Thursday 4 October 2018

National's Little-Boy-Lost.

Who Are You? About a politician who cannot seem to make the simplest of moral judgements there will always be an air of inauthenticity and impersonation. Bridges has been described (unkindly, but not entirely inaccurately) as a young boy dressed-up in his father’s suit. The jacket’s cuffs extend well beyond his fingertips and the legs of the trousers puddle around his Dad’s too-big shoes. It’s an image that invites ridicule – not respect.

IT MAKES YOU WONDER what it takes to be enrolled at Oxford University and appointed a Crown Prosecutor at 25. Simon Bridges’ CV includes both of these accomplishments, and yet, after ten years in Parliament, five years in Cabinet, and eight months as Leader of the Opposition, what impresses is just how unimpressive he is. Even more puzzling, after the lacklustre quality of Bridges’ performance, is what his caucus colleagues saw in him. Because, clearly, the rest of the country has yet to spot it.

The most worrying aspect of Bridges’ political persona is a complete absence of anything resembling originality. He does precisely what you would expect a young ambitious politician to do – nothing more, nothing less.

Never was this more apparent than in the early months of his Cabinet career when he was assigned – and eagerly carried out – the task of legislating away the right of environmental protesters to place themselves in the path of oil exploration vessels. Political journalists praised Bridges for proving to his boss, John Key, and the other heavy-hitters of the National Government, that he was a “good soldier”: someone who could be relied upon to obey orders and get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

Those same political journalists would probably say that Bridges swift rise to the top of the National Party bears eloquent testimony to the importance of not rocking the boat. But, getting to the top of your party is not quite the same as being elected Prime Minister of your country. Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little all got to the top of their party. None of them, however, were able to secure the top job.

Though few New Zealanders are likely to devote much energy to thoroughly deconstructing Bridges’ political conduct, many have already decided that something important is missing. National’s pollsters have yet to detect a decisive upward swing in the public’s estimation of the Opposition Leader. He remains worryingly underwhelming. People comment on Bridges’ Brylcreemed hair and his appalling diction, but on very little else. There is a knee-jerk quality to his day-to-day political utterances which renders them predictable and forgettable in equal measure.

Bridges clearly has not spent a great deal of time studying the careers of successful National Party Leaders of the Opposition. Had he done so he would have realised the importance of establishing early a significant “point of difference” between himself and his colleagues. Rob Muldoon, for example, made a name for himself by opposing his own Prime Minister’s decision to proceed with the Second Labour Government’s (1957-1960) plans to build a cotton mill in Nelson. Though a callow back-bencher, Muldoon argued – successfully – that the cotton mill project took Labour’s “import substitution” policies too far. That the mill contract had already been signed proved to be no obstacle. The Holyoake Government, under pressure from Muldoon’s “Young Turks”, simply tore it up.

Imagine if Bridges, when asked to smooth the way for the oil prospectors, had refused to curb his fellow citizen’s political rights and resigned his portfolio. Immediately, he would have acquired the status of a principled maverick. A conservative politician who, nevertheless, could be relied upon to pay more than lip-service to New Zealand’s democratic traditions. Someone who was willing to stand up and be counted on civil liberties.

Just as Muldoon had very early on established his credentials as someone who could speak with authority about economic matters, Bridges could have put himself at the forefront of the debate about security versus freedom; surveillance versus privacy. Among the parliamentarians of his generation he would have stood out as a politician of real substance. A potential future leader: not only of his party, but also of the country.

Fortunately for Labour, this was not the Simon Bridges who made it to the top of National’s greasy pole. Even on issues which, for the leader of a liberal-conservative party like National, should require a minimum of serious cogitation, Bridges has slipped and slided all over the place. He came out very cautiously in favour of free speech for Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, but refused to boycott Massey University when it refused to allow the former leader of his own party, Don Brash, to address the Massey Politics Club. He compounded this failure by backing his colleague, Michael Woodhouse’s, call to deny the US whistleblower, Chelsea Manning, entry to New Zealand.

About a politician who cannot seem to make the simplest of moral judgements there will always be an air of inauthenticity and impersonation. Bridges has been described (unkindly, but not entirely inaccurately) as a young boy dressed-up in his father’s suit. The jacket’s cuffs extend well beyond his fingertips and the legs of the trousers puddle around his Dad’s too-big shoes. It’s an image that invites ridicule – not respect.

It is Bridges’ lack of authenticity: the impression he gives of playing politics by-the-numbers and without conviction; that makes the electorate so unwilling to take him seriously. He can frown, scowl, pout and shout his defiance of the Coalition Government and all its leaders do is laugh. Much as a gathering of youngsters would laugh if one of their number attempted to impersonate the responsible adult in the room.

In the 2018 “Mood of the Boardroom” survey, published in today’s (3/10/18) NZ Herald, one of the business leaders interviewed remarked of Bridges’ performance as leader: “We are all waiting for a real punch to land. Bridges’ best day since Labour got in was the in-house haggle on the floor of Parliament when they were trying to sort votes for the Speaker on day one. He hasn’t got close to that high-water mark since.”

But even that incident (which indisputably impressed his caucus colleagues) reflects poorly on Bridges’ ability to distinguish strategy from tactics. Yes, he succeeded in bluffing Labour’s less-than-stellar Leader of the House, but in doing so he marked himself and his party as ruthless, opportunistic and untrustworthy.

