Thursday, 1 March 2018

The Making Of A National Party Leader

What It Takes: That Simon Bridges was willing, coolly and efficiently, to curtail New Zealanders’ protest rights, would not have gone unnoticed by his political patrons (among whom were John Key and Steven Joyce). They had set him a test – and he had passed it with flying colours. In order for Bridges to become a successful statesman, his political peers needed to be convinced he had it in him to put his most cherished ideals to the sword without flinching.

THERE IS AN AIR OF UNREALITY about the leadership struggles within political parties. It’s as if all the journalists and commentators have entered into an unspoken agreement not to draw too much attention to the fundamental opaqueness of the process. Instead, the public is treated to a wealth of irrelevant information about the various contenders. When and where they were born; who they married; what they like to do in their spare time: as if any of these details matter.

Unmentioned and unexamined are the pivotal, career-consolidating decisions that these candidates have made on their way to the top. What did they do to demonstrate the seriousness of their intent to become more than bit-players in the big political dramas of their day. Who are the former enemies with whom they were secretly reconciled? And who were the former friends and allies they betrayed in the process?

These are the only details that truly matter: the information that only those close to the political action can reveal; the stuff that the public almost never gets to hear about. Long-retired politicians may write about it in their memoirs, but by then the dirty deals laid bare are so far in the past that almost nobody – excepting family, friends and the odd political historian – gives a damn.

Oddly, most people who pay attention to politics know that this is the way that political leaders have always behaved. It’s the reason why television series like House of Cards and Borgen are so popular. They allow us to view the behind-the-scenes events that go unreported in the news media. Indeed, much of the dramatic action in these series turns on the huge discrepancy between what the leading characters say to the media and what they say to each other.

When Francis Underwood makes his direct asides to the viewers in House of Cards the effect is always electrifying. Instead of being mere spectators, they suddenly become the hero’s trusted co-conspirators. For just a few seconds they get to experience what it is like to be inside the action: to feel the adrenalin-rush that comes from wielding raw political power; to be liberated from the pettiness and insignificance of the “ordinary” citizen’s highly circumscribed existence.

The National Party’s new leader, for example, was being promoted as one of the people to watch more than 15 years ago – long before he wrenched the Tauranga electorate from Winston Peters’ grasp in 2008. The decisions made by Simon Bridges in those crucial years before he entered Parliament will, undoubtedly, have played a role in the way the votes were cast in the National Party caucus-room on Tuesday morning. Loyalties in politics tend to be a long time in the making: leaders get back only what they have given.

What has Bridges given? Far more than we will ever be permitted to know.

One of his more notable public gifts, however, was the legal expertise he deployed in the framing of the legislation prohibiting seaborne protests aimed at impeding oil exploration in New Zealand’s territorial waters.

That expertise was a long time in the making. Bridges learned the lawyer’s trade here in New Zealand, at Auckland’s Law School, and then among the dreaming spires of Oxford University. In the course of his training, Bridges studied not only how the legal system works, but also what the Rule of Law is intended to protect. As a keen student of history, he must have known, even as he proscribed them, how important the rights of the citizen have always been to the proper functioning of a democratic state.

That Bridges was willing, coolly and efficiently, to curtail New Zealanders’ protest rights, would not have gone unnoticed by his political patrons (among whom were John Key and Steven Joyce). They had set him a test – and he had passed it with flying colours. In order for Bridges to become a successful statesman, his political peers needed to be convinced he had it in him to put his most cherished ideals to the sword without flinching.

That, too, would have been a factor in Simon Bridges’ successful campaign to become the National Party’s twelfth leader.

It is one thing to have the accent of a “petrol head” from West Auckland: more important by far, however, is how well a leader of the National Party is able to speak the language of power. That New Zealanders know much more about the former than the latter is proof of just how little political reality they are expected to bear.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 1 March 2018.

6 comments:

Wayne Mapp said...

"Passing the test" as you put it would have had a far simpler motivation than you ascribe. The legislation banning vessels within 500m term of an active petroleum exploration vessel would be a no brainer for just about any National MP. They would have been readily convinced that any closer proximity would mean the vessel would have to stop. In short it would not be able to go about its lawful business. Therefore restricting protest vessels (kayaks etc) coming within 500 meters would be an obvious solution.

Unlike the Left, National does not believe protestors have any right to disrupt someone else's lawful business. A right to protest, yes, a right to disrupt, no.

As for all the deals you talk about in choosing a leader, well it is all a bit overblown. Choosing a leader is a simpler process and for the caucus members basically does not involve such deals. Rather it is who looks the part (in truth only a small subset ever meet this criteria), how good a communicator are they, do they have an "X" factor and very importantly, will they be a reasonable fit within caucus. The caucus rarely votes for someone who they feel may be an excessively hard taskmaster, only in desperation.

Simon was always an obvious contender. I could see that 20 years ago, when he was in his early 20's, way before he was an MP. All the things you saw publicly are the main reasons why he was chosen.

Kat said...

"That New Zealanders know much more about the former than the latter is proof of just how little political reality they are expected to bear"

And the blame can, and should be, laid squarely at the feet of the insipid sycophantic celebrity focused ratings based fourth estate that masquerades as "journalism" in NZ.

hilary531 said...

Good piece Chris and good comments above too. Kat, you are bang on but I would also add that people, in my experience, have uncomplicated expectations of politicians and are not that interested in the reality of the day-to-day politicking, expecially if they can't relate to it. All my 'Greens'-voting friends know less than I do about the latest crop of Greens pollies but they vote for the brand & always will. I'm aghast at what fodder gets dished up on the Herald app these days...thankfully we have choice & good blogs like this one. Wayne's comment is entirely plausible...pollies are people too and most won't be machiavellian types preferring to get busy with the daily business of being in govt/opposition than getting bogged down with dealmaking...she says in hope.

Anonymous said...

Ardern is about gloss and glamour, but has no depth, in contrast Bridges has substance and smarts, and did not have to be given any safe seat, after previous fails. What a fail election we just had, thanks to Winston and the flaw in MMP, that he took full advantage of. Good choice Nats, Simon will have the guts next time, I am sure, to rule out NZ First (the biggest mistake that English made in not doing). Mind you, it looks as though Winston's party is already dead and buried at the polls.

Go Nats

Ron

Patricia said...

If Bridges would only take elocution lessons like Holyoake did.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Ardern is about gloss and glamour, but has no depth, in contrast Bridges has substance and smarts,"
I suspect that says more about your politics, or possibly your misogyny, then either of their "smarts". :)