National Leader Simon Bridges has come out swinging, defending his leadership after a weekend of media revelations about leaks in the National caucus, suggesting he is under threat.
“No one bets on a horse with a dud jockey,” he told POLITIK in an obvious reference to the recent Colmar Brunton poll showing National well ahead of Labour.
But for all that he concedes that Jacinda Ardern is a powerful opponent; he says Labour has a charismatic well liked Leader.
He brushes the media speculation off saying that it is natural to want to test an opposition after it has been in Government for a long time.
That may be his public response, but it is unlikely he is quite so sanguine in private.
The more substantive criticism of National is that it has become the proverbial garage dog; barking at every passing car.
In the last week alone National has issued press releases attacking the Government over (among other things) Kiwibuild, the Regional Growth Fund, Statistics NZ; industrial relations; power prices; lifejackets; police stations and, of course, the Czech migrant, Karel Sroubek.
Bridges is, in a way, defensive about his.
“There’s always a debate there is always a balance that opposition needs to strike,” he said.
“I think it’s understandable that in the first year that it will very much be heavy on holding the Government to account.
“Next year you will you will see more positive proactive announcements and of course you know the crescendo we hope we’ll be in 2020 when you’ll see a lot more of that. “
I don’t accept that point generally. I mean we seek to use about opposition if we can.
“In fact, if you look at me in Question Time for the last three or so months I’ve literally only canvassed two or three topics.
“Nine days out of ten it’s been cost of living relentlessly, and then more recently it’s been a bit of Sroubek.”
Maybe, but there is also an opportunistic turn to some of what National does which sometimes means it ends up at cross purposes with what it did in Government and presumably would want to do if it were to get into Government again.
Thus it has ended up endorsing a campaign near and dear to the hearts of the far right in New Zealand; the opposition to the UN Compact on Migration.
This is a document mostly drawn up under the previous National Government most of which is already in New Zealand legislation or is current immigration practice in this country.
But organisations like “RghtMInds” which opposes Muslim migration and which supported the aborted tour of the Canadian far-right anti-migration speaker, Stefan Molyneux, have been inundating National MPs with emails opposing the compact.
National’s move may be a dog whistle to the conservative movement in New Zealand generally, but National party sources told POLITIK it was intended to put the heat on New Zealand First.
Bridges will not readily concede this in an “on the record” interview.
“I think it would be fair to say every member of parliament would have seen hundreds of e-mails on this and been picking it up around for now at public meetings and the like so it couldn’t be ignored,” he told POLITIK.
“ Now some of those people voted for New Zealand First at the last election.
“Now they have buyer’s remorse.
“I genuinely thought the Prime Minister and Winston would take the same tack ultimately and I suppose whether they do remains to be seen.
“But it does look like they aren’t going to which I think will be a big mistake.
“Maybe it’s both a point of popular feedback, but also I think ours is a clear, principled position.”
The suspicion even among sympathetic National Party MPs and supporters of Bridges is that he may be over-reacting to the polls showing his own personal popularity is only one per cent above Judith Collins.
While she has little support in caucus, she has continued to build support within the party and has recently been attending various electorate functions across the country obviously intending to keep her profile high.
Bridges is hampered by the fact that none of his party-wide policy reviews have yet landed.
“There’s definitely been a strategy and a method to what we’ve done in holding the Government to account albeit next year we’ll be both positive, proactive announcements as well.
“Already this year we’ve had have-your-say campaigns or a raft of areas from small business tor rural communities, or seniors and one or others well.
“They’ve elicited many thousands of responses and they are very detailed and next year you will see as a result of that discussion documents but also some significant policy announcements where we will be able to say quite clearly that the policy is the result of the work we’ve done and what we’ve heard and the detail that come out of those surveys.”
It’s highly unlikely that the National caucus would want to change its jockey any time soon; the real verdict on Bridges leadership is more likely to come after he has released the significant policy documents and will be based on what sort of reception they get.