Analysis: Why Simon Bridges is probably National's next leader

Seven years ago, I interviewed Simon Bridges at the University of Otago in the lead-up to the 2011 general election. In the hour-long discussion, he talked confidently about an array of issues, and I was especially keen to get a sense of his background and ideology, which turns out to be more interesting than you might expect. 

You can watch a 10-minute segment of the conversation – see: Vote Chat with Simon Bridges – Part 2. In this segment, he talks about his background, being Maori, his place on the political spectrum, and being a “compassionate conservative.”

Mr Bridges was genial and relaxed throughout the interview, and being comfortable in your own skin matters a huge amount in modern politics. The extraordinary popularity of John Key and Jacinda Ardern partly rests on their affability and perceived ordinariness. It’s debatable whether Mr Bridges can compete with Ms Ardern on that front but he probably has more of the common touch than his leadership rivals.

Steve Braunias gave an interesting endorsement of Mr Bridges’ character yesterday, stressing the MP has always been likeable in any of their encounters: “He was the same likeable, loose goose whenever I've run into him at various events – at Parliament, a National Party conference, a press conference in the rain. He's just a very impressive guy” – see: Loose goose Simon Bridges obvious pick as satirist-in-chief. Braunias says: “I hope he becomes National's next leader. I've always liked his company. The Leader of the Opposition ought to operate as satirist-in-chief, and Bridges is sharp, prosecutorial, and very funny.”

In his leadership announcement yesterday, Mr Bridges showed that he has the nous to pitch his campaign to suit the concerns of his colleagues. His approach was expressed in the sentence: “I offer the right blend of generational change but also experience” – see Derek Cheng’s Simon Bridges: I have strong support for the leadership. It will resonate with a party in which there is a real hunger for change – but not too much change. 

The commentators’ pick
Despite his flaws, many commentators regard him as the best bet for National. For example, John Armstrong says: “No one else who is likely to seek election as leader has the competence, experience, freshness or drive necessary to stop the political juggernaut that is Jacinda Ardern from cleaning up at the 2020 election” – see: Biggest challenge facing National Party's eventual new leader will be the Jacinda Ardern political juggernaut

Similarly, yesterday’s Dominion Post highlights Mr Bridges as the “most plausible” option – see: There is no promising National leader to replace Bill English. The newspaper says “he is youngish, ruthless, and embarrassed the government early with a swift tactical triumph in Parliament. He might be able to appeal to centrist voters as well as the hard-right core of National.”

In terms of his ability to embody both generational change and experience, Claire Trevett made this very point a few days ago, saying: “Young enough to be 'new generation' change but experienced enough to know what he's doing” – see: Pros and cons: Who will be National's next leader? Ms Trevett also credits him with being “well versed on the economy and regions.” 

Last week, Politik’s Richard Harman also tipped Bridges as a frontrunner: “Since National lost government last October, Mr Bridges has been an energetic shadow leader of the House anxious to trip Labour up at any opportunity. His colleagues have all seen this as part of a deliberate campaign on his part to eventually win the leadership. And by some accounts, it is working. A well-placed party source told Politik yesterday that he understood Mr Bridges had the numbers by a slim majority to win the leadership but there were still questions about him” – see: The Nats - does no news mean there is no news? 

And today in his Politik column, Harman says Mr Bridges “has strong support, and it was the only intervention of Murray McCully and some heavy lobbying that stopped him rolling Paula Bennett from the deputy leader's job in 2016” – see: National's divisions open up. Apparently his front-runner status is “evident by the number of caucus heavyweights he has backing him. Gerry Brownlee and chief whip Jami-Lee Ross are both said to support him.”

Talk about Mr Bridges leading the race has been going on for some time. For example, late last year, Newshub’s Jenna Lynch surveyed the options and concluded: “While there are other options, none appear to stack up against Mr Bridges. When the time comes for National’s next generation to take the reins, he is the clear frontrunner” – see: Simon Bridges winning race to be next National leader

More recently, Ms Lynch explained how the National MP has been playing a clever game: “Mr Bridges played the last leadership contest brilliantly. Instead of taking Mr English head on, he played the long game – took the next generation under his wing and threw his hat in the ring for deputy. He has been in the spotlight for running circles around Labour in the opening weeks of Parliament. Strong contender” – see: Who will replace Bill English? The contenders

Also surveying the field late last year, Henry Cooke had this to say about Bridges: “Mr Bridges entered Parliament the same year Jacinda Ardern did, is just four years older than her, and would be the first Maori leader of the party. He is from the right of the party, is quite charismatic, and can be a very effective attack dog in the House – especially up against Winston Peters” – see: If Bill English goes, these people are his likely replacements

Since Mr English’s retirement announcement Mr Bridges is still regarded as the frontrunner by many. For example, on Monday Toby Manhire listed him in pole position, providing the following summary: “Early post-election efforts in the House have signalled an appetite for further promotion, proving there’s mongrel beneath the Brylcream. He’s young, he’s Maori, he shows flashes of wit. In 2008, he won the seat of Tauranga, ousting an MP by the name of Winston Peters. ‘I respect you in this campaign,’ Mr Bridges said then. ‘I have learned a lot from you where we have jousted. A young man cannot but help but be impressed by your experience in a debate.’ Mr Peters’ assessment: ‘A bright young guy’.” – see: Who will replace Bill English? The contenders for next National leader, power ranked

