Starting As They Mean To Finish: Simon Bridges' opening parliamentary gambit has made it more-or-less impossible for National’s period in opposition to be anything other than a bloody, no-holds-barred fight to the finish. Bill English had hinted that this might be the Opposition's game-plan when he told the NZ Herald that “it’s not our job to make this place run for an incoming Government […] we have no obligation to smooth [Labour’s] path. None whatsoever.”
WHAT WAS HE THINKING? When Simon Bridges pulled his little parliamentary stunt and extracted his procedural pound of flesh – what was he thinking? Was it no more than a spur-of-the-moment bluff? Did Labour’s Chris Hipkins give in too readily? What would have happened if the Government had been prepared to call his bluff? We’ll never know. We never do. History turns on such moments. The course our political leaders end up taking is always just one of an infinite number of alternatives they could have followed. But the courses chosen: the paths followed; they matter. You can put a ring around that, they matter a lot.
What Simon Bridges was thinking, probably, was that it was a risk worth taking. As the Shadow Leader of the House, he had given the Government his word that National would support Trevor Mallard’s bid to become Speaker, providing that, in return, his colleague, Anne Tolley, would be elected Deputy-Speaker. Labour had agreed. A deal had been struck. As an “honourable” Member of Parliament, Simon’s word should have been his bond. So, yes, his bold parliamentary gambit represented a huge breach of trust. It was risky. But the potential reward was worth it.
Welching on the Speaker deal. Slapping Labour’s face in front of the whole world. Making them look weak and incompetent by turning the first sitting of the House of Representative into a shambles and a farce – and coming out of it with a concession that promised many, many more opportunities to frustrate and humiliate the Government. These were all victories – his victories – and they would transform him into National’s warrior knight.
Bridges’ actions had achieved something else. Such an open and unconscionable breach of trust made it more-or-less impossible for National’s period in opposition to be anything other than a bloody, no-holds-barred fight to the finish. Bill English had hinted that this might, indeed, be National’s plan when he told the NZ Herald that “it’s not our job to make this place run for an incoming Government […] we have no obligation to smooth [Labour’s] path. None whatsoever.”
But like this? On the first day? Surely not.
Jacinda Ardern must now decide how her Labour-NZ First-Green government should respond to Bridges’ ambush. Like Barack Obama, she has come into office with an all-embracing programme of social, economic and cultural uplift. A programme in which she hoped the losing party would not only be willing to play the role of her government’s necessarily critical opposition, but also that of a patriotically constructive partner in the urgent task of national renewal. It is now very clear that this objective will only be achieved over the broken body of the National Party. With all hopes of collaboration and compromise dashed on the very first day, Jacinda’s new government is faced with the additional challenge of advancing its ambitious legislative programme in the face of the Opposition’s implacable and unrelenting resistance.
The most effective way for the National Opposition to resist Jacinda’s reforming government is by doing everything within its power to shatter its supporters’ faith in the political system’s capacity to deliver real change. The most terrifying sight the National Opposition has witnessed so far must surely have been the size and enthusiasm of the crowd of ordinary New Zealanders who gathered in Parliament Grounds to welcome the newly sworn-in Prime Minister and her Cabinet back from Government House. Bill English and his caucus would have observed all those expressions of hope and joy and realised that unless this new-found faith in politics – Jacinda’s “stardust” – was dispersed, and rapidly, then the new government’s lease on the Treasury Benches was likely to be a long one.
National is well aware that its own supporters’ understanding of politics is very different from that of Labour’s, the Greens’ and NZ First’s followers. National voters see politics as a purely instrumental activity: the means by which their interests and aspirations are secured and encouraged. Most of them are well aware of the fact that this can only be achieved at the expense of the less prosperous half of the New Zealand population – and most of them are quite okay with that. In their eyes, the poor and the marginalised have only themselves to blame for the multiple misfortunes which assail them. If you’re a loser in this society, it’s obviously because you haven’t tried hard enough to win!
It is this ruthlessly competitive approach to life and politics which allows them to respond to Simon Bridges parliamentary ambush with nothing but unalloyed admiration. Whatever it takes to win is fine by them. If their opponents label such tactics “dirty politics”, then they will simply shrug-off the accusation. “Dirty politics?”, they will chortle. “Is there any other kind?”
What was Simon Bridges thinking when he staged his parliamentary ambush? That it would not hurt his political career to be seen to be responding so unequivocally to the expectation of his party’s supporters that everything must be done to make politics appear tawdry and mean-spirited? That every stratagem which serves to make people despair of politics; and every act that causes them to turn away from politicians in disgust; will be heartily approved by National’s voters?
Those would certainly have been the thoughts of a young, ambitious leader-in-waiting, brashly confident that the National Opposition will retain the unwavering support of all those New Zealanders intent on recovering their lost social and economic ascendancy – no matter what it does.
Use any means necessary – just so long as that bloody stardust settles!
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 9 November 2017.