Simon Bridges. Photo: Radio NZ: Rebekah Parsons-King

The dumbfounding nastiness of Simon Bridges’ ‘meth crooks’ remarks

The National position on compensation over the meth contamination scare is incompatible with the party’s values, and reeks of weak and desperate leadership, writes Danyl Mclauchlan

Let’s take a stroll over to the National Party website and cast our eyes over their core values. They’re the kind of thing you’d expect a conservative, centre-right party to stand for. Equal Opportunity. Personal Responsibility. Strong Families. Limited Government. All good stuff, if you’re into that sort of thing. One of Key’s strengths as a leader was his ability to personally symbolise those values: state house; solo mum; worked hard; became insanely rich: the system worked. If you give everyone “equality of opportunity”, the John Key story went, but kept the dead hand of the state from interfering in people’s lives more than it needed to and reward those who work hard, anyone can make it.

I think that’s why I find National’s current position on the meth contamination issue to be so dumbfoundingly nasty. The backstory here is that the National government spent over $100 million dollars testing state homes for methamphetamine contamination, evicting residents without any kind of due process if the test came back positive, and after taking them to the Tenancy Tribunal, billing them for the enormous costs of decontaminating the property.

This was very controversial, with reporters like Benedict Collins and Russell Brown breaking stories that strongly suggested that Housing NZ were using a flawed standard of testing for methamphetamine contamination, revealing that the Ministry of Health had repeatedly told the organisation it was misusing its guidelines and that a lot of the state house tenants who were being evicted looked suspiciously unlike meth cooks and an awful lot like elderly pensioners and young families whose lives were being ruined by a cruel and incompetent bureaucracy while leaving hundreds of state homes empty in the middle of a housing crisis.

But the meth testing policy was ferociously defended by the housing minister at the time, Paula Bennett – who is now deputy leader of the National Party – and who celebrated the policy by loudly and repeatedly congratulating herself for getting tough on drug dealers.

One of the first things the new government did was ask Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Ministerial Science adviser appointed by John Key, to look into the meth testing regime. Gluckman quickly discovered that the entire enterprise was a scam. He characterised it as ‘meth hysteria’ and pointed out that no one had ever been harmed by the ‘forensic’ levels of contamination Housing NZ were evicting people for. The agency was forced to apologise – bafflingly no one resigned, or was fired; the head of the agency simply dodged the media until the cycle moved on – and this week announced they’d be paying token amounts of compensation to the eight hundred tenants they’d thrown out of their homes for no reason whatsoever.

National leader Simon Bridges’ response to all this is to attack the government for paying compensation to people like Rosemary Rudolf, an 87-year-old grandmother who’d lived in her property for sixty years, or Dianne Revill, a solo mother who has been homeless for two years after being wrongly evicted, separating her from her daughter who went to live with another relative, because they are, in Bridges’ words, ‘meth crooks’ who deserved to be evicted.

There’s an obvious thought experiment here. How should we feel about a future John Key who lived in a state house with his mother but was evicted because a bunch of public servants and politicians made mistakes, so went on to live in a car or sleep on some relative’s couch, and so failed to have any of the opportunities Key took advantage of? Bridges seems to feel that that would be a just outcome: the state doesn’t make mistakes, in his conception of the world, and a cruel and incompetent bureaucracy that tears up families, crushes the elderly and wastes $100 million dollars of taxpayer money – it took over 10,000 workers on the average wage an entire year to pay for the costs of Paula Bennett’s great meth testing debacle – is somehow compatible with the values of the National party under his leadership.

One of the core principles of modern conservatism is that the socialist state is too powerful, too innately corrupt and too unaccountable to be compatible with a free society: that’s why you need families and communities and free markets. So why is the National leader out there advocating for the epitome of a destructive and wasteful bureaucratic catastrophe that separated families and destroyed lives?

Two reasons. The first is that Bridges and his strategists have decided to define the struggling National leader as ‘tough on crime’. Which makes sense: he was a former criminal prosecutor; Labour are embarking on another of their periodic, doomed attempts to reform the criminal justice system; National are competing for votes with New Zealand First, who are both attractive to older, low-information voters who are perpetually terrified of drugs and criminals. Pride and fear are two of the most powerful emotions in politics: you can’t go wrong exploiting peoples’ fears.

But Bridges is also competing for media-space with Judith Collins, who was first out of the gate attacking the meth compensation announcement, declaring that the tenants were all evicted because of their ‘criminal activity’. Bridges seems to feel that he needs to match Collins’ rhetoric on this issue. Collins has built her career making weird, frightening, provocative statements; it means she has a high media profile and a following among the activists on the fringe of her party. It’s also the reason she failed to come close to winning either the leadership or deputy leadership in either of National’s recent leadership contests.

There’s been a lot of talk about strength and weakness, recently, with sacking MPs or ministers defined as the criteria for strong political leadership. But selling out your own party’s core values to win a slot in the media cycle, and because you’re afraid of a creature like Judith Collins feels to me like a total failure of leadership; the act of a weak and desperate leader who is playing the fear card because he himself is obviously afraid.


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