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Read the room, Simon

Kiwis are traumatised and needing reassurance right now, so Simon Bridges needs to wait with his criticisms until the nation is ready, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell

There’s a popular meme online featuring Sean Bean as Boromir in the Lord of the Rings, as he speaks the lines, "One does not simply…”

In the film, Boromir is talking about walking to the dark and inhospitable plain of Mordor. I still don’t understand why they didn’t just ride those giant eagles all the way, but that’s for another column. 

The meme is often used to highlight an attempt to do something where the complexity of the task has perhaps been underestimated. Because it’s a meme it’s also used in the reverse to lend an air of complexity to something simple.

This week, it applies to another SB. Unfortunately for Simon Bridges, Leader of the Opposition, one does not simply Facebook blast one’s way back into being oppositional after four weeks of being reasonably and necessarily cooperative.

In a Facebook post on Monday night, Bridges criticised the Government for not having done the groundwork to get us to Level 3 faster. He is particularly critical of the testing and tracing regime. He could very well have a point on this and it’s well within his purview as Opposition Leader to suggest it.

Unfortunately for Bridges, no one wanted to hear it, and the post has racked up tens of thousands of comments, many of which express satisfaction at the way the Government has handled the crisis and dissatisfaction with Bridges trying to say otherwise. 

This is Bridges’ very real Catch 22 at the moment. He needs to shift gears and get back to being Opposition Leader, and we need him to do this. It is a democratic function. Our state-sanctioned bubbles are cosy during times of extreme concern and fear, but we cannot live in them forever.

At the same time, Bridges has an election to fight. Elections are less about democratic necessities and more about reading moods and winning hearts and minds. This latest misstep highlights some already evident deficiencies when it comes to his communication and leadership styles. 

Pre-pandemic he seemed to be pursuing an aggressively negative communications style, one that involved throwing a lot of stuff at the wall with the rapidity of machine gun fire and seeing if it stuck. It got up people’s noses but it could’ve worked. 

It also worked well to mask Bridges’ propensity to be off the mark on matching message to time and place. A volume play means you will never be right all the time but when you are, it can pay dividends.  

Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the airtime for volume right now and the threat of Covid-19 has made the nation extremely sensitive and tolerance thresholds for negativity, much lower. Matching time, place and messaging has become crucial.

If we consider the clever ‘recovery room’ analogy Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has seeded to describe Level 3, the place we are in right now at Level 4, is open on the table, having surgery. Once we are in the recovery room, we’ll still be drowsy and seeking reassurance and comfort.

Unfortunately, one does not simply arrive at either of these places and announce that the surgeon mucked the procedure up. One does not simply ignore the local and global observers and experts who have almost universally praised New Zealand’s pandemic response. The evidence is all over Bridges’ Facebook page.  One cannot simply pick holes in the efforts to mobilise public buy-in for the plan to eliminate Covid-19, and expect to get an easy amen from the faithful, or conversions from the undecided while we are in these places.

Right now, the Government is still very much in control and will be until we all feel safe. Ardern and her team have coaxed massive compliance out of us by doubling down on the importance of social cohesion and creating an enormous sense of solidarity. For all that we need the opposition to rise, Bridges cannot win by tearing at that, and winning is a thing Bridges probably wants to do this year.

It remains to be seen whether Bridges’ misstep is fatal, and how long it will linger in the public’s memory. It could be argued the Facebook post was a boil that had to be lanced. Whatever else it failed to do, it certainly signalled his desire to get back to the job of opposition. We should applaud this.

Unfortunately, his other job is to win an election. One does not simply carry on with the old style of opposition when the landscape has completely changed. 

Bridges desperately needs to hone his room-reading abilities to better understand the mood of the nation. The perceived success of the here and now cannot be snatched from the Government, but there is life beyond the security of the recovery room and for the sake of electability, Bridges might be better off focusing his attention there.

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