There is a new Simon Bridges out and about in provincial New Zealand.
In Tauranga last Thursday and Nelson on Saturday he took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and delivered forceful speeches outlining what looks like National’s core message for this election year.
Meanwhile, his caucus seems to have decided to get in behind him and talk of a last-minute leader change this year appears to have evaporated.
But if his main challenge up till now has been keeping his job; now he is going to have to deliver on policy.
And that will mean making some difficult trade-offs between National’s various electorates.
National can sniff power again.
They like the polls, and they believe the coming economic downturn will work to their advantage because it will turn the electorate’s focus to economic management.
This was a theme Bridges pursued over the weekend at the Blue Greens annual Forum in Nelson.
“I want to be a Prime Minister who delivers a strong growing economy, world-class public services, infrastructure that gets you and your family home on time, safety from gangs and serious crimes, a country that is once again ambitious and aspirational about its future and ready to tackle the challenges of the 2020s,’ he said as he wound up his keynote speech to the Blue Greens.
It sounded like a campaign speech.
But he went on: “I want all of us to get behind our vision where National is as strong on the environment as we are on the economy.”
People close to Bridges say that putting a distance between himself and Jami Lee Ross and making the decision not to go with NZ First seems to have been cathartic and given him a new confidence.
To increase his comfort zone, Judith Collins’ potential to mount a challenge to him appears to have gone.
That is not to say he does not still face challenges.
Apparently, the party is finding it difficult to raise money from some business donors in Auckland who are critical of his leadership.
The most consistent complaint is that he has yet to articulate a long term vision.
There are also concerns about the performance of some on his front bench; but those are the usual sort of grumbles you get in any political party.
The question that his appearance at the Blue Greens raised was how serious is Bridges about making National an environmental party.
His agreement to have the party support the Zero Carbon Bill was a bold move, opposed by a sizable chunk of the caucus. Prior to the last election, both Bill English and Paula Bennett (then Climate Change Minister) had refused to agree to the inclusion of an Independent Climate Change Commission in the party’s election manifesto.
But he prevailed, and as an indicator of how times have changed, the Blue Greens featured Jo Hendy, the CEO of the Climate Change Commission as one of their keynote speakers.
But fo all that, Bridges dodged the detail of the big environmental issues confronting National in his keynote speech even though he certainly said the right things.
“I want my kids to be able to swim in the rivers, climb up mountains and walk in our forests for generations to come,” he said.
But making rivers swimmable is a highly contentious issue which has seen the current Environment Minister, David Parker, at loggerheads with a key element of National’s support base, farmers.
And National is being careful to keep farmers onside as it debates water.
A panel on improving water quality included a Dairy NZ representative and a farmer. It was jointly chaired by the party’s Environment spokesperson, Scott Simpson and its agriculture spokesperson, Todd Muller, reflecting the dichotomy facing National over the issue.
Dr David Burger, DairyNZ’s Strategy and Investment Leader, told the Forum the focus in Parker’s proposals on measuring dissolved nitrogen was not necessarily always valid. He said there were cases where waterways had high macroinvertebrate counts (organisms and fish in the water) yet also had high dissolved nitrogen counts.
The industry fears that cutting back on nitrogen could lead to land-use change (code for removing dairy cows) on some farms.
“So why are we reducing nitrogen when our water quality from an ecosystem health perspective is already very good across many of these catchments? “ he asked.
“My point here is that pulling on the nitrogen lever across many of these catchments will not improve water quality outcomes.”
The dairy industry is concerned about the clampdown on nitrogen because it comes from cows’ urine and excess nitrogenous fertiliser applied to dairy paddocks.
“We need to go into this with our eyes wide open, especially considering that reducing that DIN (nitrogen level) number may not achieve the outcomes we’re looking for,” he said.
“We believe there will be a 50 per cent reduction in profit; a 30 per cent reduction in milk production and 25 per cent reduction in jobs across the country as a result mostly on the back of that DIN number.”
But veteran environmentalist, Guy Salmon, took a more optimistic view.
He told the Forum that many farmers were already cleaning up their waterways though some would inevitably have to go out of dairy farming.
He said that all but 15 per cent of New Zealand water catchments could meet Parker’s standards by 2035.
“Much of it can be achieved by farmers adopting existing or currently under development good management practice,” he said.
“But in 15 per cent of catchments, we’re going to have to go further than that.
“We’re going to have to help facilitate a change of land use away from livestock farming toward other land uses like horticulture or forestry.”
That will be where life gets difficult for National — and whoever is leading the party.
But Wellington list MP, Nicola Willis, reminded the Forum that water is an urban issue too with the deterioration the country’s “three waters” infrastructure.
This revealed something of a rural – urban divide within the Forum with Northland farmer, Grant McCallum, telling an Auckland member that farmers could not get government assistance to deal with their water problems so urban authorities would simply have to put their rates up to pay for the new pipes.
The Government has estimated that raising the standards of wastewater treatment plants that discharge into waterways could cost $2 billion.
National is comfortable with the conservation side of environmentalism. Maggie Barry’s “Predator Free New Zealand” and “Battle for the Birds” programmes were popular with members. Over the weekend she was awarded the Blue Greens first “Takahe Award” for her work in conservation
But the bigger environmental issues with their economic connotations over the allocation of resources and funding are a much greater challenge.
Largely that is because much of what is happening in the environmental space at present involves farmers.t
Muller told the Forum that in nearly 30 years of attending farmer meetings, first as a Zespri and Fonterra executive and now as the party’s Agriculture spokesperson, he had never known farmer morale to be so low because of all the change that the Government was trying to impose on them.
The next test for Bridges will be the preparation of the party’s detailed environment policy.
He says it will come soon but how it balances the interests of the urban demand for a greener New Zealand against the interests of the party’s farmer base will be a big test.
MPs at the Forum said they believe he is now gaining the authority within the caucus to make big calls on issues like this. And he certainly did that on climate change. If he stuffs it up, his leadership is in danger of going back to where it was last year.