The National Party leader sits down with Alex Braae to talk political rhetoric, misinformation, and whether he’ll have any dance partners after next year’s election.
How cynical is Simon Bridges? It’s a question that has dogged National’s leader over the past year.
Being an opposition leader is, of course, a difficult job at the best of times. It’s especially difficult when competing against a PM with very high levels of personal popularity. For Bridges, getting cut-through with the public has been a constant struggle.
National has published a series of wide-ranging discussion documents in 2019, setting the terms for the sort of policy that they intend to take into the 2020 election. Each time, they got a reasonable hit in the media, before quickly dropping off the front pages of news websites. But what has lingered longer is the increasingly hardline stances on a few relatively minor points.
Take for example the welfare discussion document. Broadly, it signalled the sort of social investment approach taken during the tail end of the last National government, which at a simplistic level is about heavy targeting of resources towards those in the most need. But also included in the discussion document were far harsher ideas around limiting time on benefits for young people, and restarting tenancy reviews for those in social housing.
For a segment of the population, that sounds a lot like “cracking down on dole bludgers”. When it came to the law and order discussion document, the cracking down rhetoric was more explicit, and the targets were gangs. It effectively acted as a wedge, allowing National to characterise critics of their policy as soft, or defending the actions of criminal organisations.
So does he really mean it? Bridges swung by The Spinoff this week to talk about his political year, social media misinformation, infrastructure spending and whether his party would have allies to work with after the election.
The Spinoff: One thing that jumped out from your year was the day you came out and repeated the line about “gangs, crims and extremists”. There’s probably not a lot of people in the country who sympathise with those groups, and they’re all targets outside the mainstream. Does that run the risk of creating in-groups and out-groups in society rather than bringing it together?
Simon Bridges: Well, just in the last week we’ve had columns by David Cormack and Jarrod Gilbert and so on saying this is just politics, and there’s nothing behind it, and I firmly reject that. You can argue about the realities, and what’s effective, but I genuinely believe it and I intend to do it if we win.
Your point about whether we’re creating an other, and whether we’re ostracising people – the point I’d make to you is that I don’t think you can say any more this is marginal or on the margins. Possibly here in Auckland you see it less visibly, it’s a bit more sophisticated than what you’d see in other parts of New Zealand. But, there are 1400 more gang members since the election, and they’re much more visibly present in Hawke’s Bay, the Bay of Plenty, even Southland, and I do think they’ve got their hooks more into middle New Zealand. They see and feel it.
Then there’s the argument about the solutions, and I’d just say, are we serious about it or not? If we are, we have to do some quite serious things. That gets caricatured as just tough on crime and nothing else. Of course it’s the other stuff as well – in our discussion documents this year our education policies and social policies are perhaps more important than being tough on crime. But in the yin and yang of it, the yang is a stiff approach to this stuff, so that criminal entities know they’ll get caught with a relatively high degree of certainty, and know they’ll get a stiff penalty as a result.
You wrote about those other policies for The Spinoff, and for every other media organisation put forward a much more tough on crime position. Do you understand why people would look at that and argue that it’s not a solutions focused approach?
I think it’s both smart and strong. I’m not here to critique the media, they’ll put up what they want. But I do come back to it – others might be cynical for me, and I’m not a single bit cynical about this.
In the UK right now, there’s a lot of conjecture around what parties are putting out not being accurate. Have you been following how the messaging has worked in the election?
I’ve been following it, but not at that level of minutia. Of course there’s the arguments about Brexit, and a dishonest campaign there – I haven’t fact checked these things. I would say something that brasses me off about New Zealand is that it only seems to be the right that gets fact checked. The reality is, if you look at most things Jacinda Ardern says on Radio NZ and so on, they’re not verifiable, and they don’t stack up. Her claims around the economy more often than not don’t stack up. So I’m all for fact checking, to keep us honest, but the fact checkers also have to be scrupulously impartial in this job, and not just doing it from a centre-left perspective.
Sure, but is that not a little cynical to say the other side is doing it as well?
I don’t think there’s anything we say that’s not verifiable. People run the ruler on this stuff –
Perhaps not unverifiable, but misleading?
I don’t accept that, give me an example.
