Stewart Sowman-Lund traces the outgoing National MP’s career to choose 10 moments that defined him.
National MP Simon Bridges, who announced today that he’s quitting politics in the coming weeks, has had a political career that’s seen him in and out of government, off and on his party’s front bench, and hanging out with everyone from Prince Charles to a herd of yaks.
As he prepares to farewell parliament, let’s relive 10 of Bridges’ most defining career moments.
When he beat Winston Peters
Bridges’ resignation means a byelection in the Tauranga electorate will be triggered. While the field of candidates is not yet known, one name already being thrown around is that of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. The career politician, who most recently became a favourite of anti-mandate protesters, was the MP for Tauranga between 1984 and 2005. In the following election, Peters attempted to regain his long-standing seat – but was beaten by one Simon Bridges, a fresh-faced candidate for the National Party. Bridges romped home with a more than 11,000 majority and has safely held onto the seat ever since.
That angry Campbell Live interview
It’s just something you would never see on 7pm telly any more in this country: a 15-minute slanging match between a junior MP and a senior broadcaster. In 2013, Bridges appeared on Campbell Live (RIP) to discuss deep sea oil drilling. Soon the pair were talking over each other repeatedly and yelling at increasing volume and before too long, Campbell was left with no other option: to pretend he was telling off a child. “I will ask you a question – you answer it. Let’s give that a go,” he said.
All the leadership challenges
After John Key’s decision to step down as prime minister in 2016, Bridges was one of several names thrown into the mix as a possible future leader. He ultimately put his name forward for deputy leader but withdrew when it became clear Paula Bennett had the numbers.
His first shot at the top job came in 2018. When Bill English resigned, Bridges successfully campaigned for the leadership, becoming the first person of Māori descent to serve as the leader of a major political party. It was a tenure that would see the party maintain its high polling, but internal fighting, scandals and leaks, along with the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, saw support for National slip and Bridges was eventually rolled by Todd Muller in May 2020.
But that didn’t stop him! After riding easy through the 2020 election campaign (under Judith Collins, who replaced Todd Muller in July 2020), Bridges’ name soon came up again as a leadership hopeful. In late 2021, after confidence faltered in Judith Collins, Bridges was said to be in the running to be leader yet again. Of course, we all know how that worked out.
In May of 2019, at the height of his tenure as National leader, Bridges stood in parliament and screamed the word “slushies” at the government. It will go down in the annals of history as one of the most memorable, bizarre and meme-worthy moments in New Zealand politics.
I’ll let the video speak for itself.
The Jami-Lee Ross leak war
Oh what a time to be a political nerd this was. In August 2018, Bridges was dealing with the repercussions of a leaked document that revealed he had spent over $100,00 on travel and accommodation. That included, reported Tova O’Brien at the time, a BMW Crown limousine tour that took him from Kaitaia to Bluff.
A couple of months later, Bridges announced that National MP Jami-Lee Ross was the leaker of those accounts and said a suspension from the party was possible. That triggered an all-out war, with Ross sending a series of now infamous tweets and slowly beginning to leak material that he said would bring Bridges down.
It didn’t, and Ross would ultimately see out the remainder of the parliamentary term in exile before splintering to co-lead the conspiracy-fuelled party Advance NZ.
Maureen Pugh is ‘fucking useless’
Possibly the most prominent of the Ross leaks, and so notorious it deserves its own entry, was a tape in which Bridges could very clearly be heard describing National MP Maureen Pugh as “fucking useless”.
Pugh has since gone on to be most well known for her ability to survive multiple lightning strikes.
That Covid-19 Facebook post
Somehow, against all odds, the back-and-forth leak war with Jami-Lee Ross and a leaked audio clip of him calling one of his own MPs “fucking useless” was not enough to bring down Simon Bridges as National leader.
But in April 2020, as Covid-19 continued to dominate the political landscape, a simple Facebook post threatened to end Bridges’ leadership immediately. The post criticised the government for keeping New Zealand in alert level four and looked to Australia as an exemplar to follow.
Bridges survived in the National leadership for about a month after this moment, before being rolled by Todd Muller.
It wasn’t long after his leadership ended that the image rehabilitation began.
Bridges, looking more zen than I have ever been in my life, shared a video on social media of him walking side by side with a baby yak. He looked peaceful, happy – hell, he looked ruggedly handsome in those shorts and gumboots. This was not the man who had endured scandal after scandal, who had been taped calling an MP “useless”. No, this was a man who was happier than any of us and who, feasibly, could be prime minister one day.
Speaking to The Spinoff’s Toby Manhire at the time, Bridges said: “I now feel a bit of performance anxiety around social media posts. There hasn’t been a whole lot of thought going into them. But with Baby Yak taking off, I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I did have a Mouse Town lined up, my niece’s pet mouse has a series of tunnels and things.”
The sudden demotion and the Jacqui Dean joke
Suddenly we’re back in the room, the yaks are no more. It’s late 2021 and Simon Bridges has been shockingly and suddenly demoted from all his portfolios by one Judith Collins. Why? Over claims Bridges had made an offensive joke in the presence of MP Jacqui Dean, several years earlier. The joke was reportedly “in relation to old wives’ tales about how to conceive a girl” and though Bridges apologised to Dean at the time, she was upset, though later said she “took no pleasure in being caught up in a political power-play”.
Bridges ultimately regained his portfolios and moved into the number three spot after Christopher Luxon became party leader.
Voting against conversion therapy
Simon Bridges was one of just eight MPs, all from National, to vote against banning conversion therapy earlier this year. He had been a vocal opponent to the proposal since its inception, previously calling it an attack on free speech.
“I personally do have a wider concern. That is freedom of speech,” he told Newshub in early 2021. “That is in a liberal society, in a tolerant society, we have been very tolerant of different views. We are, with this, moving down a track to a situation where it is actually cancel culture.
“If we don’t like it we are going to criminalise it and I do worry about that.”
The entire National Party voted against the bill at first reading, under Judith Collins’ leadership, and it’s believed the conservative branch of the party (that included Bridges) may have swung the vote. The party switched to making it a conscience vote at the second and third readings.
Leaving politics with no warning
We finish where we began: the bombshell announcement of earlier today. Simon Bridges will be leaving politics in the coming days or weeks.
It may seem like a cop-out to put a resignation on a list of most defining moments, but I’d say the opposite. He’s done a John Key, left at the most opportune moment, with no scandal brewing (at least, so far).