Simon Bridges: West Side Tory

by Guyon Espiner / 24 October, 2013

National MP Simon Bridges, in his Beehive office. Photo/David White

He joined the Nats as a Westie teen, stopped Winston Peters from regaining his seat in the 2008 election and is considered leader material. Then he had a prime-time TV meltdown. Who is Simon Bridges?

Simon Joseph Bridges: on paper and in person he’s the perfect politician. Or is he? Look once and he’s the normative Nat – strikingly inoffensive, ensconced in the languid electorate of Tauranga in the middle of middle New Zealand, the elected representative of a brick, tile and monogamy, hedge-trimming, car-washing democracy.

He rubs his eyes in a childlike way, a caricature of honest overwork. His hair is as dark as oil. There’s a painting of the Queen in one corner of the Devonport Rd villa electorate office he shares with Tony Ryall. There’s a painting of the Beehive, too, and two caucus photos, one from 2008 and one from 2012. His colleagues grin joylessly from the walls. One day they may propel him to the leader’s position. Or not.

Then, there he is completely melting down on Campbell Live. It’s just after 7pm on Monday, October 14. Bridges launches an all-out attack on the host – the kind you pretty much never see on New Zealand TV. He’s shouting, braying and blazing. The attacks are personal and professional as he risks it all for his beloved Energy and Resources portfolio. If there’s no digging or drilling, then what do you put in the Mazda that sponsors your show, he sneers, trying to demolish Campbell and what he sees as the show’s liberal, leafy agenda.

“We should do this more often,” he taunts at the end of a shouting match that probably just confirmed prejudices on both sides of the mining debate. No surprises there. The surprise is that Bridges can surprise. If he’s not the manicured, pleasant little Tory from Tauranga, then who is he?

Simon and his wife Natalie. Photo/Claire De Barr

All in a day's work

The morning entries in Simon Bridges’s diary for Friday, September 20 are all electorate appointments. Three senior nurses march in to harangue him about employment law changes. Bridges – doubly in the gun as Minister of Labour – is handed a pile of submissions, 527 in all. The 37-year-old minister doesn’t promise to read all of them. The nurses worry that working conditions, such as meal breaks, will be eroded; that good staff will leave and standards of care will drop. “I hope you are taking this in,” one lectures the MP, perhaps 20 years her junior.

Eventually he responds. “You do a great job,” he begins, revealing why he is good at his job. No one would take a scheduled meal break in the middle of an medical operation would they? No. The new law is just legislating for the current practice. They’ll still get their breaks, just at flexible times. They won’t even notice any change. The trio leave unconvinced but placated. They’ve scolded the young minister. It’s been worth the trip.

Bridges has a slow croaky drawl that makes him sound less intelligent than he is. That is another political asset. He also looks good. Today you’d award him a black belt in smart casual. He’s wearing blue jeans with a black belt and a blue and white striped shirt. A dark navy sports jacket is slung across the mantelpiece behind him. He holds a pen with a National Party logo and occasionally plays with his wedding ring.

Next up is Rick from Federated Farmers. Rick is a sheep and beef farmer. He says health and safety regulations are making it tough to make a buck. Rick is vice-chairman of the national meat and fibre section. His hands and face are speckled by the sun. He has thin lips and pale blue eyes and is suspicious of quad bikes. He won’t have them on the farm. It’s the centrifugal clutches.

“All I’m saying is that as well as protecting employees, we need to protect employers.” Simon says nothing. He listens. He holds his hands together. They are the hands of a lawyer and a politician. His nails are trimmed and he is young enough not to wear a watch, occasionally checking the time on his smartphone. Rick is served up some platitudes and the promise of another meeting and ushered out, leaving us to talk about Energy and Resources, the portfolio that will see Bridges fully fracked on live TV a couple of weeks later.

Of course, he is more measured in the quiet of his electorate office, clever even. Why does he want more mining? “There are 130,000 Maori in Australia. Not all of them want to work in the mining sector in New Zealand but many of them do. That is a very motivating fact for me.”

On deepwater oil drilling, about which Greenpeace was last week raising alarm, Bridges says the industry operates with a strong environmental record. Recent changes make New Zealand’s oversight of the sector as high as anywhere in the world, he says. “I believe under the regulatory regime we have put in place it is extremely unlikely we will see a large oil spill in New Zealand.”

