Summer reissue: In May, Simon Bridges was rolled as the leader of the opposition. Two months later he opened up about his tenure, the state of politics in New Zealand and, of course, the baby yaks.
First published July 31, 2020.
Simon Bridges did not hide his disappointment when the National Party caucus turfed him from the leadership. He was visibly angry. But in the weeks that followed something fascinating began to happen: like a man who had emerged from a suit of heavy armour, he seemed suddenly full of spring, unburdened. In a series of social media posts – most notably a stroll with a baby yak – Bridges was rejuvenated, relatable, at ease.
“Being in leadership, and being in opposition, is hard,” said Bridges in a candid and entertaining hour-long conversation with Danyl Mclauchlan at a packed Meow in Wellington on Wednesday night as part of The Spinoff Members / Verb Wellington Politics in Pubs series.
“There’s just no doubt a weight comes on you, and the problems, again as we’ve seen recently, sometimes just come several in a day. And you’ve got to make those decisions. And you just don’t have time to smell the flowers or the yaks, or do any of that stuff. Yup, you’ve got people doing social media and all these things, but the reality is, as the yaks do show, you’ve got to be in a time and a place when you’re relaxed and you want to do it.”
The critical yak question, he said, was this: “Would the yaks have worked when I was opposition leader? And I think probably the answer is no.”
He also revealed the name of the now famous yak: Hope.
Asked how he felt watching those who had rolled him make a meal of early efforts, which included wrongly identifying Paul Goldsmith as Māori, Bridges began by saying it was “quietly satisfying”, before swiftly stressing he was kidding.
“No, no, no, that’s not true. That’s not true. In all seriousness I think the only very quiet, small, little sliver of satisfaction I got was just for others to know it’s not as easy as it looks. It’s a hard gig … I reckon it’s always easier to say what people got wrong.”
The team of Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye had erred, said Bridges, in aspiring to be “a very small target”. Their strategy, by his account, was: “If Jacinda’s said something, we’re going to agree with it. I think they looked at what I did and said, ‘we’re always disagreeing and that’s no good,’ so they took a different tack. The problem with that is it never works.”
He added: “Politics today – and you can argue whether this is good or bad – is high energy. You have a duty if you’re opposition leader to be getting on TV and having some energy about that. And that was something I think they struggled with.”
The Muller campaign was shaping up to be “Labour-lite, effectively hugging the Labour Party’s position on a bunch of things. I want voters to have some real choice.”
Negativity was hardly ideal, but it was not for its own sake. “I think there is a solemn, almost noble aspect to our system, opposing to refine the system and get the best stuff. It makes a good government better if you’re doing that,” said Bridges.
And the greatest enemy was invisibility.
“If you’re in opposition against a first term government with Jacinda at the helm of it, you have to get on the news,” he said.
“The worse thing than being hated is being irrelevant. There is no option if you’re the leader of a big political party, your people – in our case 55 MPs, it was 56 but we don’t need to get into that tonight; I think it’s 53 now but let’s not get into that, either – they expect you to perform. Nothing critical of that. The reality is when it’s Jessica Mutch and Tova O’Brien and RNZ and all the others, they are not going to put me on the news if I say, ‘you know what, actually that’s good, they’ve done a really good job’ … It’s just not news. Negative is one word. I would say construct some negative scrutiny of the government.”
Bridges had lacked someone who could take care of that role for him, he suggested.
“What Key had, what English had, was people like Steven Joyce around them to take it to the opposition. In my case, it was often a case of I had to perform that role as well. Leader and attack dog. And that of course doesn’t go so well for personal polls. It did I think, though – here I am sounding like some old politician defending his record, because I am – keep the party support very high.”
While some opposition leaders, such as David Shearer, had floundered after having too many voices in their ears proffering advice, “that wasn’t my problem”, said Bridges.
“In many respects behind the scenes one fault myself and the people around me didn’t have, is we did make decisions. In a sense, although it wasn’t necessarily worth anything, that’s why I got through two and a half years of the gig, because we would hear from different people but then we did actually make decisions. And I think in leadership, and in politics, making a decision, dare I say it sometimes even the wrong one, is much better than what I think David suffered from.”
Of his own team, he said: “I did have amazing help – the fuck-ups were all my own.”
Bridges paid tribute to Bennett, whose valedictory speech he had just attended, for her role in his team as deputy leader. “I know it’s hard for you to believe, but I’m a serious dryballs … She would do dumb staff, pranks. She is serious fun, and I needed that and I valued that,” he said.
And while other meeting participants dithered, “she got on and fucking did stuff. When I needed someone to organise the National Party conference because we were in a hole, and no one liked me, and I needed someone to make sure it went really well, Paula did that stuff. In politics, just like in your workplaces, I would back a doer who gets stuff done every day of the week, and that’s Paula.”
Asked by an audience member about the party’s challenge to house liberals and conservatives in one tent, Bridges said “a centre-right party does well when it marries those two things up. If we don’t do that well – and it’s a risk for the future of the National Party, frankly – if we factionalise, we let one side get too strong, we’ve got a real worry … We need to ensure that broad church is represented around the cabinet table, and we don’t get silly – we don’t go too far one way or the other … To get the vast swathe of votes, that marriage between liberals and conservatives is really important. We’ve got to make sure in National we don’t get away from that.”
On the recent examples of misconduct by MPs, Bridges said his big worry was that it would dissuade further people from choosing to go into politics – already it was a small pool that chose to go down that path.
“It’s a certain kind of person. I would say high ideals, you might say psychopath, I don’t know. But certainly type-A kind of people who are comfortable with high-octane [work],” he said.
“What worries me though is that right now, with the remarkable, terrible behaviour you’ve seen in recent times – the Andrew Falloon stuff is the most apposite example – is that it makes the irrational decision to come to parliament even more irrational.
The final question of the night came from Spinoff partnerships director Simon Day, lurking by the bar. After all that had happened, did Bridges still harbour ambitions of one day become prime minister?
“You know the correct answer to that is no,” said Bridges, with a ripple of mischief. “Look, I wouldn’t want to be opposition leader again. I can say that to you quite straight. It’s a hard job. It’s not much good for any aspect of your personal life to be honest with you.” He had a “quirky view that the real PMs are the ones that won from opposition”, so “that ship has sailed.”
Having lost the leadership, he had taken a moment to ask, “is it time to go? I could go back to the law, I could work in the private sector, there’s a bunch of things I could do. Where I came down is that I can still make a strong contribution while not being leader … I’ve still got time to do that, and to rehabilitate myself, with yaks.”
Bridges, who had earlier said “I’m happier now than I was when I was leader of the opposition”, finished by saying: “The short answer is no, but I still think I’ve got a contribution to make, so I’m sticking with it.”
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.