Nearly two months into the job as National Party leader, Simon Bridges is putting his foibles on show in a bid to charm.
I say, perhaps ever so slightly snidely: “Good luck, Simon Bridges.” This is near the end of our interview, and by then I know he won’t take offence at being mocked. He doesn’t. He laughs.
I am talking about him in the third person to take the mickey out of his propensity to talk about himself in the third person, which he Must Stop Doing Immediately, I say. This merely encourages him. The third time he does it, I may have banged my head on the table. “You’re making it too easy for me,” I protest.
He knows he’s not allowed to say that any more: “You’ve just told me.” He hasn’t yet had any extra media training for the role of leader, but I tell him I’ll send him the bill for that bit of media training. “Yeah, well, I need all I can get.” He may.
Does he really think the more New Zealanders see of him, the more they’ll like him? He says, enjoying himself immensely: “Well, I think they’ll get a sense of the real Simon Bridges.” That Simon Bridges. He’s the gift that keeps on giving. We’d better get used to it, like it – or him – or not.
He’s fairly confident his serious, if not relentless, mission to get New Zealanders to know him and hence like him will work. He does seem to suffer from an excess of confidence. “No. But in politics, if you don’t back yourself and have some belief, then you’re not going to get anywhere. But you also have to make sure you’re a listener and you’re taking on board sometimes pretty hard advice about your foibles and what you get right and wrong.”
He’s wearing a very nice suit. “Yes, it is nice.” Some pretty hard advice. It may also be a bit … smarmy. He says his press secretary doesn’t like it. “It is expensive. It’s a bit of a lawyer’s suit.” I ask where he got it and he says: “Oh, Auckland.” This is not what I mean, as he well knows. He says he’s not going to tell me where he got it from but then flashes the label: RJB Design, which of course I google the minute I get home. It’s probably a bespoke suit. I don’t know whether that makes it a foible.
So on to some other possible foibles. People do write some terrible things about Bridges. That he’s smarmy is one. That he’s petulant and bad-tempered are others. That he sounds like a yokel is yet another. When John Campbell interviewed him on RNZ National after he won the leadership contest, Campbell was reduced to pleading with his audience for someone, anyone, to please send in a message saying something, anything, positive about Bridges. Even for one who may have an excess of confidence, surely that’s an ouch.
Taking into account that RNZ has a particular audience, does he think he has a problem with his public image? “Anyone who’s in politics for a while has to develop a thicker skin. Some of the things I see about myself, if they were the case in 2008 [the year he won the Tauranga seat], they’d crush me. But now, you’ve got to let them fly over the top of your head. All of that said, I do have to be sensitive to criticisms that are for real and that actually contain some truth in them.”
Perception is almost all in politics. “I think I won … because my colleagues know me well, they know my style, they know my values.” And they also don’t like him. “They do! They do. Otherwise I wouldn’t have got there.” He won the leadership contest on the second ballot. Listener columnist Jane Clifton wrote that this suggested “he has a majority of his colleagues to convince. Bridges and Joyce had both treated colleagues so brusquely that they each lost votes they could otherwise have had.” Clifton, he says, is “far too perceptive. No. I don’t accept that … We had four or five people on the campaign, and to win on the second shows I had very strong support on the first. I didn’t need a lot to get there on the second.”
He denies he has been brusque with colleagues. “I wasn’t the public favourite, let’s be honest about that … But our colleagues know me. They know I’m someone who is collegial, who works hard, who tries to find consensus in meetings but also knows how to lead.”
He does. He asked his deputy, Paula Bennett, to get him a glass of water, in front of the TV cameras. She didn’t look best pleased and he got a reasonable amount of flak for that. “Ha! Well, you know, that’s what people do for each other … I’ve been bemused by the fuss about that. Can I just tell you I’ve made many more cups of tea for Paula than she has ever made me.”
He has already – according to me but not him – shown a ruthless side. He gave the shadow finance job to Amy Adams over Steven Joyce, who promptly announced he was leaving. This looks like a calculated bid to get Joyce to do just that. “No, no. The reality is he decided what was best for him.” After the new leader decided what was best for him. “No. I had a clear view that what I wanted was Amy as my finance spokesperson and I did tell him that.”
Keeping your enemies close is an old and effective political trick. Adams also stood for the leadership, as did Judith Collins, who is now back on the front bench. He’s got it in for Maggie Barry, Nick Smith and Gerry Brownlee, who have all been pushed down the pecking order, I say. They are all very valuable, he says. In other words, he’s got it in for them. “No way.”
