The leader of the National Party has been heavily criticised for delivering a tone-deaf interview on the prime ministerial baby on Friday. Hayden Donnell resolved to help him beat his demons and redefine his personal brand.
The worst thing was he thought it was going well. Simon Bridges was revelling in the grim nihilism of his appearance on Jeremy Wells and Matt Heath’s Radio Hauraki show on Friday. He was smiling into the abyss, and the abyss was smiling back. Every word he uttered would be swallowed up by the maw of Jacinda Ardern’s baby. Nothing mattered. It was invigorating. “You know why I’m saying these things right now,” he said. “Because I know that nothing I’m saying is going to make the news in the next, like, seven days.”
The media questions started coming soon after the interview ended. First a trickle. Then a steady stream. Somehow, despite the arrival of the New Zealand’s most newsworthy baby since scientists cloned a rare cow, Bridges has now spent 72 hours batting away questions about why he tried to publicly own a two-day-old child.
The quotes don’t look great written down. “Look, I don’t think [the baby’s] going to do a lot to help my poll ratings, let’s put it that way, but you know I don’t hate [the baby]!” he told Heath and Wells. “Hate is a strong word, I should say, I wish her all the best.” Bridges said the baby would be “going to school like in boy’s clothes right?”, in what was either a transphobic jab at the left, incomprehensible gibberish, or a policy announcement in favour of setting up baby schools.
How did it descend into this? “Under fire for insulting an infant” is one of the easiest political scandals to avoid. Why was Bridges suddenly having to do damage control for publicly taunting someone literally not strong enough to hold up the weight of her own head?
The answer lies inside the darkest recesses of opposition leader’s soul. Bridges is haunted. As he lays down to sleep, a presence smiles vacantly from the farthest reaches of his spirit and whispers, “At the end of the day, I’m relaxed about it.” As he rises again, it says “To be perfectly honest, I’m ambitious for New Zealand.”
Simon Bridges is possessed by John Key.
You could see it happening as far back as 2013. Bridges appeared on Campbell Live, worked up and spitting over Campbell impugning the good name of deep sea oil drillers. As he lost control, a phrase started popping up.
“The fact of the matter is look at the context of this. We have drilled 1000 wells throughout New Zealand’s history,” he said.
“The fact of the matter is they have to go through a permit with MBIE.”
“The fact of the matter is John, you do not have a single positive statement about oil and gas development or exploration New Zealand.”
His attempts to summarise the issue in a single line were unmistakably similar to his then-boss. But Bridges wasn’t as effective. Whatever was possessing him was a budget knockoff of the real thing. Campbell upbraided him like a disappointed dad. “I feel like you’ve come here and just spouted a load of nonsense,” he said.
The Homebrand haunting has only became more acute. Bridges talks like Key. He power sits in parliament like Key. And on Friday, he joked around on commercial radio like Key did, mainly successfully, year after year. The difference between his version and Key’s was that the former prime minister’s alarm bells probably would’ve started going off before he got to calling a newborn child a pinko. Not Bridges. He chased a vision of his departed boss straight into hell.
He needs to cast off the spectral presence haunting him to move forward. I sought out someone who could help. Haunted Auckland investigator Mark Wallbank said burning sage and just telling the entity to leave is the standard and time tested procedure. “Then again; if we’re talking politicians, perhaps an exorcism would be the order of the day. Hope that helps,” he said.
But even if sage and a strong order to leave can break the curse, what will Bridges do next? Without emulating John Key, he doesn’t have a strong identity of his own to draw on.
I asked personal brand adviser and former Paul Henry internet correspondent Verity Johnson for help. “The core principle of finding your personal brand is to ask yourself, ‘what do you want to be known for?’ Or more specifically, ‘how do I want people to talk about me?’” she said.
“The best way to start this is to think about all the people you admire and ask yourself why they appeal to you… You might want to have John Key’s daggy middle-aged dad charm, but to do that you have to be a daggy, middle aged dad at heart.”
The key part of everything was authenticity, Johnson said. It was paramount. Without authenticity, no-one would buy what you’re selling. Without authenticity, you were adrift. Your public presence was a weird, off-putting void. She closed with some advice for Bridges. “Choose to embody traits that are a real reflection of your real personality,” she said. “Otherwise people will see right through you.”
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.