Bridges and Bennett: National's B-Team

by Graham Adams / 01 March, 2018
Opinion.

Paula Bennett stands behind her new leader Simon Bridges at the media conference that followed their election at caucus. Photo / Getty Images

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The new guard looks too much like the old guard.

It should have been a triumph. There was Simon Bridges, fresh from conquering a crowded field of leadership hopefuls, standing at the lectern with his wife at his side, facing the nation’s media for his first speech as Leader of the Opposition. 

But at his other side stood Paula Bennett, the ghost of the National Party’s immediate past, who instantly gave the lie to Bridges’ claims of rejuvenation and modernisation.

What failure of nerve or imagination in the National caucus meant that it has retained Bennett as deputy? “Out with the old and in with the old” is hardly a convincing new catch-cry, especially not with someone carrying as much baggage as Bennett.

It wasn't so long ago that Bennett confessed to having a “political crush” on Bill English and his “big brain”. Does that crush automatically transfer to Bridges, or is she secretly still pining for the contents of English’s cranium? She certainly didn’t look too happy when Bridges told her to fetch him a glass of water in front of the cameras. And brain power is a bit harder to detect with Bridges, of course, because his diction makes him sound like a yokel. At the very least, it’s a distraction from whatever he is saying. Whether people should care about such things is debatable but the fact is that many people do.

John Key also mangled his speech but he was charming in a boyish way that Bridges has yet to convey convincingly in public (although many who meet him in person say he is good company and amusing). Key, of course, also had the big advantage of not referring to himself in the third person, which doesn’t speak so much of Bridges’ boyishness as a smarmy sense of self-importance and possibly a freaky out-of-body experience. Nevertheless, both his diction and his desire to be two people at once with the same name can be tamed with media training if his handlers can convince him it’s a good idea.

Perhaps in time, we and Bennett may develop a crush on him too.

However, the most puzzling question is why the National Party caucus thought a Bridges-Bennett combo (already unkindly dubbed the “B-team”) was their best option. The fact Bennett retained her job may be best explained as a manifestation of the ABC phenomenon — Anyone But Collins — who reportedly also stood for deputy. And it possibly also means that Amy Adams, the runner-up in the contest who many expected to be part of the leadership duo, wasn’t willing to play bridesmaid to Bridges.

Bridges-Adams would have been the A-team; Bennett looks like the default option.

Bridges is not entirely new himself, of course, although he wants to give that impression. He refers to his age — 41 — as evidence of freshness but many will see him as a young fogey. He’s an old-school conservative on many topical issues — including euthanasia and abortion — at a time when even many National Party supporters are looking for liberalisation. 

But his biggest problem may be that to look new (or even newish) he has to admit that the last National-led government, in which he was an influential minister, left a raft of problems for the Labour coalition to clean up. Otherwise, he will have to claim that the new government need not do anything at all because New Zealand is already in a fine state, which was a tactic that was barely working when John Key was prime minister.

By the time the election campaign was in full swing in 2017, Bill English was finally admitting that perhaps there were a few problems after all. Reversing position on child poverty was the most obvious example, even though it had previously been dismissed as a problem by senior National politicians, including by his deputy, Paula Bennett.

Now Bridges will have to distance himself even further from the Key-English era. An early admission by Bridges that possibly some problems do exist came in an interview on RNZ when he accepted there was a housing crisis, albeit qualified by the curious statement “for those it affects”.

I guess we can look forward to more admissions of the same kind from him: there’s an accommodation crisis “for those who have to sleep in their cars”; there is a waterways crisis “for those rivers that are unswimmable”; there is an immigration crisis “for those immigrants who are exploited by rapacious employers”; and a transport crisis “for those Auckland commuters who can’t get to work in less than an hour and a half”.

It’s a new and interesting way of reframing what constitutes a crisis even while trying to minimise it, but entirely necessary after nine years of National telling us that a crisis is not a crisis but a “challenge” or, even more preposterously, a “symptom of success”.

Bridges’ other big problem will be convincing the media he is the man for the job. The National caucus obviously took no notice of the many media commentators, both on the right and the left, who were certain that what the National Party needed was Judith Collins, and said so loudly.

Mike Hosking, Barry Soper, Cameron Slater, Chris Trotter, Rachel Stewart and Heather du Plessis-Allan all rooted for Collins (although Hosking defected to the Steven Joyce camp late in the piece, possibly aware by then that he had backed the wrong horse, only to find he had switched to another dud).

The hostile reactions to Bridges’ accession suggest that some commentators may not like their lack of influence being so brutally revealed.

Some of the media’s support for Collins, of course, was undoubtedly less about what she might do for the country than what she might do for the media. Her leadership may have helped the local media in a similar way to what Donald Trump has achieved for the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post. The “Trump effect” has led to an avalanche of subscriptions as he sparks outrage after outrage with inflammatory tweets and media statements.

Collins showed during her brief media campaign for the leadership just how good she is at that. Winning would have given her a bully pulpit to advance her “right-wing, red-meat” agenda to the party faithful, and drive media coverage of her. Now she’ll have to decide how to further her leadership ambitions while appearing to be a team player. Certainly, by nominating 35 per cent in the polls as the level at which she would resign as leader if she won has set a benchmark for Bridges’ success or failure. 

In fact, it looks as if Bridges and Bennett may be in for a rough time from all sides and from within. Cameron Slater, as you’d expect of a Collins acolyte, is certainly not holding back. He wrote on Whaleoil of the National caucus: “What a bunch of fools. Two Maori MPs, one who can’t speak English and one who has more skeletons in her closet than Auckland Medical School…” 

However, Bridges is yet to endure sustained attacks of the kind Ardern was subjected to after she announced her pregnancy. As the father of three young children — with the youngest born last December — he should expect a barrage of questions about whether he can fulfil the burdens of high office while also helping care for an infant.

As Ardern has been told repeatedly, he certainly won’t be able to do both jobs well.

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