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A very serious politician (Image: Tina Tiller)
A very serious politician (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsApril 29, 2019

Simon Bridges’s slushy tactics make it really hard to take him seriously

A very serious politician (Image: Tina Tiller)
A very serious politician (Image: Tina Tiller)

When a political career is about to go up in flames, there’s almost always a moment when the politician just becomes utterly ridiculous. Has Simon Bridges just had that moment? 

In almost anyone’s books, blathering on about slushies on Morning Report would be considered a low point. For Simon Bridges, it might just be the moment that his political fortunes permanently swing from troubled to absurdist.

Let’s be generous, and say there was a real story in all of this. The Department of Corrections spent just over a million dollars on slushy machines to keep prison guards cool at work. It’s a relatable dollar figure, and on the face of it seems like it could make for a nice bit of political outrage porn – they’re spending your money on what??? But that’s not really how it worked out for poor old Simon Bridges.

His party’s Facebook post, for starters, didn’t actually mention that the machines were for the guards – it heavily implied they were for prisoners. He later uttered the actual quote – “I would not be at all surprised if it’s prisoners as well, who are getting their lips around these slushies.” It was even on video, and tweeted out.

Now I know the preferred PM stakes show that only 5% of New Zealanders want Simon Bridges in the top job. But I wouldn’t be surprised to now see it fall even lower than that. No sentient person could watch that video and be more likely to think the man in it was a compelling alternative prime minister.

For one – it’s bullshit. There’s no way prison guards are going to share their delicious slushies, even if it would be a nice way to make prisons a tiny bit more humane. And secondly, you have the leader of the opposition using his precious minutes of media time on a Monday morning, when he should be setting up the week, to talk about slushies. And repeatedly using the word slushies.

Worst of all, it’s a quick and simple metaphor for exactly where the National party is going under his leadership. It’s negative and obsessed with trivialities. But like a car caught up in a slushy snowdrift, it’s going nowhere.

That didn’t seem like the case this time last year. In fact, I used the exact same phrase – going nowhere – to mean the opposite thing, that is, there was no way Simon Bridges was going to lose the leadership. All of that seems a long time ago now for Simon Slushy Bridges.

So many political careers seem to have ended in this sort of way – not with a bang, but a pointless attempt at a poorly conceived media hit. I honestly cannot remember for the life of me why Don Brash walked the plank, or David Shearer held a pair of dead fish up in parliament. Because no matter what they were doing, the point that was being made was ultimately completely meaningless compared to the image of it all. Opposition leaders get few chances to really impress the public, but they get plenty of chances to look like fools. And the image of them looking like fools lingers for a lot longer.

That immediate association unfortunately matters a great deal for how politicians are seen. The pictures of David Cunliffe slumped on a log, or Colin Craig lying in the grass, became iconic because they seemed to reveal a deeper truth about where that politician was at. Poor old Cunliffe was at the end of a long and difficult road, where he had absolutely destroyed any sense of goodwill his colleagues might have felt towards him. And Colin Craig, as many people suspected at the time, turned out to be a bit more snake-like in his personal behaviour than his public persona would reveal.

So is Simon Bridges finished? It would be the height of stupid shallow punditry to say that the slushy incident has ended his run as National leader. But it’s not like David Shearer was dominating the government when he held up the dead fish either – to extend his own metaphor, he too was floundering.

It’s just that you look at the rest of Simon Bridges’ caucus, and it’s full of mostly serious people doing mostly serious things. It’s got Todd Muller doing grunty cross-party policy work on climate change, and Paul Goldsmith sniffing out new potential Provincial Growth Fund scandals almost every month, and Nikki Kaye looking into how to increase second language teaching capability in schools, and on and on it goes. Pertinently as well, Judith Collins has also spent the year turning the word Kiwibuild into a shorthand term for government failure.

And then the guy leading the party rocks up to Morning Report, and starts getting into whether or not the publicly funded coffee machine in the Radio NZ kitchen is excessive. Simon Bridges himself even acknowledged the whole thing was comical. If only he realised the joke was on him.

Keep going!