But what about National supporters? Are they likely to want Mr Bridges leading the party? So far, the closest we have to measuring this is the National Business Review’s survey of their readers. According to this online poll of readers, Bridges is the leading candidate – but only just, with 25.4% of the vote, ahead of (non-candidate) Nikki Kaye and with Judith Collins hot on their heels – see Chris Keall’s Replacing English: Who readers picked from five contenders [see also the updated Readers' favourite as National's leadership race boils down to A, B or C - Editor].

National-leaning commentators have so far been relatively quiet about their sympathies. Mike Hosking spelt out his own preferences today saying: “Joyce, Collins or Bridges I can live with. Probably in that order” – see: English can take bow for country's head of steam.

But National-aligned political commentator Liam Hehir has come out firmly on the side of Mr Bridges today – see his Newsroom article: Bridges best bet for conservatives. He explains: “In any leadership contest, conservatives should root for the most rightward option of those least likely to alienate the public or the wider party. And in 2018, that person is Simon Joseph Bridges, the member of Parliament for Tauranga since 2008.” Furthermore, Mr Bridges “is conservative but not stupidly so. Nothing during his time in Parliament suggests he would fight a culture war, which he would be doomed to lose.”

Bridges’ big downside might be his big upside
Many commentators and journalists are awfully quick to dismiss or downgrade Mr Bridges’ chances due to his working-class accent. For example, one journalist covering his leadership announcement yesterday mocked him on Twitter: "Oim focused on Soimin Brudges," "Oi do have oideas". She concluded: “Good grief.  Move over Lyn of Tawa.” 

And today, Kate Hawkesby states: “I can't take him seriously, I know everyone is, but I can't. How do you take seriously a man whose speech to pitch himself as the future leader of the National Party, sounded like a stage performance from Lyn of Tawa. ‘Oim’ the right person. ‘Oim’ excited. ‘Oim’ a ‘natch-rill’ fit for ‘Nash-nil loidership’. That accent on the world stage would kill me” – see: Amy Adams the clear frontrunner

Similarly, last week Jane Bowron drew attention to this issue: “If only Bridges could be understood and stop speaking as if he's got a hot potato rolling around his mouth trying to cool it before swallowing. The party faithful should whip round to hire the expertise of the equivalent of Lionel Logue, King George VI's speech and language therapist, so what Simon Says can be heard” – see: Bill English will make way for younger National leader, but not yet

I am quoted on Bridges’ so-called “Kayway” accent in Max Towle’s very comprehensive article from October last year, Who’s next for National?: “Mr Bridges has received some flak in the past for his thick ‘New Zelland’ accent, but Dr Edwards says that can be a positive. ‘The voting public doesn't want polished states-people as leaders, they want ordinary folk running the country’.” Mr Bridges may take comfort in the fact that John Key was relentlessly sneered at by some in the commentariat for his diction which, in the eyes of the public, largely served to mark him as “one of us”.

Writing in NBR in November, Matthew Hooton also pointed to Mr Bridges’ working class elocution and background as a potential asset: “Snobs in both the old-school-tie and Grey Lynn establishments mock him for his haircut and working-class vowels.  But, unlike Ms Adams or Ms Kaye, Mr Bridges can legitimately claim to be both urban and provincial, growing up in West Auckland, moving comfortably into Oxford University and his wife’s fashionable Parnell media networks, and representing the mid-size city of Tauranga since 2008” – see: Bridges takes early lead in race to replace English (paywalled).

There are many attributes that make Simon Bridges a good choice to lead National. But one is unique. As leader, he would provide voters with the opportunity to elect the first Maori prime minister of New Zealand. That could be a powerful edge over other candidates. 

After all, we live in a time when the public – globally, as well in New Zealand – want something different from our leaders. Voters want authentic candidates, outsiders, and those with something new to offer. Time and time again the public has shown that it doesn’t want the same old thing and there is a desire to break down old barriers – and this extends to gender and ethnicity.

It’s still a sign of backwardness we haven’t had a Maori prime minister. In fact, neither National or Labour has ever elected a Maori leader.

Mr Bridges’ Christian faith might also prove to be an advantage. Although New Zealand’s political culture is increasingly secular, the National Party’s membership contains a significant number of Christians and conservatives, who will be lobbying their MPs in favour of Mr Bridges.

Finally, if you want to watch more of my long-form interview with Simon Bridges – here are the links to the other segments: Vote Chat with Simon Bridges Part 1 (mostly about the Rena ship disaster), Part 2 (about the ideologies of the National Party and himself), Part 3 (Mr Bridges’ future, the economy, social media, and welfare reforms), Part 4 (drug reform, alcohol laws, social issues), and Part 5 (elections, parties, and electoral reform).

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