It is an indication of just how low the moral bar of our public life has been set that Bridges’ behaviour was widely interpreted by political journalists as evidence of his fitness to lead. Not so. The failure of Simon Bridges, National’s Little-Boy-Lost, to fire the imagination of the New Zealand electorate merely demonstrates how comprehensively the moral sensibilities of ordinary voters exceed those of the men and women who claim to represent them.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 4 October 2018.


John Hurley said...

Both Labour and National suffer from the fact that they have been leading us up the garden path by running the economy on immigration. Jacinda Adern has made some weak statements on that but basically we are on the road to Argentina. Nobody has had the guts to step outside the gated narrative. The problem was identified by Ranginui Walker

The people of New Zealand have already opted for zero population growth by limiting family size to an average of 2.1 children. That intuitive decision of the people to balance human reproduction with the internal resources of the country is being contradicted by the government determining unilaterally to mount a pro-active immigration policy. Their consent is manufactured by silencing critics with the argument that skilled and entrepreneurial migrants will promote economic growth and create jobs. Throughout the three years that this mantra was being recited, there were continuous redundancies in forestry, mining, television, railways, freezing works and telecom-munications. Despite that evidence, journalists used this well-rehearsed government mantra as a riposte against critics of immigration. If they persist, then their opposition is construed as racially motivated since over 50 percent of migrants are visibly Asian.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

You have to wonder what it takes to get into Oxford? Here's a hint, unless things have changed recently it takes fewer working class students and minority students than just about any other university in the country.

Kat said...

That Jacinda Ardern once worked in a fish and chip ship puts her in good company with that other great NZ prime minister, the block laying Norm Kirk. Fancy titles and letters on embossed paper don't necessarily cut it with becoming a successful leader.

Simon Bridges was set up to fail, he was always only going to be the "soldier" until the "real" National leader was found and helicoptered in. Like the soldier toting the gun he is just a pawn in their game.

David George said...

Agree Chris; strange decision though possibly an indication of uncertainty of values and direction within National by going for the safe but colourless option. I felt Judith Collins would have been the ideal National leader, a real foil for the half baked collectivists and totalitarians running the show now.
There is so much idiocy coming out that's just crying out to be held up to scrutiny, Davidson's latest brain fart for example. Nobody believes in a nil personnel responsibility, nil truth required welfare system so ample opportunity to highlight the stupidity and to reaffirm core values. National need to move away from being labour light and have the courage to make a stand for their traditional values.

Mike Moroney said...

Slided?? SLIDED????

Really, Chris.

peteswriteplace said...

Simon Bridges is National's ready made fall-guy while the ambitious ones will keep their powder dry until they think it is time to lodge a challenge for the leadership of the party. They may have to wait a couple or more election cycles yet. It will depend on the make-up of the next coalition government and how badly the National Party does at the next elections.

peteswriteplace said...

Kiwidave: Learn to put up with it for the next 9-12 years just as we had to put up with the idiocy of the John key brigade who socially savaged New Zealand. Throw in the flag controversy Talk about brain farts! National does need to discover just what it stands for.

sumsuch said...

Some of his values include regularly trying to out-progressive Labour. He 'feels' Holyoake more than Key and English, perhaps being part Maori. He's a bit incompetent. He should talk his truth rather than play the game, for which he has no talent. He has nothing to lose, like the All Blacks' last game -- everyone thinks he'll fail now.

And waiting in the wings...Prometheus's Box.

Roop Murdoch's incredibly dire influence makes both the Australian Liberal Party and media completely unrelatedly conservative to the Oz public. On a Northern Irish and American basis. The dear Ozzies seem to pursue (and fight dirty for)their own ideas of their best interests regardless.

But not NZers, we rely on our inbuilt, unspoken sense of fair-play , which failed us in the 80s, and since really. But now make us, more liberal than Australia. Free of those polies and that media. Yet in this media atomisation and this division of society in favour of the rich, the first sociopathic politician (not unknown) and the first idiot mediaman can carve us up like our anglo cousins. I think even the worst of those two here consider they have consciences, but that's where money comes in.

Isn't Hosking positioning for some sort of Fox? There are ignorant white males here too.

sumsuch said...

On kiwidave and Mike Moroney

Mainly, the necessity of correct grammar and spelling (kiwidave -- 'personnel') without falling into pedantry (Mike Moroney -- though I expect you're an acquaintance of Chris) -- and yes, this isn't a complete sentence.

Social media breaks down into semi-grunts, which is good as expression but subverting as communication. None of us know how to spell every word of this great treasure of English imposed on the most of us, the one true benefit of that empire, that the west Cameroonians are willing to fight and kill for. So, God, I now see the absolute advantage of clear English over burping up and bypassing onto the page unclear spelling and grammar. Of course the less educated and second language speakers have a complete pass, but for the rest of us the shorthand, or carelessness, of computerese has been proved uncommunicating.

greywarbler said...

That was interesting rumination. I'll chew my cud on that.

And as for media which you touched on, I fear for Radionz (conservative fool that I am) if RNZ gets public television. It will dilute the emphasis on radio and that will get the leavings, and will go the same way the last public tv did, and be sold off and radio will be limper than ever.

Second up in the news this a.m. was an important item about the great big stretched limo in the USA that had an accident and multiple people were hurt. In the sensation stakes, I am sure India or Brazil would win every time, and it is so unfair that they never make it to our Radionz disaster news collection. Perhaps some of the RNZ funding comes from USA sources, or Voice of America for free?