The opposition leader hoped to pick up election-winning tips in Australia.
Bridges’ acknowledgment that he is also likely to be the underdog in next year’s election gave his transtasman trip the air of a pilgrimage undertaken by a penitent suffering from a terrible illness who hopes for a miracle cure.
But he had certainly visited the right man to be reminded just how benevolent divine providence can be. In claiming victory on election night, Morrison, a devout Pentecostal, declared: “I have always believed in miracles!” And with good reason, given that a loss for the Coalition was thought to be such a certainty that, two days before the election results were announced, Sportsbet paid out more than $A1 million to punters who had backed a Labor win.
Bridges’ natural ebullience and over-confidence makes him oblivious to the fact his visit might be seen as a little desperate and that it would only reinforce the widespread belief that an election win for him next year probably would require a miracle.
However, if Morrison did, in fact, give him hot tips on how to pull off a miracle and make professional pollsters eat their predictions, Bridges wasn’t giving much away.
He recounted to the NZ Herald a banal takeaway of his meeting with the man who came back from the knacker’s yard: “They [Liberals] had a very clear focus on the economy and what that meant to Aussies' – or as Morrison calls them 'quiet Australians' – hip-pocket.”
He said National’s focus would be, "just as Bill Clinton said, 'It's the economy, stupid’” — with the party’s campaign very much aimed in that direction, targeting the “quiet Kiwi voters”.
This is barely news. In which election in living memory has National not emphasised its supposedly superior credentials in managing the economy and its willingness to reward those in paid employment, often by promising a tax cut?
The reports of Bridges’ transtasman visit unfortunately underlined what an unimaginative politician he really is. He also overlooked that in polls for preferred prime minister leading up to the election, Morrison was more popular than Labor leader Bill Shorten.
In fact, Shorten is the person Bridges really should have spoken to for tips on dealing with being the unpopular leader of a popular party. Bridges could have asked him how to deal with personal unpopularity and what he — with the benefit of hindsight — thought he could have done to improve his personal ratings and actually win the election.
However, Shorten had personal ratings that Bridges can only dream about. It’s worth remembering that when the Labor leader was said to be unpopular, the gap between him and Morrison in the preferred prime minister polls leading up to the election was only 11 percentage points — 46-35. The yawning chasm between Ardern and Bridges in two polls in June was at least 40 percentage points (and Bridges, of course, even trails his own colleague Judith Collins).
It’s easy to see why Shorten shadowed Morrison in preferred prime minister polls more closely than Bridges manages in relation to Ardern. When Shorten was asked in one ABC public debate, “Why are you so unpopular?”, his reply was fluent, self-deprecating and amusing.
When Bridges is asked the same question, he tends to bluster and invoke the poll ratings of Helen Clark and Jim Bolger at low points in their careers as proof he can still win the top job.
Some journalists — and Newshub’s political editor Tova O’Brien in particular — have been accused of agitating for a coup against Bridges. If that’s even partly true, it’s probably because they long for a more interesting opponent to take on the Ardern government.
It’s little wonder Air NZ CEO Christopher Luxon was greeted so enthusiastically last month by the media as the party’s saviour even though he had done little more than announce he was interested in politics, and in National specifically. In his flurry of interviews, Luxon didn’t seem to be hugely charismatic as much as polished but he still seemed more interesting than Bridges.
For that reason, the media’s warm embrace of him was no doubt born as much of relief as enthusiasm as they anointed him National’s next election-winning leader.
None of this, of course, means it is impossible for Bridges and National to win the next election. And there is one specific factor in the Australian elections that Bridges can genuinely take hope from.
Scott Morrison’s win was aided by a significant swing against the Labor Party in Queensland sparked by the giant Adani coal-mine project, which the Coalition government supported but Labor had long been ambivalent about as it weighed its implications for jobs against its contribution to carbon emissions.
Labor’s fence-sitting meant that when a convoy of Green leaders went to central Queensland before the election to oppose the mine development, locals became alarmed they were part of a Labor-Greens pact that would harm their future employment. And so they turned against them.
It ended up being a battle between those who wanted to see more jobs created in the region and those who appeared willing to sacrifice others’ employment opportunities in the interests of mitigating climate change.
Bridges is bound to have noticed — and perhaps Scott Morrison reminded him — that when jobs are at stake, people will often vote for their immediate financial survival rather than the planet’s putative long-term prospects.
On the campaign trail, Bridges will be able to point to many aspects of the government’s policies around sustainability and climate change that will harm employment. They include the ban last year on new oil and gas projects hitting energy-rich Taranaki and the decision in May by Greens minister Eugenie Sage to stop Oceana Gold buying 178 hectares near its mine in Waihi for a tailings reservoir that would have extended the life of its mine for as much as 12 years (and supported 350 lucrative jobs).
It would not be surprising therefore to find Bridges’ mantra for next year’s election is borrowed from Malcolm Turnbull’s successful 2016 campaign for the Coalition: “Jobs and growth!”
If New Zealand’s economy turns down sharply before the election next year, such a slogan could possibly — just possibly — spark the miracle he is searching for.