Radio Hogwaller: Unfortunately for the National Party, Simon Bridges is no John Key. His Radio Hauraki hosts, Matt Heath and Jeremy Wells, led him by the nose into a slime-filled pit and encouraged him to wallow in it. In the immortal words of Dirty Harry: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Bridges doesn’t know what he can’t do.
IF THE NATIONAL PARTY was a genuine conservative party, Simon Bridges would no longer be its leader. In a genuine conservative party, the outcry against his performance on Radio Hauraki last Friday (22/6/18) would have extracted his resignation within 24 hours. A great many voices would have joined the outcry against Bridges’ boorish denigration of the prime minister and her family, and for a great many reasons. Let’s examine just a few of them.
Genuine conservatism upholds the traditional values of society. The extending of courtesy to all human-beings, regardless of their station in life, is one of the oldest expectations of civilised society. Indeed, the ability to remain courteous at all times is held to be one of the surest signs of true nobility. It is the acknowledgement which those fortunate enough to wield power make to those who lack it entirely.
Bridges discourtesy towards Jacinda Ardern, Clarke Gayford and their baby not only demonstrated his ignorance of the way someone in his position is expected to behave, but was also proof that he is sorely lacking in the qualities associated with a true political leader. He showed himself to be a man without grace, generosity or sensitivity.
More importantly, he showed himself to be a man without judgement. To handle the shock-jocks of commercial radio requires the ability to think clearly and remain in complete control under pressure. Matt Heath and Jeremy Wells are, after all, entertainers who specialise in embarrassing their guests. John Key had a flair for this shock-jock vulgarity and generally handled such encounters with aplomb. Unfortunately for the National Party, Bridges is no Key. His Hauraki hosts led him by the nose into a slime-filled pit and encouraged him to wallow in it. In the immortal words of Dirty Harry: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Bridges doesn’t know what he can’t do.
Bridges conduct also revealed a disturbing lack of moral strength. When one of his hosts demanded to know whether he hated Jacinda’s baby, there was only one correct answer: “No, of course I don’t! What a question!” What we heard, instead, was the weak-kneed equivocation: “Hate is a pretty strong word.” As if a less emphatic – but no less negative – characterisation of his feelings towards the child might be acceptable.
It was that same moral fragility which led Bridges’ into the other traps laid for him by his hosts. Trigger expressions, such as “gender-fluid”, elicited responses that showed him to be a person trapped in the rigid moral binaries of his Baptist upbringing. The kindest description of Bridges’ attitudes towards the LGBTI community is that they demonstrate a profound lack of both empathy and understanding. There are many less generous interpretations that could be offered for his willingness to find humour in the crudest of stereotypes.
Bridges was quick to reach for the excuse of humour when the full awfulness of his Hauraki performance became known. His comments were, he said, “light-hearted”. It is an interesting turn of phrase. Anyone who can make discriminatory comments about his fellow citizens with a light heart may not be the best qualified person to lead his country. Making trans-phobic comments with a light heart does not make them any less objectionable. A genuine conservative might even recall the old saying: ‘Many a true word spoken in jest.’
The most decisive voice raised against Bridges’ behaviour, however, would be the one that decried his lack of gravitas. Only political bomb-throwers like Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy made use of crude demagogic terms like “pinkos” – and that was nearly seventy years ago!
And what is a genuine conservative to make of a person who holds at least two university degrees, and has studied at Oxford, publicly accusing the prime minister of picking up “funny ideas” at university? Such a knee-jerk reversion to the anti-intellectualism of the National Party’s least attractive supporters indicates a deeply conflicted individual who is, at the very least, unwilling to acknowledge his own indebtedness to the power of higher education to expand the possibilities of a young man raised in modest circumstances.
If Simon Bridges was blessed with gravitas – behaviour indicating a serious and dignified personality – the idea of depicting higher education as something dubious or subversive, would be utterly abhorrent. Equally repugnant to him would be the idea of espousing one set of ideas and attitudes to one group of voters and a second, diametrically opposed, set to another. Such dishonesty; such cynicism would be anathema to a genuine conservative.
The ideas and attitudes to which genuine conservative politicians proclaim their allegiance do not change with the audience they are addressing. The serious business of governing one’s fellow human-beings requires honesty, consistency and a full measure of that solemn passion which should distinguish the political life.
If Simon Bridges was such a politician he would never have agreed to appear on Radio Hauraki. If he still aspires to become one, he will never do so again.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 25 June 2018.