IT MAKES YOU WONDER what it takes to be enrolled at Oxford University and appointed a Crown Prosecutor at 25. Simon Bridges’ CV includes both of these accomplishments, and yet, after ten years in Parliament, five years in Cabinet, and eight months as Leader of the Opposition, what impresses is just how unimpressive he is. Even more puzzling, after the lacklustre quality of Bridges’ performance, is what his caucus colleagues saw in him. Because, clearly, the rest of the country has yet to spot it.
The most worrying aspect of Bridges’ political persona is a complete absence of anything resembling originality. He does precisely what you would expect a young ambitious politician to do – nothing more, nothing less.
Never was this more apparent than in the early months of his Cabinet career when he was assigned – and eagerly carried out – the task of legislating away the right of environmental protesters to place themselves in the path of oil exploration vessels. Political journalists praised Bridges for proving to his boss, John Key, and the other heavy-hitters of the National Government, that he was a “good soldier”: someone who could be relied upon to obey orders and get the job done with a minimum of fuss and bother.
Those same political journalists would probably say that Bridges swift rise to the top of the National Party bears eloquent testimony to the importance of not rocking the boat. But, getting to the top of your party is not quite the same as being elected Prime Minister of your country. Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little all got to the top of their party. None of them, however, got the top job.
Though few New Zealanders are likely to devote much energy to thoroughly deconstructing Bridges’ political conduct, many have already decided that something important is missing. National’s pollsters have yet to detect a decisive upward swing in the public’s estimation of the Opposition Leader. He remains worryingly underwhelming. People comment on Bridges’ Brylcreemed hair and his appalling diction, but on very little else. There is a knee-jerk quality to his day-to-day political utterances which renders them predictable and forgettable in equal measure.
Bridges clearly has not spent a great deal of time studying the careers of successful National Party Leaders of the Opposition. Had he done so he would have realised the importance of establishing early a significant “point of difference” between himself and his colleagues. Rob Muldoon, for example, made a name for himself by opposing his own Prime Minister’s decision to proceed with the Second Labour Government’s (1957-1960) plans to build a cotton mill in Nelson. Though a callow back-bencher, Muldoon argued – successfully – that the cotton mill project took Labour’s “import substitution” policies too far. That the mill contract had already been signed proved to be no obstacle. The Holyoake Government, under pressure from Muldoon’s “Young Turks”, simply tore it up.
Imagine if Bridges, when asked to smooth the way for the oil prospectors, had refused to curb his fellow citizen’s political rights and resigned his portfolio. Immediately, he would have acquired the status of a principled maverick. A conservative politician who, nevertheless, could be relied upon to pay more than lip-service to New Zealand’s democratic traditions. Someone who was willing to stand up and be counted on civil liberties.
Just as Muldoon had very early on established his credentials as someone who could speak with authority about economic matters, Bridges could have put himself at the forefront of the debate about security versus freedom; surveillance versus privacy. Among the parliamentarians of his generation he would have stood out as a politician of real substance. A potential future leader: not only of his party, but also of the country.
Fortunately for Labour, this was not the Simon Bridges who made it to the top of National’s greasy pole. Even on issues which, for the leader of a liberal-conservative party like National, should require a minimum of serious cogitation, Bridges has slipped and slided all over the place. He came out very cautiously in favour of free speech for Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, but refused to boycott Massey University when it refused to allow the former leader of his own party, Don Brash, to address the Massey Politics Club. He compounded this failure by backing his colleague, Michael Woodhouse’s, call to deny the US whistleblower, Chelsea Manning, entry to New Zealand.
About a politician who cannot seem to make the simplest of moral judgements there will always be an air of inauthenticity and impersonation. Bridges has been described (unkindly, but not entirely inaccurately) as a young boy dressed-up in his father’s suit. The jacket’s cuffs extend well beyond his fingertips and the legs of the trousers puddle around his Dad’s too-big shoes. It’s an image that invites ridicule – not respect.
It is Bridges’ lack of authenticity: the impression he gives of playing politics by-the-numbers and without conviction; that makes the electorate so unwilling to take him seriously. He can frown, scowl, pout and shout his defiance of the Coalition Government, and all its leaders do is laugh. Much as a gathering of youngsters would laugh if one of their number attempted to impersonate the responsible adult in the room.
In the 2018 “Mood of the Boardroom” survey, published in today’s (3/10/18) NZ Herald, one of the business leaders interviewed remarked of Bridges’ performance as leader: “We are all waiting for a real punch to land. Bridges’ best day since Labour got in was the in-house haggle on the floor of Parliament when they were trying to sort votes for the Speaker on day one. He hasn’t got close to that high-water mark since.”
But even that incident (which indisputably impressed his caucus colleagues) reflects poorly on Bridges’ ability to distinguish strategy from tactics. Yes, he succeeded in bluffing Labour’s less-than-stellar Leader of the House, but in doing so he marked himself and his party as ruthless, opportunistic and untrustworthy.
It is an indication of just how low the moral bar of our public life has been set that Bridges’ behaviour was widely interpreted by political journalists as evidence of his fitness to lead. Not so. The failure of Simon Bridges, National’s Little-Boy-Lost, to fire the imagination of the New Zealand electorate merely demonstrates how comprehensively the moral sensibilities of ordinary voters exceed those of the men and women who claim to represent them.