None of which may matter. A new leader after an election loss is often seen to be in a holding position. It goes without saying that he thinks it’s not the case this time: National can win in 2020, with him as leader, simply because the Labour coalition is made up of “three parties with very different views”.
Ha! But what about the baby? How can he hope to compete with Jacinda’s baby? He says he likes Ardern and wishes her “all the very best”, but come election time, “New Zealanders will be focused on substance”. Hmm. Perhaps he could have another baby, just to be safe. He and his wife, Natalie, had their third child, their first girl, in December. Another baby would be “impossible. But we can come back to that … But maybe we shouldn’t. That’s a John Key moment we don’t need.”
No, we most certainly don’t. He also promises, should one be looking for points of difference, that he won’t be pulling anyone’s ponytail.
I am semi-reliably informed that he has a filthy sense of humour, which he has presumably stored securely in a locked cupboard somewhere for the duration. He says that like everyone, he’s “a mixture of things” and that perhaps the smarmy label comes from the side of him that is “sometimes jokey and blokey”, which may sit slightly awkwardly with the side that is “earnest and serious … The reality is that we’re all products of our background.” And he is “by definition a product” of growing up as the sixth and youngest child by five years. “You’ve got all these older brothers and sisters around you, who are either doting on you or knocking you down, and that does lead to a sense of confidence in yourself.”
His part-Māori father was a Baptist minister; his Pakeha mother taught at primary schools. He both “likes and loves” his parents. He believes in God but quotes Tony Blair: “We don’t do God. I’ve got a Christian faith … so, without being cute, it’s a private faith. Did he pray that he would win the leadership? “Aah. No. Ha.”
He says he’s “tried to portray his parents as swinging voters in the past because it feels better”. He thinks his mother has always voted National, but his father certainly voted Labour in the 80s. They are now National voters. He hopes. “If I don’t get their votes for the next election, I’m in trouble.”
His English wife, whom he met at Oxford and who now has her own PR company, comes from a staunch Labour-voting Coventry family. “She’s a fair-dinkum working-class Coventarian who voted Labour.” He likes lefties, has lots of lefty friends. “Lefties are generally more interesting. They like to have fun.” But he's the leader of the National Party and so: “If you want to get something done, get some National Party members around you; if you want to have fun with no achievement, get some lefties around you.”
His father-in-law, who worked for a carmaker that shut down during the Thatcher years, still loathes her to this day. He regarded his Tory son-in-law with suspicion at first, but has now, according to said Tory son-in-law, been won over.
I tend to believe him – if reluctantly. I’d hoped he’d be super smarmy, petulant and bad-tempered. I’d also really hoped he’d sound so much like a yokel that I’d need to provide subtitles for his quotes. He didn’t sound any more like a yokel than Key to me, and mangling the English language didn’t do Key any harm.
I wonder why he doesn’t sound posher, though. Oxford University, where he did a postgraduate law degree, could have filed the rough edges off. Perhaps it made him exotic. He just laughs and says his wife-to-be thought he was Japanese when they met.
Some people get exercised about how Māori he is or isn’t. He doesn’t. He says he feels Māori “simply from an external perspective, because all my life, in Te Atatu [where he grew up], at law school, people have perceived me as Māori”. What does annoy him is the view – “and let me give you the blunt, most crass one – that Māori vote Labour, not National. Well, it’s rubbish. We’re not some monolithic kind of group that all think the same – just as Pakeha New Zealanders aren’t.”
He was a successful lawyer and it shows. Being a lawyer is good training for politics. He’s a decent debater. And he’s good at the tricks. When I say I’m about to ask him a hypothetical question, he interjects: “You are allowed to ask them in Parliament but the answerer doesn’t necessarily need to answer.”
He has a keen sense of mischief and seems to enjoy hamming it up. If he does have a temper, he’s not about to unleash it on a journalist while he’s on his mission to win the public over. He’s good at learning and has learnt from a shouty 2013 Campbell Live interview on offshore drilling exploration. “Not my finest moment.”
He’s not silly. He was head boy at West Auckland’s Rutherford College; a crown prosecutor at 24; he went to Oxford. He was a goody-goody. He joined the Young Nats at 16. He claims to have got drunk on a number of occasions, which he then adjusts to “oh, I don’t know about drunk”. He has never smoked dope. He loves animals, and if he had time to have a hobby, it would be fly fishing. He is probably a bit good-looking but blows the metrosexual vote with “we know more and more New Zealand men use moisturisers and products. I’m not one of those yet.” He’s conservative and a Conservative, a bit of a young codger who was probably born that way. He’s 41 going on 60, with a boyish sense of humour.
