As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern joins President Emmanuel Macron of France and representatives of the world’s biggest tech companies in the international spotlight of a May summit in Paris, her National Party counterpart remains mired in a Wellington swamp of speculation about his leadership.
Could the gulf between the prizes of office and the challenges of aspiring to it have been more neatly depicted?
For New Zealand prime ministers, even those without the incumbent’s soaring poll rating and proven international appeal, the global stage can offer an elevated refuge from the slings and arrows of the domestic scene.
Whether or not they achieve anything on their overseas jaunts, their reputation can be burnished just by association with the leaders of much larger countries and their shared interest in noble-minded causes.
Whatever might finally result from the “Christchurch Call” summit, Ardern could be pretty sure that for a day or two at least she wouldn’t be facing queries about the latest Shane Jones howler or KiwiBuild shortfall.
While she could look forward to springtime in Paris, Simon Bridges was stuck firmly in our own drearily autumnal capital, fending off the latest round of speculation about whether he was about to be rolled, and picking his way through loaded questions based on leaks from his own caucus.
The Leader of the Opposition would have well known when he won the position in late February last year that it’s not called the worst job in politics for nothing. It sure looked like it when Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little were speed-dating through the role, before Ardern got her party back on the winning side of the ledger in 2017. Helen Clark’s first couple of years were no picnic, either.
In common with the first four unfortunates already mentioned, Bridges has been thrown up against a Prime Minister gifted with a priceless personal charisma and an apparent direct-dial connection with much of the public. When your rival has a golden touch like John Key’s or Ardern’s, it can easily come to seem you have the reverse version, and that the public’s phone is always off the hook. But Bridges has found his own, unique ways of screwing up, thereby emboldening internal critics to undermine him anonymously in the media.
His judgment has previously been questioned over his decision to fire up a full-scale investigation into the leaking of his travel expenses last year, and over his handling of the subsequent Jami-Lee Ross saga. More recently, he seemingly put backs up within National circles by blaming the removal of a controversial petition from the party website on a so-called “emotional junior staffer”.
By late April, even his decision to roast the government over the provision for prison staff of a million dollars’ worth of “slushy machines” was reportedly being cited by disgruntled members of his caucus as another example of poor performance. It seemed slim grounds for revolt but, “It didn’t feel like a guy being focused on being Prime Minister,” one lamented to Newshub. Another apparently reckoned it felt like bullying.
Do National MPs really sit around fretting like snowflakes about whether Bridges made a good call on something like the slushy issue? Nah. But are some of them so keen to undermine him that they will spin anything to that end? You bet.
Other reports have hinted that a tendency to abrasiveness – perhaps of the kind revealed when he dismissed backbencher Maureen Pugh in harsh terms in a taped conversation with Ross – has taken a toll on his support.
Along with the stream of leaks, this might suggest Bridges has failed to heed the advice related by Mafia boss Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II: “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer”.
Although he may have felt the need to keep things tight with his closest advisers in the wake of the Ross affair, team loyalty can quickly erode when some members feel underrated and shut out of the loop.
The leakers have claimed “firming” caucus support for Judith Collins – a slim majority, even. Which asks us to believe Collins is sitting on her hands and allowing a dead-man-walking leader to totter on, either through pure kindness, or perhaps because a late entry to the leadership fray – à la Ardern – is seen as the best route to election success next year.
More likely, the numbers have remained a little softer than Collins’ keenest supporters want to claim. They will be promoting her as a battle-hardened alternative to a leader who can still come across as wet behind the ears. And it’s true she has a greater facility than Bridges for facing down assertive interviewers or exchanging barbs in knockabout encounters on TV or radio. She has also shown the benefit of experience in her pursuit of hapless Housing Minister Phil Twyford. In all this, she presents as the overtly “strong” leader voters sometimes have a hankering for.
But there is also plenty to give her fellow National MPs pause before they elect to leap from the Bridges frying pan.
Along with her experience, Collins brings a pile of baggage. In 2014, she was admonished by Key after failing to disclose a dinner she had in China with the head of Oravida – a milk company of which her husband was a director – and a senior Chinese government official. The same year, in the fallout from Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics, Key put her on a second warning for having colluded with Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater, to whom she released details of a public servant. She later resigned from cabinet over allegations – of which she was subsequently cleared – that she was involved in a smear campaign against former Serious Fraud Office (SFO) chief executive Adam Feeley.
Hager popped up in a radio interview when Collins sought the leadership in 2016, to label her “unfit” to lead the country and relate emails he said he’d seen between Collins and Slater showing her being involved in “really petty, nasty little conversations about who they hated and her making up little petty names against her political colleagues in Parliament”.
Does that sound much worse than what Bridges said about Pugh? Collins’ colleagues will be the judge of that.
They also need to ponder whether Collins’ whole “Crusher” persona is one likely to appeal much beyond the National base, and to younger voters in particular.
These drawbacks may well have been considerations for potential supporters in the two leadership contests Collins has entered, following the resignations of Key and then Bill English. She attracted little support in either race.
In that previous unpopularity among her peers, she can be compared with Labour’s Cunliffe, whose faith in his own high calibre wasn’t widely shared in caucus.
In the end, a disaffected party membership gave Cunliffe his chance at leadership. Could a disaffected National caucus do the same for Collins?
Those on the outer under Bridges have much to gain. The others will have an eye on the polls and be pondering whether the jolt of putting Collins in charge could save them from another three years in opposition – or just prove, as with Cunliffe, that the initial misgivings of her colleagues are widely shared among the voting public.
This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of North & South.