National’s Leader, Simon Bridges, says the only thing off-limits in his attacks on the Prime Minister are her family.
In an at-times testy interview with POLITIK yesterday he addressed charges that National had moved up to a new level of personal attack over the allegations of sexual assault by a Labour party staffer.
National’s attack has been led by Paula Bennett and Bridges has instead tended to focus on the role played by the Prime Minister.
“I think she knew. I think the evidence backs all of that up,” he told TVNZ’s “Breakfast” two days ago.
Speaking to POLITIK, he dismissed the statement by lawyer, Simon Mitchell, who claimed the complainant had made no mention of any sexual assault when she was questioned in March by a committee on which he sat and then by him personally in May.
“Thereis something that needs to be remembered in all of this there are upwards of twelve complainants,” he said.
“Having done many a jury trial, you just got to ask yourself, are they all wrong.”
They may or may not be, but so far National has produced no evidence to sustain their charges that both the Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, have been party to a cover-up of the complaints.
There are concerns within Labour that all this is designed for social media which in its present state allows for distortions and half-truths to be given wide circulation.
Labour’s leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, referred to this in Parliament on Tuesday when he interrupted a chain of questioning of the prime Minister by Bennett attempted to ask questions containing allegations that Robertson had covered the sexual assault up.
“Where a member puts a question that is deliberately out of order, and then a Minister doesn’t reply to it because it is out of order, that actually creates some issues for the House, particularly where one of the parties in the House is clipping things from the House, allegations that have been made in the House by way of question, and using them online through social media,”he said.
(In fact, Bennett ran the entire video of her question to the Prime Minister on her Facebook page. It was not clipped.)
What is clear is that National has stepped up its targeting of Ardern.
And it may be working.
The August poll report from the Labour’s pollster, UMR, ironically supplied to POLITIK by someone more connected to National than Labour, shows that with a change in polling method at the end of June has come a big lift in Bridges’ favourability (from 21% to 33%) and corresponding fall in Ardern’s (from 72% to 64%).
National have those figures, and they may be what is emboldening them to go after her.
However, Bridges rejects the argument that he needs to knock over Jacinda Ardern if he is to become Prime Minister.
“I’ve never had that view,” he said.
“I think the election will turn on whether the country thinks this Government has delivered or not.”
He then listed the economy, health education and infrastructure as the key measures of that.
“But when voters assess that, then yeah, leadership matters.
“Whether it is Ihumatao where the Prime Minister got involved because it seemed like the woke thing to do but is now missing in action and dodging questions about what’s really going on there or alleged sexual assaults where there has been shoddy process and cover-up, leadership does matter in what New Zealanders want and expect.”
So what are the limits in terms of attacking the Prime Minister?
“I never attack politicians in relation to their family,” he said.
“But you know this idea that somehow criticisms of the Prime Minister are sexist or illegitimate and new is complete nonsense.
“It’s been around since Holyoake, Muldoon, Rowling, Lange; to say it is new is utter nonsense.”
So does that mean that Ardern can expect to cop it from Bridges?
“Well, you know it is exactly the same thing I’ve faced.
“I can tell the line of your story it’s complete nonsense.
“Go and look at what I Ardern, Grant Robertson Winston Peters James Shaw have said about me in the last six months
“They’ve said I’m a charlatan; I’ll be gone in a month; I’m a climate denier; I’m a coward and you’re trying to suggest that somehow this is a National party tactic.
“Good on you for taking the line, but it’s complete nonsense.”
The irony is that you would hardly think Bridges needed to get into a personal scrap at a time when a host of political indicators are starting to turn against the Government.
The economy is coming off the boil; farmers are in uproar over the climate change and freshwater proposals; there is a measles epidemic, and Maori are growing more concerned over issues like the Cook commemoration and Ihumatao.
Bridges himself has underlined a big gap in the Government’s foreign and trade policies by making a trip to India and more controversially, to China.
The trip also underlined National’s commitment to an independent foreign policy but where he does differ with the Government is what he describes as the low energy that Ardern and Foreign Minister, Winston Peters put into foreign policy.
“I was genuinely surprised to learn two years in, and not a single minister has been there,” he said.
“This is a country of one point three billion people
“And in China, the diplomats were somewhat defensive when I raised these two points, and I was told dutifully that ten ministers I have been in China since the election but I’m sorry, for our biggest trading relationship the Prime Minister’s been there for a day and Peters I think once.”
But there is more to the relationship with China than visits; the big potential obstacle is whatever decision New Zealand makes about Huawei.
Bridges approach on that matter is to fudge.
“We’ve got legislation, TICSA, (the Telecommunications (Interception Capability & Security Act) and that should be applied without political interference,” he said.
“To date, Huawei hasn’t had a no in New Zealand; it’s simply meant that it’s got to with Spark step through the process. “
All of that is, strictly speaking, is correct but in the background is pressure from Beijing to approve and from Washington and Canberra not to.
Bridges concedes that there are politics at the heart of the issue, particularly given that what he calls the “battle royale”between the US and China is over technology and intellectual property.
“But since this has become a significant political issue, I haven’t been in government, and I haven’t had discussions with Australian counterparts on this to get a read of exactly what they are saying to the New Zealand government.”
And as for Washington, his agenda for Ardern’s meeting with President Trump is surprisingly similar to what her’s might be expected to be.
“She needs to talk about climate change,”he said.
“This is in her words a nuclear-free moment, and so we need to understand and try and position on that given Mr Trump has pulled out of the Paris Agreement which is how the world will make progress
The Christchurch Call should be right in there.
“I don’t think there’s any show without Mr Trump and his administration because the tech companies are based in his jurisdiction and he’s the one with the power over them.
“I think trade obviously is massive.
“Any prime minister would be talking about with President Trump; both the CPTPP and bilateral relations and also the tariffs on steel.”
That is one of the funny things about Bridges; he seems much more comfortable being constructive and behaving as if he is still a Minister than getting down and aggressive with partisan politics.
It’s maybe why he reacts so defensively when journalists question him about his attack lines.
But obviously, we haven’t heard the last of them.
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