“Prevention is 95% of the answer”, but if a spill did occur, then contingency plans are built into the consenting process for prospecting. As well as getting a marine consent from the Environmental Protection Agency and complying with safety standards set by the High Hazards Unit, oil companies are required to have a Maritime NZ-approved Discharge Management Plan that outlines how an operator would respond to a spill.

Bridges is also Associate Climate Change minister. He admits National is not a world climate-change policy leader in the way Helen Clark wanted to be. “The world isn’t doing a heck of a lot,” he says. It seems National isn’t either, although he disagrees. “We do our fair share,” he claims. He brings up the old defence that New Zealand produces just 0.2% of global emissions and a third of that is methane from sheep and cows. Yes, but the atmosphere doesn’t distinguish between good and bad sources of greenhouse gas, does it? No, he concedes, but National isn’t about to close farms to shave a sliver off world pollution, is it?

Discussion about climate change is brought to and end by the arrival of three Year 13 boys from Otumoetai College. The 17-year-olds have made a kiwifruit snack bar as part of an agri-business class. They’re pretty smart. The bars are quite good, too, if a little lacking in texture. Bridges does a grip and grin photo with the lads for the Bay of Plenty Times and it’s time for lunch.

Natalie and Simon Bridges and baby Emlyn. Photo/George Novak

A Westie …

Lunch is quinoa salad and coffee at a local cafe. It’s not his local. He doesn’t have one. He’s not actually from Tauranga. “I’m a Westie. So I grew up in Te Atatu North, although I think now it’s gentrified and we call it Te Atatu Peninsula and it’s expensive,” he says of the former working class Auckland suburb.

He describes a good, loving upbringing as the youngest of six children. “We certainly didn’t have money but I would never try and say that it was poor.” His Maori dad was a Baptist minister. Mum was a Pakeha primary schoolteacher and stay-at-home mum. “I was the youngest. So you might say that makes me self-assured,” he says. I remember this comment later, while watching his extraordinary appearance on Campbell Live.

I also recall his answer to a question about why people get involved in politics: “Some of it is ultimately … arrogance where you have to decide, actually, I could do a better job than someone else.” His confidence – which can turn into arrogance or petulance under pressure – also stems from a life lived in public as a result of his father’s church work.

“I suppose you are there in a very public sort of space like politics and you are dealing with people in the raw with their issues. I remember people knocking on our door for $20 or for food. But you are also mixing with the wealthy family who take you out on their boat, so you are getting an interesting experience, which is quite a good preparatory school for politics.”

As for religion, it plays a minor part in his adult life. “I would still consider myself a believer. I do believe in God.” Religion doesn’t inform his politics, although he did vote against gay marriage. “Marriage is more than a legal institution, it is also an historic, cultural and religious one. But let’s be honest, it has happened, we have all moved on – whatever.”

There’s a hint of immaturity in the dismissive way he ends the sentence. It’s there again when he’s asked to describe his politics: “Reasonably economically dry, reasonably socially conservative – but look, shit happens, you know? You come across issues and you deal with them on the basis of what you are presented with.”

Did he ever have a rebellious phase? He squeaks a laugh, a grace note followed by a reedy, tenor drawl. “Ahh. Not outside the norms of getting drunk at university and, you know, having a good time throughout those years. Nothing that I would say was … anything other than within the ordinary.” Although even ordinary can be taken to extremes. “I am one of those rare people who from quite early on was very interested in politics. So I became a member of the National Party as a teenager.”

He was 15 or 16. I laugh at him. I can’t help it. It’s just plain funny. What on Earth made him join the National Party aged 15? I laugh again. Funnily enough he’s not amused. “Funnily enough … it could have been the Labour Party,” he tells me, which wasn’t the reaction I was expecting. “It is foreseeable I could have, at one stage of life, sort of been a Mike Moore Labour guy. I don’t think I would ever have been on the … David Cunliffe left as he is positioning himself at the moment.” There are other clues that he could have gone with Labour. An influential teacher at Rutherford College in Te Atatu was Chris Carter, who became the much-travelled Labour MP. Bridges is also related to former Labour MP Koro Wetere. “My mother was basically a Nat off a dairy farm. My father was probably a swing voter but now he’d say he’s always been a Nat because his son is a National Party Cabinet minister.”

