• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Simon Bridges: Nine months of disaster management

Simon Bridges 'appears to be running out of ammunition'. Photo / Getty Images

National’s leader has gone from hard-nosed aggression to “I don’t want to talk about it” in less than a year.

It’s a reasonable bet that when Simon Bridges took on the job as leader in February he didn’t expect it would mostly involve wall-to-wall disaster management of National’s problems that would overshadow his attempts to harass the coalition government for its failings.

Nevertheless, he started off boldly with three different tactics to deflect criticism as landmines planted in nine years of National’s rule blew up in quick succession. In essence, his defences were: Harden up! We’re all in this together! How could we have known!

RelatedArticlesModule - Bridges

Bridges used the first approach after revelations in March of serious problems with buildings at Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital. He recommended the coalition government “stop whining” and just get on with fixing them. After all, he said, National had left plenty of cash for the government to play with and “in the scheme of things, the money for this won’t be big…”

This week, we found out that the cost to fix the rot and leaks at Middlemore — which Jacinda Ardern described as the result of “years of neglect and underinvestment” under National — is $80 million. It’s true it’s not a ruinous amount but it’s certainly not trivial either.

Bridges’ aggressive “Harden up!” strategy certainly has its limits and it obviously couldn’t be used for a major disaster that carried more serious financial implications — such as the outbreak of the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis. Whether the eradication programme is successful or not, it will cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars — a financial toll that arguably could have been much smaller if National had managed its animal tracking programme more carefully and acted earlier.

Read more: After a testing year, can Simon Bridges survive 2019?

Instead of recommending the government harden up, Bridges went for the “We’re all in this together” line in May, which included the assertion he didn’t want to “get into the blame game” over Mycoplasma bovis, or for it to be treated as a “political football”. 

Fortunately for him, the coalition government eventually agreed to the truce, if only to avoid alienating the nation’s farmers, who traditionally support National.

However, the methamphetamine testing-and-cleansing debacle that made the news in late May couldn’t be dismissed with a recommendation to “Harden up!” or by a reminder that “We’re all in this together!” and it pushed Bridges and his front bench firmly onto the back foot.

It followed a scathing report from the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, which essentially said the meth-testing programme under National was a complete crock and that absorbing third-hand smoke residue posed no danger to health.

Bridges and his senior MPs vigorously defended their record as they tried to explain why hundreds of tenants were evicted from state houses and more than $100 million was spent on testing and cleaning houses containing insignificant traces of meth.

Their shared refrain was: “How could we have known?” — after all, they had acted on the “best advice” from Housing New Zealand. In June, Bridges reiterated: “We got dud advice.”

In the months since then, he has never really caught a break for long. In early August, he was defending the personal disaster of a low rating as preferred prime minister of 10 per cent by saying Helen Clark had “polled lower” during her career.

His big chance of turning the tables on the coalition government should have come during the six weeks of Ardern’s maternity leave, which ended in early August, but the alliance didn’t fall apart under Winston Peters’ management as had been predicted. And any chance of Bridges gaining the upper hand disappeared as Peters repeatedly bested him in the House.

For a brief period in late September, Bridges thought he had the government on the run. He told Newstalk ZB that “heaven is shining its favour on me and the National Party” — only to find the clouds roll in and the Jami-Lee Ross storm wash away questions about Wally Haumaha, Meka Whaitiri and Derek Handley as spectacular warfare broke out between him and his former lieutenant. 

From October to November, Bridges has been assailed by a storm of media questions that covered allegations of electoral fraud, cash for candidates, covering up bullying behaviour and infidelity among his married MPs. It is a monumental disaster partly of his own making after he decided he would relentlessly pursue an inquiry into the leak of his travel expenses incurred on his greet-and-meet tour of the nation between April and June.

Initially, he responded vigorously and vehemently to Ross’s attacks, and ultimately asserted that, although he had been sorely tested by them, he had come out stronger.

But after the latest leaked recording of a conversation between him, Paula Bennett and Ross over their attempts to remove the Botany MP from his shadow front bench and Parliament, the fight seems to have gone out of him.

Bridges has now resorted to telling the media that he is “moving on” and doesn’t want to talk about Jami-Lee Ross anymore.

This is certainly not a recommended disaster management tactic and not one the media will find convincing, especially given the serious questions Ross has raised.

The Southland Times, which has taken a particular interest in the saga, has found it unacceptable. It put a number of questions to Bridges about the married MP who had attacked Ross on Newsroom after she had a relationship with him, and who sent him an abusive text that could be seen as breaching the Harmful Digital Communications Act. 

Among the questions, the Times wanted to know if the National Party “still believes the MP, who reportedly sent the text, is still fit to be an MP and represent the National Party, given they reportedly sent a text saying someone deserved to die? Has the MP offered to stand down? Or, are they still carrying out their duties as normal?”

The response from Bridges’ chief of staff that: “The National Party has no comment on these matters. Jami-Lee Ross is no longer a National MP and the party is moving on” met with the editorial response: “Moving on… we don't think so.”

It ended by describing National with one word — “hypocrites”.

And this from a conservative daily paper covering a conservative region that has long been a National stronghold.

Now that NZ First has accepted Ross’s proxy vote, the chances of National ejecting him from Parliament under the waka-jumping law look slimmer than ever. The fact he has a speaking slot in Parliament on December 13 as an independent MP must be keeping Bridges and Bennett awake long into the night — as will his reappearance in public to represent his electorate at the opening of the new Tiaho Mai building at Middlemore Hospital, the mental health facility where he was treated last month. He is making it clear he is not going away. Ross has said he may not return to Parliament until next year but that will be cold comfort to his former masters. They can have no idea what recordings or other damaging information he might release to the media at any time.

As a result, the media senses that Bridges is grievously wounded and journalists are not holding back.

On Monday, Breakfast host Jack Tame openly laughed at him when he couldn’t specify what taxes the coalition government had introduced that he claimed were responsible for rising rents. 

On The AM Show on the same morning, Duncan Garner asked Bridges what position he held on three socially progressive issues that Parliament will soon have to deal with — euthanasia, marijuana and abortion. Bridges said he was likely to oppose any liberalisation of the first two and was cautious on the third. 

Garner kindly refrained from laughing when Bridges said that didn’t mean he wasn’t a liberal —  or when he claimed that, because of his work on childhood poverty and climate change, “I think actually I'm showing the way to the future.”

The media is now waiting for one of Bridges’ colleagues — or Ross — to finish him off. Most damaging for Bridges, it is said that both National and Labour’s internal polling show National has dropped to 37 per cent, which is below the psychologically significant 40 per cent mark.

Bridges has often deflected criticism of his continuing poor poll ratings with the fact National’s party vote has remained in the mid-40s, but if that number has indeed crumbled he has nowhere to turn.

And his principal strategy of hammering the government over the economy has fizzled as statistic after statistic — whether GDP, unemployment, the surplus, petrol prices, or the newly invigorated NZ dollar — turns in the government’s favour.

There is no way Bridges can hold onto the leadership of his party for long under these circumstances. He appears to be running out of ammunition and waiting for the next blow to fall on his outstretched neck.

The only remaining question is who will swing the executioner’s axe and when.