Bridges creates stark choice by ruling out Peters

The National leader has ruled out working with New Zealand First. Voters now have a definite choice: a second term for a Labour-NZ First-Green government, or a return to a more conservative National-ACT government. Bernard Hickey analyses the decision.

There is no kingmaker or uncertainty any more, and opposition leader Simon Bridges has tightened and raised the tightrope for National's path back into government.

The opposition leader is also hoping New Zealand First voters on the fence on September 19 will swing National's way with the nowhere-to-hide knowledge another vote for the minor party is another vote for a Labour-led Government. It's almost as if MMP never existed.

Bridges has taken his boldest strategic call since becoming opposition leader, announcing he would not work with New Zealand First or its leader Winston Peters in government.

“A vote for NZ First is a vote for Labour and the Greens,” Bridges said via a statement on the first day of the National Parliamentary Caucus' annual retreat at Havelock North.
“National wants New Zealanders to have a clear choice and certainty about what they’re getting when they go to the ballot box," he said.

"A vote for National will mean more money in your pocket, more transport infrastructure and safety for your family. We will get things done. Our decisions will be about what’s best for New Zealanders, not what’s best for NZ First."

Bridges is following the path taken by former National Prime Minister John Key in 2008 and 2011 in ruling out working with Winston Peters (although Key was less definitive in 2014). Bridges' predecessor Bill English was more cautious, saying he could work with Peters, although ultimately the New Zealand First leader chose Labour and its new leader Jacinda Ardern to be in Government.

Bridges has staked his future on New Zealand First failing to get over the five percent threshold needed to keep its Parliamentary presence. He hopes New Zealand First voters will swing to National and it is able to get back in with ACT alone, given a currently low chance that the Maori Party under new leadership will either return to Parliament, or join up with National.

He also laid out his attack lines on the Government in the clearest form.

“This Labour/Green/NZ First Government has failed to deliver for New Zealanders. The cost of living has gone up, taxes have been piled on, there’s been no new infrastructure, and crime has risen making your family less safe. New Zealanders have been let down and we can’t afford another three years of this incompetence," he said.

'I don't trust NZ First'
“I don’t believe we can work with NZ First and have a constructive trusting relationship. When National was negotiating in good faith with NZ First after the last election, its leader was suing key National MPs and staff. I don’t trust NZ First and I don’t believe New Zealanders can either," Bridges said.
However, he renewed National's offer to work with ACT leader David Seymour, who could return an MP or two on his coat-tails in the Epsom electorate.

“National had a constructive working relationship with ACT while in government. We developed the partnership schools model and worked together to reduce red tape. We would again be open to working with ACT," Bridges said.

'A stark choice'

The Opposition Leader presented a stark choice in his opening shot in the 2020 election campaign.

“New Zealanders have a clear choice heading into this year’s election. The government I lead will result in families who are better off, can get to work and school on time and are safer in their communities," he said.
“A Labour/Greens/NZ First government will mean more incompetence and wasteful spending, and you’ll pay for it with more taxes, costs, and burdens on you and your family.”  

'A strategic mistake'

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said in a statement he was unfazed by Bridges' announcement.

"There'll come a time soon when [Bridges will] want to see me much more than I want to see him," said Peters. File photo: Lynn Grieveson.

"He’s got a lot to learn about politics. Narrowing your options can be the worst strategic move you will ever make," Peters said.

"Having been in politics a long time, and a member of the National Party for over 25 years, the one thing New Zealand First is confident about is that if voters deliver that possibility, and if Mr Bridges doesn’t pick up the phone, someone else within his caucus will do it for him," he said.

"He has also demonstrated he has no insight into what a unified caucus looks like.

"‘As Douglas McArthur said, there’ll come a time soon when he’ll want to see me much more than I want to see him.’"

Despite issuing the press statement - and a related tweet - during a Provincial Growth Fund announcement in Kaikohe, Peters was less forthcoming when asked about Bridges' decision.

“You can ask some other time but I’m not going to, how shall I say it, give this the currency...of respectability at this point in time.”

Ardern also steered clear of engaging on the topic, saying her government's focus was on its response to the coronavirus and other significant matters.

"I take the view of the Deputy Prime Minister: we're getting on on with governing New Zealand and, of course, these incredibly important decisions we've had to make as the Government today that we don't take lightly. Everything else I consider electioneering, and I'm not going to spend time on today."

Get it early – This article was first published on Newsroom Pro and/or included in Bernard Hickey’s ‘8 Things’ morning email of the latest in-depth business and political analysis. Get it early by subscribing now or starting a 28-day free trial.

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