Bridges and the Prime Minister in Tauranga. Photo/Alan Gibson

… Transplanted to a leafy 'burb

Sometimes he still sounds like the youngest child of six, acting older and tougher than he actually is. “You can take the boy out of West Auckland but in a sense you can’t take the Westie out of me,” he says, sounding nothing at all like a Westie. “I am now privileged to live in a leafy suburb but I am in politics not just for those in the leafy suburbs of Devonport and St Heliers and Matua [an affluent Tauranga suburb], where I am, but I also think of the strivers and the battlers who, when I think about what we are doing in Energy and Resources, can really benefit from it.”

That’s his shtick condensed into one combustible little ball. He sees himself as an advocate for jobs and for harnessing the riches of the earth and sees his opponents as lily-livered, chin-stroking liberals. He’s calculated that a good whack of New Zealand is on his side, hence his strategic move to climb into Campbell.

Some political observers believe his TV blow-up has damaged his chances of leading National one day. Most believe he’s still in the race. Certainly the possibility of his being leader is real enough for him to have lines worked out when the question is raised. “It is irrelevant for a very long time. It is also not something that I think about and I say that genuinely. Right now I am focused on doing an excellent job in my portfolios,” he says. “If it was to happen – wow. But the reality is I am not hung up on some kind of position.” Like all politicians, he wants to “make a difference” but notes that some ministers, such as Roger Douglas, make more impact than prime ministers.

Lucy Lawless and Greenpeace NZ activists.

New Zealand First 

It was George W Bush, or perhaps his speech writer Michael Gerson, who coined the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. It applies, perhaps in reverse, to Simon Bridges. He looks elegant in a suit and uses hair product. He’s a former crown prosecutor who met and married Natalie while they were both studying for post-graduate degrees at Oxford University in the UK. Now he’s a National Cabinet minister. Speaking in Parliament in March last year, David Cunliffe referred to Bridges as “the perma-tanned member opposite”. Cunliffe was called out by Judith Collins and apologised, saying he wasn’t aware Bridges was Maori. How was he to know? There is no bone carving.

“On the census earlier this year I picked Maori and European and I suppose I would say they are both very important to me,” Bridges says of his Ngati Maniapoto heritage. But he sees himself as a New Zealander first. “When I go overseas I am not a Maori, I am not a Pakeha, I am a New Zealander, and maybe that sounds a bit cheesy but it’s … where I’m at. I wish I spoke te reo. I don’t. I don’t think that makes me less of a Maori. I think there are some people who have that view. Well, I think they can get stuffed,” he says, a glimpse of that petulance slipping through again. “I could have, off my own bat, actively sought out Maori culture. I didn’t as a young man and now I am what I am.”

But what is that? One minute he’s the super-cool courtroom laywer who defeated Winston Peters in a 2008 landslide to take Tauranga and is now on the way to the top of the Tories. The next minute he’s blowing up on national television. Twitter lit up with wit. “Can Simon Bridges be hired out for children’s parties,” wondered one wag, as the Campbell Live interview went to air. “Simon Bridges appears to have gone to the Gordon Ramsay School of Media Training,” quipped another. “Simon burning Bridges,” tweeted CTU boss Helen Kelly.

Bridges had his supporters, too. NZ Oil and Gas lobbyist John Pagani said John Campbell had rolled his eyes seven times during the interview and that no one would have got a fair shot given the host’s view on the subject. Right-wing blogger Redbaiter congratulated Bridges “on showing some fight against a green advocate posing as a journalist”. Another gleefully pointed out that Bridges is looking for a new press secretary. Unrelated to the TV meltdown, his former minder, the experienced and cool-headed Vanessa Rawson, has gone to work for Fonterra.

I flicked between the TV and my Twitter feed, oscillating between amusement and amazement. I also thought back to the end of the lunch I shared with Simon Bridges, when the plates and coffee cups were cleared and he was claiming that he very rarely gets angry.

“One of the things being a crown counsel teaches you is to keep cool,” he told me. “When my press secretary, who is fantastic, is concerned about how it might go with some protesters or with the Nurses Union or with any of these groups, only I am responsible for myself and what I do. I think you do learn a sense of control.”

This article was first published in the November 2, 2013 issue of the New Zealand Listener. 


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