Dunne: Bridges once again on a quest for relevance

The Government faces a challenging balancing act moving forward from the Christchurch terror attacks, but so does the unfortunate leader of the Opposition, writes Peter Dunne.

Spare a thought for poor Simon Bridges. After a rough first year with the worst job in politics, Leader of the Opposition, with constant speculation about how long he could last in the role, even though his party was still riding high in the polls, he was just starting to look and sound as though he was getting on top of the job, to the point of beginning to put real pressure on the Prime Minister.

The bumbling failure of Kiwibuild, and the Prime Minister’s humiliating announcement of a revised, severely pared back target, followed by the Tax Working Group’s report recommending the introduction of one of the most comprehensive capital gains taxes in the world, had put a renewed spring in his step.

After all, for the first time since the election the Prime Minister seemed rattled and not on top of her game, and, perhaps more tellingly, quite irritated and snarly when subjected to prolonged questioning in the House on these issues. At last, for Bridges, there appeared to be a chink in her charm armour that could be exploited and exposed.

He could have been forgiven for feeling he had turned the corner.

But then came the Christchurch terror attacks. The Prime Minister’s deft and compassionate handling of the aftermath of the Mosque killings has won her justifiable widespread acclaim – both here and abroad – from right across the political spectrum.

She has been centre stage at all the memorial services, and some of the images of her clearly upset will linger long. And then, there was the swift and decisive action to ban immediately all military style semi-automatic assault weapons, followed by the short but apparently successful trip to China. The Prime Minister was back in control again, and poor Bridges left on the sidelines once more.

Wisely, he has adopted a low profile in the wake of the tragedies – clearly, he cannot out-compassion the Prime Minister at a time like this, and being “me too” from the sidelines looks irrelevant and sounds a little pathetic. So, in a form of political snakes and ladders, Bridges ends up back where he was at the end of last year, wallowing in the Prime Minister’s wake.

His challenge now is to work out when and how he re-inserts himself into the political debate, and starts afresh the long quest for relevance. There will be a point when the public will expect politics as usual to resume, but the delicate balancing act for Bridges will be to work out the right moment for that. Becoming the “Leader of the Opposition” again, before the public is ready will look insensitive and unduly negative, and be as disastrous as just sitting on his hands for far too long.

... he has to be hoping to create an impression that the Prime Minister is far more comfortable on the international stage, or leading the grief of the nation, than she is on dealing with the hard day-today realities of government.

At the same time, the Government has to be equally careful. While the public has been understandably preoccupied with the Christchurch events for the last two weeks, and would not have appreciated 'government as usual' during that time, the Government cannot risk being seen to be dwelling excessively on what happened to the extent that many other pressing issues seem left to drift.

There was a hint that it may be straying down this path with the announcement that decisions on the review of the review of the mental health system last year might have to be delayed because of Christchurch, without any real explanation of why this might be.

There are other matters lining up that cannot be delayed. Kiwibuild continues to stumble from blunder to blunder, and there needs to be a rapid reassertion of the policy and solid evidence of progress, lest the previously flagship programme be reduced to the status of standing joke.

Earlier, the Government promised to make public its response to the Tax Working Group’s recommendations in the first half of April. Events in Christchurch cannot reasonably be put forward to delay that announcement. And traditionally, decisions relating to the content of the Budget, due at the end of May, are finalised in the first couple of weeks of April.

This year’s Budget has a renewed focus because of the Prime Minister’s and the Minister of Finance’s earlier promises on the international stage that it will be the world’s first “wellness” Budget, even though the explanation to date of what that actually means has been more woolly than precise. The Government cannot afford any slippage on any of these deadlines, especially as it has now passed the midpoint of its term, and has not too much of substance to show for it as yet.

Each of these issues will also provide Bridges with an opportunity to climb back into the ring, and start to appear relevant again. His challenge will be to lock the Prime Minister into a contest of ideas on these important policy areas, where she can look vulnerable, and hope that this focus diminishes the image of how she handled the aftermath of the terror attacks.

While he will never say it, he has to be hoping to create an impression that the Prime Minister is far more comfortable on the international stage, or leading the grief of the nation, than she is on dealing with the hard day-today realities of government. But it will be an extremely challenging balancing act.

Any overt suggestion that the Prime Minister is, to put it bluntly, “milking” her compassionate image as a way of deflecting attention from other more difficult issues, will backfire badly. But it would not be unhelpful to Bridges’ cause for that impression to be allowed to gain traction.

National and Bridges need to put the awful events of Christchurch above day-to-day politics (there is no suggestion they are doing otherwise at the moment) and focus solely and rigorously on the day to day issues where the Government is weakest. By holding the Government uncompromisingly and relentlessly to account for its pretty average overall performance so far it can start the process of returning to the normal business of politics, and leave the public to draw its own conclusions.

As he does so, Bridges will need to display dignity and resolution. He cannot afford to appear carping or niggardly, or “Mr Yes-but”.

The contrast he needs to create with the Prime Minister is one where he becomes seen as a person of focus and resolute determination, bolstered by a series of significant policy roll-outs (remember, they were promised a few months ago), so that he looks far more settled and reassuring, in contrast to the Prime Minister’s more ethereal general warmth, empathy, and compassion.

It will be a difficult challenge, but Bridges did show for about a week before the Christchurch attacks as he tracked the Prime Minister on capital gains tax that he can achieve this role. While that might offer him some hope, it is a performance he now has to recover and sustain right through to the next election.

It will be a mighty task, requiring immense self-discipline, but, given all the cards in the Prime Minister’s hands at present, it is the only option he has.   

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