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Bill Ralston: Simon Bridges can save himself, but not with slushies

The Nats’ besieged leader might avert death by a thousand cuts if he took some free advice.

National Party leader Simon Bridges appears trapped in political quicksand as persistent media speculation about his imminent removal from the job pulls his popularity down. He rates 5% in the preferred prime minister stakes. His rival, Judith Collins, is at least a point higher in the public estimation. That must mean, sooner or later, Collins will roll Bridges, according to many commentators.

Actually, that is not necessarily the case. Throughout her two terms as Leader of the Opposition, Helen Clark often plumbed similar depths of public disregard, and then she went on to win three consecutive terms as Prime Minister and became the epitome of the strong leader of a unified party.

Collins may be a single point more popular than Bridges, but that is hardly a landslide in her favour. She is a much more divisive figure than Bridges, both in the caucus and in the wider electorate, and for that reason a Bridges-led National Party is likely to receive more votes than a Collins-led one at the next election.

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Every media story predicting Bridges’ early demise contributes to his death by a thousand cuts, destabilising his leadership and making him appear weaker than he is. A few months ago in this column, I tossed out the line that Bridges was “a dead man walking” and it earned me a death stare of loathing in the Koru Club from his deputy, Paula Bennett. She was right to be annoyed; wisecracks like that are yet another cut inflicted on her boss, one of which could ultimately prove fatal.

Elections are won or lost in the centre of the political spectrum. Hard-left voters and their hard-right counterparts are unlikely to shift, whereas the mild-mannered centrists swing like a wind vane. Bridges needs to concentrate his public comments on the big issues that affect the centre, not silly stuff such as the “slushy” mishit on prison officers.

The pressure points for the Government are obvious. The economic slowdown will concern many people in the middle and Bridges needs to direct his media messages at issues such as that.

Meanwhile, Auckland house prices appear to have flattened and even contracted, whereas elsewhere in the country they remain stubbornly high and continue to rise. This is a multifaceted issue for him. He could be arguing to worried home-owning Aucklanders that their principal asset is shrinking in value at the same time as pointing out to aspiring buyers that affordable homes remain out of their reach.

He could encroach on key issues that his team is already exploiting, For example, economic development spokesperson Paul Goldsmith could be elbowed aside to allow Bridges to lambaste the cargo-cult approach of the Government’s regional development champion, Shane Jones, to administering the Provincial Growth Fund. He could come in over the top of Collins in ridiculing Housing Minister Phil Twyford’s KiwiBuild failures. He should insert a crowbar between Labour and New Zealand First by pointing out that Foreign Minister Winston Peters has been sidelined because of his aversion to China while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern embraces Beijing’s Belt and Road strategy.

Years ago, former PM Rob Muldoon told me that all you need to win an election is two or three “hip-pocket” issues and a “cats in shops” – a reference to a then Labour government move to ban felines from dairies. It worked for him, more’s the pity.

Decrying iced drinks for prison officers or taxpayer-funded coffee machines at RNZ is not Bridges’ path to electoral glory. It is petty and makes him look pettier.

This article was first published in the May 11, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Simon Bridges. Photo/Parliament TV