Bridges hero-worships Howard’s run

Simon Bridges had dinner with former Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Friday night but had the good grace not to reveal his true fanboy crush at the table.

The two politicians, Bridges’ wife Natalie and Howard’s wife Janette dined at the Sugar Club high up in Auckland’s Sky Tower. The blood moon and Venus on display outside wouldn’t have shone brighter than the National leader’s eyes gazing across the table.

He saved his heartfelt words, though, for across the full National Party conference room in Howard’s presence in the Sky City conference centre on Saturday morning, telling everyone: “John Howard is my absolute hero.”

“It’s what he’s achieved, Lazarus with a triple bypass, through to leading I think the second-longest government in Australian history, making it a stronger, more ambitious country with a great economy.”

Howard returned the favour, opening day one of National’s first out-of-power conference for a decade by carefully praising the young man at the table on stage beside him. “Under Simon’s leadership you are now focused on the future. It will be a different future which will combine elements of the past with new elements.”

Calling the 2017 election and coalition negotiations result for National “disappointing and unjust and unfair”, Howard offered Bridges “everything I can do in a fairly removed way to provide whatever assistance I can”.

He heaped praise on the Key-English government. “You, as Nationals can take enormous pride in what your government achieved. Year after year people around the world say New Zealand is leading the way. People would say John Key and Bill English have managed the New Zealand economy in a way that is an example for other countries.”

Bridges’ warm-up comments to the conference – his main speech is on Sunday – focused first on National’s education fixation, charter schools.

Thanking the singers of the national anthem, from South Auckland Middle School, he pledged not only to “reinstate through legislation, partnership schools within a year of returning to office”, but went further to speak of enhancing the schools through less red tape and letting them expand into new areas such as science and technology, maths and the arts.

A signed Simon Bridges' artwork is up for silent auction at the conference. Photo: Tim Murphy

“You are great,” he told the singers and the founders of their school, “and we absolutely back you 100 percent of the way”.

The charter schools thing is puzzling. National chides Labour for ditching them on ideological grounds but surely its own ideology, antipathy to teacher unions, played a part it its support for the things in the first place.

Bridges’ conference remarks contained the obligatory declaration of triumph for the next election.

“We can and we will win the 2020 election,” he intoned. And, later: “’We have to win. It will not be easy. New Zealand cannot afford this government.”

Finance spokesperson Amy Adams won the third prime speaking slot, and shows even this early in the cycle that she has been a quick study on the economy and government books – quicker, maybe than Grant Robertson had been at the same stage of holding the responsibility in Opposition.

In a question and answer session one party member from Te Atatu wanted Adams to give him some pithy one-liners to explain complicated economic arguments to “the general public or idiots out there ….[that] we can use to explain to the ignorant.”

Adams’ answer criticised the bumper stickers and soundbites used by Labour to win last year but offered to come up with some “reasonably clear core plans that we are running” and to identify and produce “simple factoids and feed them out to you”.

On the evidence of her answers to the conference, she’ll need some help. On economic growth alleviating poverty, she came up with “an interweaven [sic] network of solutions” but promised a "laser-like focus". There was plenty of “moving up the food chain” and things being in National’s DNA.

One theme she thought might resonate with the public was a focus on strike action under this Labour-led coalition. “The Government has emboldened the unions and talked a big game and now realise that they are in over their heads.”

Bridges had promised his MPs “will listen much more than they talk” but in the next breath acknowledged the sniggering from the conference floor. “Some of you are laughing in cynicism, shall we say?”

Labour might be laughing with cynicism, too, at his next pledge. “We will show them how to lead. We will show them what compassion looks like; the Left thinks they have got the monopoly on compassion. We will make sure we will be a compassionate government when we get in in 2020.”

National plainly retains its cynicism over Winston Peters, and speakers were repeatedly less than charitable about the 73-year-old New Zealand First warhorse.

President Peter Goodfellow fired early, saying National had dodged a “whisky-swilling, cigarette smoking, double-breasted and irrational bullet,” by Peters' choice of Labour last October. Nelson MP Nick Smith joined in saying the worst time of his political career had been sitting in cabinet with Peters in the 1990s. Smith noted the Greens had just “griped on Radio New Zealand about eating a dead rat. My message to them is to get used to the taste.”

Launching two personal swipes might be careless but when Judith Collins waded in late in the afternoon it started to look like a pile-on. To a question about what the party made of Peters’ call for altering drink-driving levels, Collins chipped in from the podium: “That’s self-interest, isn’t it?”

Now Peters has long, of course, been driven by his favourite taxi firm or in the Crown limousines, but that was beside the point. It was just: drink, Peters, put-down.

Collins was in a mischief-making mood in her session, repeatedly rolling out her digs at her minister counterpart, Housing Minister Phil Twyford. “I’m talking a little bit about Phil, aren’t I? It’s because I love him so much.”

National has said the conference will not announce big policies. From day one we learned the charter schools will be reinstated with-knobs-on within one year and Collins pledged to bring in a draft bill next year “for a major reform around planning and the RMA area”.

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