t exactly been a major success himself yet and might end up with the same fate as Little himself. Whatever the reason, it didn’t gain the positive reaction he had hoped for, so he moved on.

For his segue Bridges chose to have a few digs at NZ First leader, Winston Peters. This is understandable on one level. After all, Bridges won his seat in parliament in an electorate Peters had long considered his personal fiefdom. Though another National Party nobody had been first to topple Peters in Tauranga, clearly there is bad blood there, and Bridges was relishing being able to push that wound.

This was followed by pitching himself as a realistic and pragmatic politician who knows that proportional representation requires working with minor parties.

Bridges then rattled off a list of possible tails for him to wag. This included the Maori Party, who were decisively ejected from parliament last election, The Opportunities Party, a market research driven vehicle whose multi-millionaire founder has stepped down [and the party itself shortly after this meeting has decided to de-register itself] and The Conservatives, a Christian based right-wing party whose support plummeted beyond repair when their hypocritical millionaire founder was involved in a sexual scandal. Next he mentioned the free-market fanatics of ACT, who at least have one MP but nothing new to offer and only exist in parliament thanks to the electoral tinkering of National.

Not content with this list of real micro-parties, Bridges then invented non-existent parties. This included something he called ‘True Greens’, a supposed faction who want to go beyond allegedly being “…watermelons, green on the outside and red on the inside…disguised socialists” and become a single-issue environmentalist party. This is either woefully ignorant or deliberately misleading in not acknowledging the Greens have worked hard to be a party with multiple policies across a range of issues and thus have survived decades. They are far from a single issue party.

The other fantasy party apparently consists of a breakaway faction of NZ First who prefer the Nats. True, Peters may not have a career for much longer given his age and there is no obvious successor. However, the reality is that being eclectic populists, they have never had much trouble working with National in the past and are unlikely to in the future. The reality is, NZ First has a solid support base which has held together for a long time and the party is National’s most likely partner and Peters is still its leader. So it probably isn’t really good politics to denigrate somebody whose support you need. It smacks more of a combination of arrogance and sour grapes because Peters chose Labour this time round.

The next part of the meeting was given over to a selection of questions from the audience. This was a good opportunity for the guest to think on his feet on a range of issues. These went from a question about trade with Russia, with the emphasis in the reply being support for ‘free trade’ with the barest nod to human rights tacked on at the end, to veterans affairs and the closure of the local post shop. The latter was something Bridges clearly wasn’t aware of and he largely deflected it to a generalised answer about services and a reference to other issues.

Not surprisingly for a National Party lawyer and ex-prosecutor, he spoke unimaginatively about the need for more prisons and the supposed ‘softness’ of Labour. He criticised the current proportional representation system on the basis that it should automatically give the party with the most votes, first rights to form a government (guess which one that was at the last election?). Then he hinted that the current government will somehow continue to manipulate the system in its favour in some unspecified way.

The one time in the meeting he actually received applause was related to a local roading issue, mostly because this had come unprompted so he probably did have some genuine knowledge of what it was about. Adding a wild card to the event, a very agitated and barely coherent guy ranted to Bridges about World War One veterans. He waved a thick dossier, mentioned dates of parliamentary committee meetings and spoke of a cover-up without really explaining the substance to anyone. Bridges looked as bemused as everyone else and said “I don’t know about that”. Not so much an admission of modesty, more the obvious default position anyone would take.

Overall it has to be said, Bridges handled the spontaneous nature of this section of the meeting pretty well, or at least he made no big blunders and never looked stumped for an answer. Mind you, this was mostly due to not being too specific and making sure to qualify statements rather than make any bold claims or try to be too clever.

At this point, it felt like time to leave. It wasn’t technically the end of the meeting, but it seems unlikely any dramatic events or amazing new gems of wisdom were issued forth during the remainder of it.

