There is no more thankless role in New Zealand politics than being Leader of the Opposition.
While (theoretically) you are the Prime Minister in waiting you will also be the scapegoat if your party does not win government at the next election.
In Simon Bridges’ case, this dichotomy may explain why it often seems as though there are two of him.
One, which we’ve seen a bit of lately, is a populist tub-thumper; the other is an astute and open-minded leader.
If he confuses the public, he also confuses more than a few in both his party and his caucus.
Whilst he is (by all accounts) safe in his leadership till the election; if he were to fail to form a Government after it, he would be highly likely to be rolled.
He’s been living with that threat for a large part of his leadership.
At the beginning of National’s round of regional conferences last year, it looked as though it was over. There were well-sourced leaks coming out of the Opposition offices at Parliament suggesting Judith Collins was preparing a challenge. An indifferent speech in Hamilton to the first conference led to urgent meetings of electorate chairs and then further up the chain in the party questioning his leadership.
It seems party president, Peter Goodfellow, was able to subdue this incipient rebellion. However, the party’s board was still questioning Bridges about his leadership style by the time of the party conference in July.
But the party officials are mainly responding to the party membership while Bridges is trying to win votes. And the votes he is after are not those of the comfortable and genteel middle-class who make up much of National’s membership. He has already got them. After all, the party’s One News Colmar Brunton poll rating has moved only by an insignificant two per cent since the 2017 election when National won the largest vote share.
That is not the problem; because National has not viable allied party they need to drastically reduce the centre left total rather than just defeating it. That means eliminating NZFirst.
In the words of his wife, Natalie, Bridges is a “dirty little street fighter” and so the way to do that is to call on that natural instinct and to attack New Zealand First and reduce its vote to below five per cent by competing for the populist vote.
That is why he overturned the party’s long support for the United Nations and multilateral foreign policy to get onside with the extreme (and somewhat looney) right to oppose New Zealand signing up to the United Nations Compact on Migration.
The argument that came from the leadership team was that this would form a wedge within NZ First and (hopefully) detach some voters from it.
“We don’t want to get caught up in a P.C. nonsense coming out of the UN,” Bridges told POLITIK in December 2018.
“I genuinely thought the Prime Minister and Winston would take the same tack ultimately.
“It does look like they are going to sign, which I think will be a big mistake.
“Certainly for Winston Peters.”
The strategy appears to have had little impact. According to the One News Colmar Brunton poll for December 2018, NZ First was on four per cent which is still where it is 12 months later in their most recent poll.
Maybe that was why after the fright he got from the electorate chairs after the Hamilton conference; Bridges bounced back at the next regional conference in Invercargill with a promise that he would now be all about policy.
“We can’t assume that we are going to win just because they are incompetent,” he said.
“I don’t think it is about the Prime Minister.
“They (Labour) have a profile built around one person, but they can’t deliver.
“Over style and celebrity, I chose substance and delivery and a team that can deliver any day of the week.”
Talk of leadership change from within the caucus faded away, and by the time he got to the party’s annual conference in July in Christchurch, it had more or less disappeared apart from niggling media questions about the future of the former AirNZ CEO, Christopher Luxon who was being heavily promoted at the conference by Sir John Key as a future political star.
And then Bridges – and the caucus – pulled off one of the most significant political moves we have seen in recent years by supporting the Zero Carbon Bill. It was not without political risk for Bridges, particularly as the Bill contained unrealistically high limits for methane between 2030 and 2050 which the party’s rural base was strongly opposed to.
But Bridges had been at the Paris climate change conference in .2015 as a Minister and had retained a strong interest in the topic.
The only niggle might have been that a potential leadership rival, Todd Muller, had been the party’s climate change spokesperson and had built up a strong following within the party over the way he sought consensus both within the party and across the parliamentary aisle.
Nevertheless Bridges looked like he was trying to present himself as the Prime Minister in waiting.
But the party had been running weekly focus groups which reported to McClay and the strategy of trying to drive NZ First under five per cent began to reappear in the third quarter of last year.
Allied to that were increasing attacks on the Prime Minister, both during Parliamentary Question Time and by National Party proxies on social media. One, Hamish Price, ran a persistent campaign arguing (against all evidence) that she was lazy. It became clear that the second leg of National’s strategy was to try and defeat Ardern personally.
The party’s split personality was at its most apparent when it presented its law and order policy discussion document three weeks before Christmas.
Its focus group anti- NZ First, populist tendency was in evidence with a proposal to set up a special police squad to combat gangs and to toughen up on sentencing.
But at the same time, they re-committed the party to the social investment approach to developing social programmes and perhaps most surprisingly proposing an extension of the programme which allows under-18 offenders to end up with a “clean slate”.
There was also an emphasis on improving mental health services in prisons.
The policy was one of eight that were produced during the year.
Nick Smith had led the policy renewal process.
He visited every electorate and insisted on meeting not just party members but also community stakeholders in policy areas the party was interested in. He presented his findings to the same party conference in Invercargill that Bridges promised would see him, focus on policy.
Much of his report was predictable; small business wanted less regulation; seniors were concerned about health; families wanted help with dental care and were concerned about special education. There were concerns about mental health and rural communities wanted more action on bio-security.
Young people, however, were concerned about rents, the environment and wanted a commitment to tackle climate change.
The question now is which way Bridges will go this year.
Will he keep targeting the NZ First populist vote or will he pick up on his promise to be about policy?
Ther are some immediate issues. He is due to announce the party’s decision on what its relationship in the future will be with NZ First. That could well happen this weekend at the party’s back bench retreat in Havelock North.
This will be a difficult decision. There are voices on the front bench (Todd McClay and Judith Collins) who would not want to see NZ First completely ruled out. But there is apparently heavy pressure from the party to rule at least rule Winston Peters out of any future National Government. There are suggestions that Bridges might end up having to propose a sort of halfway house that rules out Peters but not leaves for a room for a deal with the party under another leader. That would be awkward.
The outcome is likely to encourage Bridges to go out after the NZ First populist vote with even more energy. Talking policy does not promise the same electoral rewards. Being Prime Minister in waiting will have to wait.