Some criticisms of the National Party leader have been way over the top, but there’s no doubt he badly misjudged the nation’s mood on Monday, writes Ben Thomas.
Among the many distant memories of life before lockdown is the belief that the National Party’s superior social media game would sink the government in 2020. Designed to provoke and engage, Labour supporters were drawn to share their opponents’ messages, even as they hated them, like moths to a flame. National defended its online strategy, and vowed to make no compromises.
Well, be careful what you wish for.
Simon Bridges’ Facebook post on the evening after the prime minister announced the timing of a shift from level four to level three received unprecedented engagement. At the time of writing it had levelled off around 28,000 comments, the vast majority critical, with around 15,000 negative emotion emojis to 3,000 positive. If nothing else, it put to rest long-running rumours that social media supremos Topham Guerin have been working for National in secret.
Social media is of course not real life, but the absolute numbers are enough to suggest something seriously wrong with the way Bridges is connecting with the public.
This is understandable on one level. People are looking for good news. Despite what TOP supporters believe, the reason people don’t vote purely on policy is because leaders will also confront unexpected events for which no party manifesto can prepare you, like closing borders amid a pandemic or shutting down the entire economy. Rightly, the prime minister will be judged on how New Zealand comes out of this crisis, in part compared to other countries.
On another level, Bridges has made serious tonal missteps. His framing is probably only 15 degrees off the true north of public opinion, as he tries to articulate the pain of small businesses, precarious workers and frontline health professionals who have felt ignored. But those 15 degrees are the difference between landing a moonshot and flying into the sun.
Self-congratulation is part of the New Zealand psyche and has been a salve for flagging spirits in lockdown, and Bridges suggesting Australia is doing better strikes a bum note. Rather than rejoicing at the end of lockdown, he argued that it was too soon for schools to reopen and not soon enough for business.
These are basic errors. While as a country we all desperately hope the country will avert a health and economic disaster, the former is still possible and the latter is a certainty. As we approach the election, according to Treasury’s best case scenario, unemployment will be around 8%, almost twice the recent average. It is likely to be higher. Businesses will lie in ruins. People will be ready to listen to criticism of the government.
Even if he ends up being right about the government’s current strategy, there’s no way of knowing he is yet, and no-one has so far been rewarded for being correctly pessimistic about Covid-19 before the country is ready to accept it. When, in late January, Act leader David Seymour suggested closing the border with China he was painted as alarmist or even racist. When business leaders called for a lockdown they were derided as out of touch.
Making the prognosis worse for Bridges is that his perfectly valid criticisms of the government response, backed up by health workers unions and experts commissioned by the government itself – around PPE distribution, the slowness to build up contact tracing and the lack of specific policy attention to small businesses – have been received as some kind of sedition or even treason.
This may be a function of the public gearing up for a “war” against an invisible enemy. If we’re all in this together, the public needs someone to fight, whether it’s the 10,000 suspected rule breakers dobbed in by their neighbours in two days, or the politician they never really liked anyway.
RNZ’s Morning Report interview yesterday morning dripped with contempt for Bridges, shutting down the leader of the opposition as if he were a hostile witness in a court case.
He was frequently cut off and was presented with two alleged internal polls showing National in trouble as facts for him to react to. And while it’s not hard to imagine that in the midst of this crisis Labour may be up significantly and National down significantly, neither alleged leak had been substantiated or even reported by RNZ’s own news or press gallery teams.
There is growing doubt about Bridges’ ability to win an election head-to-head with Ardern, especially on the current trajectory. On the other hand, those who recall the halcyon days of March 2020 when we still freely walked the streets eating KFC after bars had closed will realise that a week is a long time in politics.
The comparison between Phil Goff and David Cunliffe’s election results in 2011 and 2014, and Ardern’s result after taking over from Andrew Little eight weeks before the 2017 election, repudiate the conservative wisdom that voters don’t hate anything as much as instability. They hated David Cunliffe more, for example.
At the same time, the cooler heads in National realise the party cannot look as if its primary concern during a pandemic is navel gazing. Politics doesn’t stop during a lockdown – there are crucial decisions being made in real time by the government, and the opposition is a key part of keeping them accountable. But the politics of personal ambition must be held in check.
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