He voted against same-sex marriage and has long said he did so because his electorate wanted him to. I want to know what he thought. He says his Christian background meant that at the time, he regarded marriage as “a fundamentally religious institution going back thousands of years and so I thought: ‘Well, I’m going to vote against this.’ Would I do the same now? I don’t think I would … You know, it’s been positive.”
This is him being his earnest and serious self, as befitting the Leader of the Opposition. A bit later, the blokey joker makes another appearance. Apropos of God knows what, he says of a Press Gallery mate of mine: “You just tell her next time she talks to me, she shouldn’t do it on the toilet.” Umm. What? “Well, you just ask her.” He has promised not to pull ponytails but can’t resist a spot of leg-pulling.
I fall into his trap and ask her. She is predictably outraged, saying he is the one who talks to people, on his cellphone, on the toilet. Further details are supplied, which, to maintain the dignity of the Listener, I shall refrain from sharing. Yes, yes, very naughty.
When I phone this mate, she asks, “What did you think of him?”
I sigh and say: “God help me. I think I liked him. He’s funny.” “Yeah,” she says, “you can forgive a lot in a politician with a sense of humour.” I’m with the press secretary, though – that smarmy suit has to go. And should he ever phone you, don’t ask where he’s calling from.
In his own words
Simon Bridges answers reader questions.
1. You studied for your master’s in law at Oxford – has it been useful in your legal or political career?
I loved my time at Oxford, but I don’t think anything can prepare you for becoming a Crown prosecutor. It is a role of huge contrast – I was dealing with some of New Zealand’s worst criminals on a daily basis, at the same time as meeting inspiring victims who were slowly putting their lives back together. That role shaped me as a politician. As a country, we need to be better at tackling the causes of crime while also being tough on those who cause harm to others.
2. What would you rate as your most significant achievement as a Government minister?
Probably my proudest moment is the work I’ve done to turbocharge the growth of the electric-vehicle fleet as Transport Minister and as part of our response to climate change. People are always going to value personal mobility, but we do need a more environmentally friendly form of motive power for our private cars. Under my watch, we commenced building the national charging infrastructure that will allow the fleet to grow and encouraged the purchase of electric vehicles for both the Government and major private-sector fleets.
3. What do you see as the three biggest issues or challenges facing New Zealand?
I think the three most important challenges are, first, ensuring we continue to prosper economically while helping those less fortunate. There are many policy choices here, and the answer is to pick those that lift people up without slowing our economy down and damaging people’s incomes more broadly. Second, we need to keep improving our environmental outcomes while not damaging the prosperity of regional New Zealand. And, third, we need to embrace confidently being an open, positive country on the world stage, and not succumb to some of the isolationist rhetoric we are hearing around the world, which would only damage a small country like New Zealand.
4. Do you believe the Labour-led coalition will be able to achieve the things it has pledged to do – for example, plant a billion trees?
No, I think they are going to have some real problems. They are showing no signs of knowing how to plant a billion trees, and the steps they are taking are probably going to reduce tree planting, not increase it. It’s the same with housing and a bunch of other policies. There is a major gap between their aspirations and wish lists and their ability to deliver. They have also given most of the spare money the Government will get over the next four years to the first-year tertiary students, which severely limits what they can do for everyone else.
5. In a period of profound global change, what do you see as the next step for the National Party?
We’ll continue to evolve our policies in a number of areas, but our values and our vision are enduring. We are here to represent hard-working Kiwi families, small business people, young people starting out, regional New Zealand and those who are striving for a better life. We’ll see rapid changes in technology over the next 10 years, and that will be helpful in some areas, like the environment, and challenging in other areas. Our job is to be focused on the interests of our supporters and of New Zealanders more generally. Our track record shows we can do that.
6. What about some of the other issues that have arisen recently?
There have been a number of issues with hospital buildings over many decades and the previous Government dealt with them as they came up by supporting repairs and assisting in the building of new facilities – for example, Grey Base Hospital, new buildings at Christchurch Hospital and the upcoming rebuild of Dunedin Hospital. These are regular demands on taxpayers’ funding and governments need to make provision for them. We warned Labour before the election they had overpromised with their policies – for example, KiwiBuild and NZ Super Fund contributions – and had no money left. They ignored this and are now claiming they cannot deal with issues coming to light.
This article was first published in the April 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.