If Not Him, Who? Surrendering to a run of bad news seldom makes the headlines any better. Opposition Leader Simon Bridges may have many faults, but he is, at least, a known quantity. Of his potential replacements: Paula Bennett, Judith Collins, Mark Mitchell and Todd Muller: those not generally detested by the voters are generally unknown to them.
DEPOSING SIMON BRIDGES as Leader of the Opposition would cause the National Party more problems than it would solve. Yes, Bridges is difficult to like and prone to serious lapses in political judgement, but he is also capable of exploiting the Government’s weaknesses with considerable aplomb. It is this strength that National needs to keep in play as the country counts down to the General Election. Truly bad things are coming down the pike and Labour lacks the depth of political talent required to deal with them. In the same way a tree can hide in a forest, Bridges’ failings may soon become much harder to spot.
Keeping its collective nerve will admittedly be difficult for the National caucus. Very soon appalling private poll results will be confirmed by equally appalling public ones. Bridges’ favourable/unfavourable numbers will test the patience of his colleagues to the limit. And the dazzling halo of public acclaim currently crowning the Prime Minister can only make National’s parlous political situation even harder for its parliamentary team to bear.
But bear it they must. Surrendering to a run of bad news seldom makes the headlines any better. Bridges may have many faults, but he is, at least, a known quantity. Of his potential replacements: Paula Bennett, Judith Collins, Mark Mitchell and Todd Muller: those not generally detested by the voters are generally unknown to them. Worse still, all bar Muller hail from the National Party Right, and Muller’s allegedly “wet” credentials are far from unimpeachable. (In party politics, just about everything is negotiable!) In short, if the National Caucus does lose its nerve, then the public’s most likely reaction will be either “Not her!” or “Who’s he?”
What this dilemma reveals is the party’s failure to equip itself with enough politicians of sufficient stature to meet all contingencies. How differently the party was positioned in 2002, following National’s worst ever electoral defeat. Bill English may have led his colleagues to the crushing repudiation of a 20.9 percent Party Vote, but when the smoke had cleared Don Brash and John Key were seated comfortably on the Opposition Benches. The former was particularly well-suited to lead National back into electoral contention, and the latter had everything it took to carry the party forward to victory in 2008. Scanning the Opposition’s ranks in 2020, it is simply not possible to identify either a Don Brash- or a John Key-in waiting.
Giving New Zealand a National Party leader even further to the right than Bridges would be an invitation to electoral ruin. By the same token, electing a new leader of no fixed ideological abode would immediately prompt the question: “Why did they bother?” It would also prove that National’s caucus lacks the wit to recognise the winning combination it already has.
Bridges has already proved his ability to fasten his sharp little teeth firmly around Labour’s jugular if its representatives and advisers are silly enough to give him the opportunity. One has only to recall his successful exploitation of the Treasury’s Budget Papers foul-up to be reminded of the harm Bridges can inflict when he gets the chance. On that occasion he seriously compromised the Minister of Finance’s “wellbeing”. Grant Robertson has seldom looked so irked!
More seriously, Robertson now has Paul Goldsmith marking him on the economic wing. National’s finance spokesperson may strike voters as a fairly cold fish, but given Goldsmith’s role is to forensically deconstruct the Government’s response to the Covid-19-induced recession with icy detachment and unrelenting severity, his rather chilly persona may be no bad thing. That Bridges and Goldsmith have become close friends and allies only makes the wisdom of keeping both of them at the head of National’s column all the more compelling.
What every member of National’s caucus can do for their all-too-frequently hapless leader is remind him constantly of the fundamental importance of political timing. How different things would have been this week if Bridges had restricted his response to the Prime Minister’s extension of the Level 4 Lockdown by a further week to one of calm, but guarded, support. If he’d followed this with a heartfelt shout-out to all the small businesses struggling to stay afloat in the Covid-19 flood he would also have been superbly set up for what unfolded the following day at the Epidemic Response Committee.
Labour thought itself very fortunate to secure the services of Dr Deborah Russell. Her academic expertise in taxation made her a sitter for Cabinet. That is to say – it did. Because her performance at the Select Committee on Tuesday, 21 April was not the sort that enhances political careers. Russell’s almost total lack of empathy for the thousands of small business owners facing ruin as a result of the Lockdown will not be forgotten in a hurry by the individuals and families involved. Insinuating that their acute financial vulnerability was evidence of business incompetence, was like rubbing salt in an open wound. Symptomatic of the ever-widening gulf between Labour’s professional-managerial recruits and the rest of the country, the New Lynn MP’s condescension recalls Hilary Clinton’s infamous description of Trump’s followers as “a basket of deplorables”.
Had he not buried himself under an avalanche of public (or, at least, Facebook) opprobrium by responding so gracelessly to the Prime Minister’s announcement, Bridges could have pilloried Russell for her insensitivity and ignorance. National’s core supporters among the nation’s small and medium-sized enterprises could have been reassured – inspired even – by their party leader.
“I may not have Jacinda’s star-power,” he could have said, “but I know – because hundreds of you have told me – what it’s like to lie awake all night wondering how to save the business you have poured your whole life into building up. How dare a well-paid academic-turned-Labour-politician criticise that sort of effort and dedication? What did she earn her doctorate for – cruelty?”
With problems whole lot worse than Dr Russell’s insensitivity heading Labour’s way, all Simon Bridges and his Finance spokesperson need to do, is let the Coalition Government’s predictably over-cautious and ideologically-arid policies speak for themselves.
Jacinda only has five months to teach her colleagues to speak the language of empathy and kindness. If she fails, then National’s words of condemnation and reproach will be more than enough to unseat her.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 23 April 2020.