So, what to say? Bridges comes across as a handsome, bland, slickly packaged career politician undergoing a leadership apprenticeship. His instincts are socially conservative but he realises the need to be pragmatic and to keep things steady. At present, Labour is in its honeymoon period in government and could be in power for a long time. Should he eventually come to power himself, you won’t get anything new from Bridges. His will be much like the calibre of all the other governments in this country, (including the current one), dull and middle of the road. If or when there is a major political or economic earthquake it will be interesting to see whether that will be good enough for the system to hold together.


Leave a comment


  1. Blazer

     /  30th July 2018

    is Crosby Textor still involved in Nats strategy and tactics?

  2. PDB

     /  30th July 2018

    “His will be much like the calibre of all the other governments in this country, (including the current one), dull and middle of the road”

    MMP – a race to the centre.

    • PartisanZ

       /  30th July 2018

      That’s where you wanna be isn’t it PDB … the Centre?

  3. Blazer

     /  30th July 2018

    Bridges has said as leader he has the right to discard old Nats policy and introduce policy the polar opposite!

    Sounds fair enough…’if you don’t like our principles..we have..others’!(Groucho)

  4. Gezza

     /  30th July 2018

    Came across this by accident looking for something else today. Interesting analysis of how much the National Party’s character can change:

    Re: National Party
    Page 4. Party principles

    Vision and values
    The party’s principles, last revised in 2003, seek ‘a safe, prosperous and successful New Zealand that creates opportunities for all New Zealanders to reach their personal goals and dreams’, which ‘we believe … will be achieved by building a society based on the following values: loyalty to our country, its democratic principles and our Sovereign as Head of State; national and personal security; equal citizenship and equal opportunity; individual freedom and choice; personal responsibility; competitive enterprise and rewards for achievement; limited government; strong families and caring communities; sustainable development of our environment.’1

    Four tendencies
    These principles can encompass a wide range of specific beliefs, largely divided among four broad tendencies:
    * conservative – conserving the status quo, valuing the individual and the family as the foundations of a cohesive society, accepting moderate change at most but rejecting reactionary policies
    * liberal – comfortable with change, valuing (qualified) individual liberty including in moral matters, preferring markets and private enterprise over government involvement and intervention in commerce, and preferring smaller over larger government, while acknowledging a need for a welfare-system safety net and state-sponsored education
    * populist – responding to majority resistance to social and economic pressures, with a reactionary tinge at times
    * radical or libertarian – bold in style, celebrating individual liberty above social and collective activity, urging much lower taxes and government spending, more choice in educational and health services and more individual responsibility for paying for them and for welfare benefits.

    All four tendencies have been present in the National Party at all times, changing in policy detail, size and influence as circumstances alter. Usually the conservative and liberal tendencies have been central and the populist and radical tendencies have been outliers; their adherents periodically leave National or develop alternative parties.

    Liberal–conservative tension
    When the liberal–conservative tension with National is in equilibrium or close to equilibrium, as it was in the 1950s and 1960s and again after 2008, it enhances the party’s ability to govern in tune with broad public opinion while also mildly shaping that opinion – thereby maintaining a large enough voting base to stay in government. When the equilibrium has been unsettled, as in the early 1970s and the late 1980s, the outlier tendencies can gain traction, as when Robert Muldoon (a populist) was prime minister and Ruth Richardson (a libertarian) finance minister.

    Core beliefs
    In 1959 Keith Holyoake spelled out National’s core beliefs: ‘The National Party believes in a property-owning democracy. … We believe in the maximum degree of personal freedom and the maximum degree of individual choice for our people. We believe in the least interference necessary with individual rights, and the least possible degree of state interference.’2

    A liberal conservative
    Early 1970s National Party leader Jack Marshall personified National’s liberal and conservative strands. He combined liberal views, including support for property rights, tolerance and a limited welfare state, with conservative beliefs – he was a devout Christian who believed in the death penalty and backed the Vietnam War.

    Power principle
    National’s strongest principle is unstated: to exercise power. The party generally leans in the direction of its principles – but only so far as it is convinced that voters broadly accept. At the same time the party attends (usually) to the values and visions of its evolving voter and activist support base.


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