That bar graph that went up on the National Party twitter account two days ago that showed a very distorted perspective –
But the facts are the facts. I mean, the numbers of what petrol was under us, and what petrol was under this government, it’s 24 cents more a litre at the end of this term than it was in petrol taxes. The other side of that is talking a big game on child poverty. Jacinda Ardern was – still is – going to save the world, and seven out of nine indicators are worse. City Missions around New Zealand, certainly in Christchurch’s case, they want the National party back because we got stuff done on this.
I’m not remotely cynical. I want to be fact checked. I think it’s an important part of the political process. But I’d like to see more fact checking of the sort of glib, superficial statements made by the Prime Minister and her party. And dare I say it with respect, I just don’t see it from the Heralds, from the Spinoffs, from Radio NZ.
If we have a policy focused election, one of the big areas will be infrastructure spending. Looking at Labour’s decision to relax the target range of the Budget Responsibility Rules, and the Green Party’s call to scrap them altogether, do you think there’s a place for such spending restrictions?
I think it’s essential. This government – they don’t have a money problem. If they’re not wasting money, if they prioritise well, they can do a lot. I look at the situation we’ve got at the end of 2019. The economy is not remotely as strong as it was, look it’s not appalling, but it should be doing much better. This matters, because it’s five billion less bucks that have come into the economy. So an economic plan is more important than a spending plan.
The second point is, we’ve got to this point today in a panic. Grant Robertson is going to huff and puff and say today we’re serious about infrastructure, when for two years they weren’t.
The third point is that yes there are policy differences, but there are also practicalities, and that means getting stuff done. Jacinda and Grant make the mistake of thinking an announcement is the same as delivery, and it’s sort of not, I only have to say Kiwibuild and you know what I’m talking about. What we’ll do is a real plan, with real projects, and I started the City Rail Link, we did electrification of rail and a bunch of other things that New Zealanders are benefitting from. But it also has to have some pragmatism, and that means roads.
Take your city for example – Tauranga – 97% of the population is car dependant. For a city like that, shouldn’t there be a non-roading solution to start looking at?
Yes, but ultimately a city of 120,000 – things like multi-billion dollar light rail projects, they’re not a reality. Jacinda Ardern promised commuter rail between Auckland and Tauranga, well, surprise surpise, nothing has happened. And that’s because spending many billions of dollars – it’s not about it just being uneconomic, because I don’t think it all has to be right down to the precise dollar – it’s just that it’s not remotely realistic.
I think about Tauranga, and it’s the same thing I think about Auckland. Build the network, that does involve some more roading projects, then you can do a much better job of public transport. I reckon for Tauranga, they should look at what they’ve done with Queenstown. Good, frequent, on-time small buses, with a uniform fare that is heavily subsidised. It’s a dollar anywhere in the city. We need solutions that real people will use every day, and that includes roads.
Looking ahead to the election and the aftermath, do you feel like ruling out working with New Zealand First yet?
Let’s do this. No, I mean, next year, I’ll be clear on ACT, NZ First, where we stand –
What would help you make your decision at this stage on NZ First?
It’s just timing, we’re not in an election year. And I think it’s important to get closer to the action for New Zealanders to understand where we’re at.
Is there any new information that you could get at this stage about NZ First that would make them tenable or untenable to work with?
That’s always possible. Things change and things happen. I can give you this – the stuff I see from Shane Jones slagging off business doesn’t impress me. It doesn’t make it more likely we’d go with them. Some of Winston Peters’ recent behaviour, and the donations scandal, is in the same sort of category. But to have a clear position today to rule out NZ First, I think it would give the old crocodile oxygen before Christmas that he doesn’t deserve, and to go back to the start of all of this, it could breed a whole lot of fake news and conspiracies. Let’s let everyone know where things are at in election year.
Okay, in that case all the other minor parties – TOP, New Conservative, Sustainable NZ, any of those take your fancy?
The problem is, they’ve got to get there. I do think there are gaps in the market for a Māori Party – with Ihumātao and Oranga Tamariki there’s a sense of being let down by the government there. And I think there’s a gap for the centre-Green party.
Would you throw any of them a bone?
Never say never, but I think it’s probably unlikely.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.