Bridges builds towards National’s second coming

National leader Simon Bridges has wrapped up a two-month tour of New Zealand, saying the community events have given him a better sense of the issues on Kiwis’ minds. Sam Sachdeva spoke to him about how National must change and the road ahead.

The prodigal son has returned - and he’s craving a feed from the local takeaway.

After two months of community meetings all over New Zealand, Simon Bridges is finally on the home stretch.

On this particular Friday, there are just two events ahead of him: tomorrow is the finale in his Tauranga electorate, but first comes the Te Atatū Union Church Hall.

National MP Alfred Ngaro, who lost the Labour-leaning electorate to Phil Twyford by just over 3000 votes, rings his leader to check on his progress and thank him for attending a fundraiser hosted by the Croatian Cultural Society the night before.

“Policy comes later - what comes first is people getting to know you,” Ngaro tells Bridges.

Eventually, the leader’s Crown car pulls up outside the church hall, and he steps out into the Auckland suburb he called home as a child.

The 41-year-old is unashamed to appeal to the crowd’s partisan and religious leanings, saying: “I feel like a prophet coming home to his own land.”

“I grew up in west Auckland, I’m a Westie...today it’s Te Atatū Peninsula, isn’t it? Back then it was just Tat North.”

Plenty else has changed since then, although some things stay the same: “It was good to see there’s Haddad’s Takeaway still open where I used to buy a hamburger late at night.”

Brushing up on 'bread and butter'

Bridges estimates at least 10,000 people have attended the meetings, insisting they haven’t been all card-carrying party members.

The string of meetings, on top of normal parliamentary duties, appears to have taken its toll: he tightly grasps the microphone at Te Atatū, citing a bad voice after “too many public meetings in too many towns”.

He says the tour has had two main benefits.

Firstly - a beloved, if understandable, cliche for politicians everywhere - has been “how important it is to get out of the so-called beltway and talk to real people”.

“There’s an accountability about it that reminds you they’re not so concerned about the kind of silly utterances in Parliament or the day-to-day politics,” Bridges tells Newsroom .

“They’re concerned about big issues like the direction of the country, its infrastructure, its health system, the bread and butter things that we in National need to remind ourselves of what we’ve got to focus on.”

That sentiment is reflected at Te Atatū, where the questions focus on issues like law and order, healthcare, the economy, and the welfare system.

There are also what Bridges describes as the “little gems” that come up in different towns.

Here, a query about the future of cheque books leads to the surprising admission that Bridges, a self-described “young fogey”, still uses them.

“I have got online banking on my phone, but I forgot my password about six months ago - and my wife controls all the money as well,” he says.

Bridges says one of the main benefits of his community tour has been getting beyond the Beltway. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

The second takeaway has been more personal, with the new leader able to adjust to life atop the party.

“It’s made me much more confident frankly, getting up and having to listen all around New Zealand and be more accountable in that way has forced me to think through my positions on quite a lot of things,” he says.

“I’ve got a much clearer sense in my head about what I’m about as leader of the National Party, and what our task is and some of the, if not detailed policy positions we’ve got to come to, certainly where we’ve got to be driving at.”

It’s clear that some Kiwis are keen for Bridges to move the steering wheel in a different direction to the last Government.

At Te Atatū, one woman with a husband in care expresses her concern about New Zealand’s low-wage economy and the array of workers’ strikes, leaving no doubts about where she puts the blame.

“That’s where I think your Government went absolute bonkers in the last nine years, I really do, because now it’s all coming home to roost.”

Holding on the economy, 'recalibrating' elsewhere

Bridges tells Newsroom he is in two different minds when it comes to National’s policy approach.

“In terms of economic direction, I don’t think there’s a lot we would change actually: you look at that and you say, ‘No, you got a lot of that right’, and we’re seeing that with the sort of complaints I’m hearing at the public meetings where it’s very much a...reaction to the uncertainty they fear.”

Beyond economic issues, he believes there is “definitely room for us to recalibrate” in areas like education, health, the environment and social welfare.

He tells one questioner his Government was “a bit slow” on issues like mental health and addiction services, while to another he suggests it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to ban fizzy drinks from schools.

“We’re the National Party, we’ll always be emphasising individual responsibility over more collective-type views and we’ll have a different view of fairness than this Government, but I think people are looking for us to not just bash this Government up but really do some thoughtful work.”

That recalibration doesn’t portend any fundamental shift in values, Bridges is quick to add.

“We’re the National Party, we’ll always be emphasising individual responsibility over more collective-type views and we’ll have a different view of fairness than this Government, but I think people are looking for us to not just bash this Government up but really do some thoughtful work.”

That work has yet to occur, but there appear to be misgivings about some aspects of its current approach, including the “tough on crime” rhetoric around Waikeria Prison and the Government’s justice reforms.

One man refers to the work done by Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s former chief science advisor, saying more prisons are not the answer to fixing New Zealand’s justice system.

“He’s a well-respected person and you’re sort of going the opposite of what he’s suggesting.”

Bridges is unswayed, responding: “I’d rather have more people in prisons and fewer victims than fewer people in and more victims.”

He tells Newsroom he is not unsympathetic to the argument that rehabilitation services are important, but not at the expense of traditional deterrents.

“I agree with those points they’re making: I don’t think we should see this debate as lock ‘em up versus entirely rehabilitative, I think it’s not an either/or entirely, it’s about making sure you’re trying to do a bit of both.”

Bridges speaks to a member of the public at his Te Atatū meeting. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

The end of Bridges’ tour has come in time to prepare for this weekend’s National Party AGM in Auckland - his first as leader.

“I expect to find in the party wing the same sort of feeling as in the parliamentary side of it, which is a strong sense of unity and purpose, a surprisingly upbeat feel really when you think of the fact we’re going to be nearly a year into opposition, not Government as people would have hoped.”

The conference is about “getting down to business” and developing new policies and plans - although don’t expect to see any details unveiled just yet.

“My worry would be if it is too good, well the current Government will take it, and regardless of that we just don’t know the economic landscape we would potentially be inheriting.”

Party delegates will also be keen to see how the man has evolved in his four months in the job - and there are signs that the Simon Bridges of today has changed from the Simon Bridges of his leadership campaign.

“For me, I’ll be wanting to stamp my imprint a bit, show a bit of a sense of what a Simon - ah, ah, my leadership will mean.

“You’ll see I’ve checked myself there, I can’t go into the third person because you guys give me such a hard time, even though I think it’s legit, but anyway.”

Bridges is sanguine about National’s coalition prospects, pointing to the fact it has spent more time in Government than out of it since the first MMP election in 1996.

Then there is the longer-term issue of how National finds the friends it may need to form Government in 2020 and beyond.

Bridges has fielded a question about MMP at every meeting: in Te Atatū, a man asks whether there are “any steps you can take to stop this from happening in the future” (“this” being New Zealand First’s decision to opt for Labour over National).

He is sanguine about the party’s coalition prospects, pointing to the fact it has spent more time in Government than out of it since the first MMP election in 1996.

Bridges isn’t a fan of MMP but says the current system is here to stay, and there is plenty of time for National to “organically and responsibly” find new coalition partners if needed.

“I do maintain next year we’ll start to see that landscape move, possibly within Parliament as battle lines are drawn and divides are made more clearly within parties, but more than that I think outside of Parliament, whether it’s on the so-called progressive left or the more conservative end of town.”

If National is to somehow unseat Labour in 2020, Bridges can't rely on the party's disciples lifting them there alone.

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