It’s sometimes easy to forget that Simon Bridges has been in Parliament only since 2005 and that he is yet to turn 40. (He will this year).
Bridges, is a former Crown Prosecutor, part Maori (Ngati Maniapoto) son of a Baptist Minister with a blonde English wife with her own successful PR business. Add to that senior offices in the Young Nats and the party itself before he entered Parliament and he has the kind of CV that has future leader stamped all over it.
But in many ways he is out of sight; immersed in the heavy technical details of the energy and transport portfolios from which Ministers tend to emerge only when things go wrong.
He’s also deputy leader of the House which at least gives him an occasional chance when Gerry Brownlee is not around to tangle in the debating Chamber where his distinctive nasal drawl can direct withering verbal thrusts at his opponents.
But though his job covers one of the key Government portfolio areas and though he follows two heavyweights— Stephen Joyce and Gerry Brownlee – in the job he has really yet to make his mark in public in spite of almost furious activity behind the scenes. .
However talk to him about the portfolios and he describes them as action portfolios. And there’s no doubt that he’s an action man.
The biggest single item on his agenda is transport and in particular Auckland transport where the Government last year began a spend which will total $4.2 billion by 2018.
Over and above that it is committed to $1.25 billion for the central rail loop and the Transport Alignment Policy group is looking at future projects including the second harbour crossing.
The group will report in August or September this year. There is speculation that it will set out the costs to Auckland of extra road and rail infrastructure to support green field’s expansion compared with intensification along existing transport routes.
“You are right, it may do,” he says.
“It does have a significance outside of transport.
“I think the big thing is that there are good things happening in the CBD, the central rail loop and we’re working through the business case on that now.
“That’s a big part of what I am doing.
“But the focus is on where the blockages are and increasingly in Auckland they are in the outer suburbs, particularly in the west and the south.
“In the coming years and decades we are going to have to put much more emphasis there on transport, not just roads but also public transport.
“It’s actually where, in addition to the CBD, people are living and working and allied to that is a much better sense of the constraints around housing supply and what we are going to need to do there.”
He says that the Alignment Project has already found that the problems with funding new infrastructure in outer Auckland is not so much the Government’s willingness to fund but the constraints on the Auckland Council.
With the political pressure in inner city and east Auckland against intensification this whole situation is shaping up into a major political row.
The clear implication from what Bridges is saying and what Mr English told POLITIK last week, is that the Council will have to be prepared to pay if doesn’t intensify and believes it can meet the Auckland housing shortfall from green fields expansion.
“My view is that as a Government we have got to be very reluctant to be putting new costs on those ratepayers.”
Ask him about tolling to raise money — which is what the Auckland Council has proposed — and he rejects the idea. But he’s clearly interested in the proposition being promoted by ACT’s David Seymour of using electronic technology to levy varying rates on vehicles using roads and thus manage the demand being put on the infrastructure.
“But not for revenue purposes,” he emphasises.
One thing he will not be doing to ease congestion is interfere with Auckland’s port. He supports the Government’s hands-off strategy over ports and is not in favour of a national ports strategy.
“Auckland does need a port,” he says.
“80% of its freight is delivered within 20k of the port so I think
“There would need to be pretty powerful arguments and evidence to move from the status quo although I understand the desire and aspirations of Aucklanders whether they are on the (North) Shore or the CBD to have a great waterfront.
“But I think there is a need for some realism>”
He is also Associate Minister of Climate Change and since New Zealand is aiming to achieve most of its post-Paris emissions reductions from transport his two roles neatly intersect.
And it’s on issues like that his seemingly boundless enthusiasm is most evident.
“People have heard me talk a lot about electric vehicles but its’ because I’ve seen them; I’ve been in them.
“And I know that every decent car company in the world has a strategy around them and they have either got some or this year will have electric vehicles in the marketplace.
“If you look at New Zealand with its serious renewable advantage, they make a lot more sense here than other places.
“I’ve been working through a few things I think we can do.
“We are not a government of subsidies or using our cheque book to make things happen but I think I will get somewhere on this.
“It’s taking a while to put the pieces together but good things take time.”
He’s also happy to talk about the potential of drones, the internet of things and almost any digital disrupting technology you can to name.
In a way he’s reminiscent of Maurice Williamson in his prime. But Bridges is a much more savvy political operator.
In an interview in “the Listener” he told Guyon Espiner that he was ““reasonably economically dry, reasonably socially conservative
And there are hints in this interview — he calls the Government policies to ports “laissez faire” and his disavowal of subsidies — that suggest he is nearer the right of his party than the left.
Certainly Winston Peters has found himself banging his head against a brick wall in his campaign to get more money for uneconomic rail lines in Northland.
He sees himself as a Generation Xer and identifies with a group of MPs who stretch from James Shaw on the left to David Seymour on the right who he believes are bringing a different approach to politics.
“It would be completely wrong to say we are post ideological,” he says.
“But I’d like to think that we are more evidence based.”
And he also thinks that Generation X politicians are much more willing to seek technological answers to problems like electric vehicles, solar power or new types of batteries.
Like a number of other younger MPs within National he sees TPP as a defining issue between National and Labour.
“There are dividing lines and I think one of those is how open we want to be as a country to new cultures, new nationalities and trade and having a confidence about all of that.”
As to his own future, he’s vague.
“I don’t know how long my career will go,” he says.
“Maybe I’ll still be in Parliament when I am 55 but I don’t know.
“The future – that’s a long time.
“I do want to be able to say when I am 50 that I was a part of the John key Government that really made a difference; we have moved down the curve on technology and the environment and we are a more prosperous country.
“But for how long I’ll be in politics I just don’t know.”
In the meantime he will continue to drive the country down the technology curve – though he’d prefer to be doing it in an electric car and maybe he might start tooting the horn and flashing the lights occasionally. That’s when we may know how long he will stay in politics.