The leader of the opposition has lately been touring the small towns and outer city suburbs. Why? Alex Braae went to Huapai in northwest Auckland to find out.
Up and down the country over the next month, National leader Simon Bridges will be working the room in dozens of RSAs, community halls and churches. The connecting with communities tour – as party comms are calling it – will put him firmly in front of National’s base. And he really needs it to go well.
Why? Because Simon Bridges has a problem. His party is comfortable in the polls – there’s no worries there except for a lack of allies. But only one in ten voters actively wants Simon Bridges to be the next prime minister. Either they don’t know who he is, or don’t care for him. Most loyal National voters would presumably be happy to have him in the job if it were a straight fight between him and Jacinda Ardern. But despite being a minister for many years in the last government, Bridges’ profile remains relatively low. Such is life as an opposition leader.
Connecting with Kumeu
It was hard to avoid the advertising for the Simon Bridges show driving into Helensville. The morning was a political double header for the electorate: MP Chris Penk was also opening his new office, just across the road from the church hall Bridges would then speak in. Councillors, local board members, various notables from the area were there for the opening – the National Party’s machine remains well oiled.
The small hall was packed for the meeting, warm and humid. A staffer sweated in his suit as he put up posters of Bridges, looking breezy in shorts, teaching his kids how to ride bikes. The crowd was a mix of the party faithful, and those who were simply participators in public life – one man was attending his third event in the space of three days. It was an older crowd, and one that could spare the hour on a Friday, but also one that didn’t mind standing around the walls after all the seats filled up. So far there have been hundreds more at other stops on the tour.
The man himself strode in with purpose, flanked by Penk and followed by another staffer with a camera. There was a short introduction, before Bridges launched into his semi–prepared speech. He peppered the crowd with phrases that alternated between pithy and folksy – diplomats not doctors, government playing Santa Claus. He said the government’s role in the economy was “to make the boat go faster,” and that “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas,” on the possibility an early election might be called.
Bridges was jovial and loose, with anecdotes that would fit perfectly into a reasonable hour of talkback radio. And he got a few laughs too, like when he pretended to forget which order the former leaders of the Labour party named David came in. Hand grenades rolled out as questions from the floor were kicked away, like when a woman asked if now that he was in opposition, “would he call it a housing crisis?” The last government had many storms to weather, said Bridges, seemingly satisfying all in the audience except the questioner.
In his ten weeks in the job, Simon Bridges has shown a strong aversion to putting his name to polarising positions. In Huapai, Bridges repeatedly employed a technique – consciously or otherwise – of giving a hint of a hardline position, but then walking back from it.
He told a story about how someone in Hamilton had told him that “it’s not child poverty, it’s child neglect,” but then pivoted away and talked about the last government’s social investment programme. He delved into his past prosecuting rapists and murderers and attacked gangs as “evil,” but said he “wasn’t a lock them up and throw away the key guy.”
He spoke about that afterwards, saying the point of this tour wasn’t necessarily to “be just a talking tour, but a listening tour.” He’s taking notes after each meeting, “without my own bias if you like, to see where middle New Zealand’s at.” There’s also the fact that a lot of National’s positions are yet to be worked out.
“You don’t have many luxuries in opposition, but one is the ability to not come out too early, with exactly what you’ll do. And it’s not because I don’t have ideas about it, but I think you want to make sure you’re listening, and then doing the policy development,” said Bridges.
So if the people in his meetings could be given the amorphous moniker of middle New Zealand, where are they at? It was hard to escape the feeling that the crowd wanted more red meat. There were vigorous nods, murmurs and even cheers when he tipped his hat to getting tough, to cracking down – the boot up the bum approach advocated by National’s right wing.
It wasn’t quite dog-whistling that Bridges was indulging in, because it genuinely doesn’t seem like he believes in the hard line. He’s an orthodox, pro-business social moderate, a manager of the political consensus that the boat should, at all times, be forging through the water at a good clip. But the course he would set puts him at odds with the real target of the tour through the regions.
Winston country blues
The opposite of the modern National Party isn’t Labour in a lot of important ways – it’s New Zealand First. Where National advocate economic openness, New Zealand First are protectionist. Simon Bridges proudly stood on the last government’s record on high immigration, Winston Peters wants that cut back. National are economically hands off, New Zealand First are interventionist.
The other thing to note is that they share a huge constituency, at least geographically. The most important chunk of New Zealand First’s vote comes from electorates that are regional, and effectively safe National seats. And what a prize it would be for any National leader that managed to tear a few strips off them, if it pushed the party below the 5% threshold. A big wasted vote next time around could allow National to win the election outright, provided they stay the largest party. And they gave it a good crack in 2017, telling voters to “cut out the middle man” and deny Winston Peters the power to pick the governing party.
The tour stops reveal this strategy – Masterton, Te Kauwhata, Cambridge, Waikanae, Levin, Invercargill and so on. And there was evidence in Huapai that the party faithful are still incredibly pissed off at Winston Peters for choosing Labour. Simon Bridges got his biggest laugh of the morning with a line about how there was only one person in the country who thought the next prime minister would be anyone other than Ardern or Bridges, but that person would get to try it out for a few weeks.
The tour comes at a time when National are railing against the way New Zealand First’s Shane Jones is using his regional development fund. Deriding the projects as “little bits and bobs of out of Shane Jones’ slush fund,” Bridges said they were piecemeal solutions to decisions like ending oil and gas exploration. Of course, that decision has been ascribed near-mythical importance by all sides of parliament, given it will have little impact in the short or even medium term in Taranaki. But it’s a symbolic wedge to use against the coalition all the same.
And Simon Bridges even feels that he’s going to get a better reception than Winston Peters would in the small towns he’s visiting, right at the moment at least. Bridges says people in the regions are feeling let down by New Zealand First – “it’s a kick in the guts,” he exclaims, dropping his i’s to a rumbling rural u as he repeats himself.
But there’s one advantage Winston Peters has over Simon Bridges now, and probably will for the rest of his natural born life. Love him or loathe him, at least people know his name.
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