8 Things: Maori Westies lead National; Is Bridges roadkill?; Our deforestation problem; Wevers vs Woods

Simon Bridges smiles as he sits next to Paula Bennett during his first question time as leader of the Opposition. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

In today's email we covered the selection of two Westies as leader and deputy leader of the National Party, and asked whether Simon Bridges might defy the conventional wisdom that predicts he will end up as electoral roadkill.

1. National's Outrageous Fortune

The National caucus' election of Simon Bridges as its new leader seemed almost a fait accomplit yesterday because he had been the front-runner and the contest was relatively drama free. It seemed almost natural and inevitable.

But it's worth stepping back a bit to understand just how quickly things have changed for National and for Bridges, and how different they are in the broad sweep of the party's history.

The party of conservatism just elected two decidedly 'koiwoi' Maori MPs from West Auckland as its leader and deputy leader after just nine and 12 years in Parliament respectively.

Bridges, 41, had never been in Opposition before National lost power in October. Bennett, 48, was a single mum who graduated with an arts degree from Massey University Albany after studying social policy. She spent just three years in Opposition in her first term in Parliament, all in expectation that power was just around the corner under a leader ahead in the polls.

Neither have been in a caucus (let alone led one) that was substantially behind in the polls or anything other than being in Government or on the verge of it. Five of National's leaders last six leaders were men. All of them came from provincial backgrounds with careers in farming or banking. None came from Auckland. Bridges and Bennett are from decidedly urban and Auckland backgrounds.

The party of the establishment has just elected two 'Westies' with Maori heritage and broad accents to lead it back to power. It is hoping for a new version of John Key.

Bridges highlighted their less-than-typically-National-like backgrounds in his first comments upon assuming the leadership in a press conference in the Legislative Chamber of Parliament.

"Like me, she's a Westie and a Maori, and I'm going to enjoy working with her immensely," Bridges said.

Just a few moments earlier he had taken his first advice from her as Deputy Leader when she suggested he change ties before the news conference. It led strange juxtaposition of Bridges being photographed by National's photographers striding from the caucus room in a blue tie. Within a few minutes he appeared in the legislative chamber in a purple tie. The change made me wonder initially if the victory photo put on twitter had been staged days ago.

Bridges said he aimed to appeal to a broad cross-section of New Zealanders, and highlighted National's connection with Maori voters in businesses.

"I hope Maori are proud of me. Our first Maori leader and first deputy leader as well. I want to appeal to a broader cross section of New Zealanders. I hope Maori will have a second look at us. Clearly we’ll be seeing Maori in business. They’re as aspirational as any other group," he said.

2. A more subdued first news conference

Newsroom's Shane Cowlishaw was in the Legislative Chamber for Bridges' first set-piece news conference as leader and watched his first performance in Parliamentary Question Time as leader less than an hour later.

It's almost impossible not to compare Bridges' first news conference with one staged almost seven months ago in the exact same spot by Jacinda Ardern when she was plonked unexpectedly into the Labour leadership with her party around 24 percent in the polls. Labour was at 48 percent in this month's Colmar Brunton poll.

Bridges inherits a party with 43 percent support in that poll, only just below its final election tally of 44.4 percent. He has 55 fellow National MPs. She has the support in Parliament of 62 MPs over three parties.

Shane reported last night Bridges gave a solid-enough performance, but perhaps highlighting the difficulty of the task ahead of him, the press conference was somewhat of a fizzer.

That’s not to say the Tauranga MP performed badly. He didn’t stumble while answering questions and was enthusiastic and largely confident in laying out why he thought the Government was performing poorly.

The atmosphere was, simply, a bit flat.

Bridges repeatedly pulled his hand in and out of his pocket before, almost abruptly, ending the questioning and striding out of the room with his wife.

Of course, all press conferences have to end sometime and politicians are busy people, but the affair had a slightly forced air.

These set piece performances are important, as Ardern could well tell you. Her first press conference after becoming Labour Party leader in August was near flawless, a commanding and poised display that set the groundwork for her rise to Prime Minister.

It’s a high bar to reach, and perhaps slightly unfair to expect Bridges to meet it, but the reality is that he will be up against Ardern and her ever-rising political and public capital every day in what many see as an impossible task.

The pair went tit-for-tat just minutes after the announcement during question time with both scoring hits, Bridges questioning the accountability of the Government’s regional fund and Ardern accusing National of neglecting Northland.

Bridges’ relatively young age and wide smile may gain him some initial traction, but the party’s longer-term success will largely depend on how seriously the public take him and how united he can keep his caucus.

See Shane's full colour piece here on Newsroom Pro, where it was first published last night.

3. He should be roadkill, but...

The conventional wisdom is that Bridges is at least one or two electoral cycles too early to become Prime Minister.

Tim Murphy has been around for more than a few cycles and challenged that wisdom in his analysis for Newsroom of the leadership choice.

Simon Bridges is probably the candidate the Labour-NZ First-Greens coalition least wanted as Leader of the Opposition. They won't say as much, Tim writes.

He'll be given a temporary show of respect and faint praise and then painted as a short-term bloke handed the hospital pass of a party on the wrong side of history. Another, entitled middle-aged man in a blue suit.

But the smarter strategists would have preferred anyone else.

For the Government, Judith Collins would have been a belligerent and combustible opponent but she would have been hard-pressed to find any love out there in the electorate. Steven Joyce would have been containable as a yesterday-man representing the hard-hearted edge of the former government. Mark Mitchell would have been a known unknown but a middleweight.

Amy Adams would have given National purpose and brain power but could be painted as a throwback to the old-National farmer-lawyer-employer elite.

Bridges, elected by National's caucus on the second ballot, has something about him that might defy political convention. He's a boy who became a Young Nat before he became a man, was always old for his age, but who almost in spite of himself has become relatively relatable.

By rights, the leader who takes over after an election defeat at the end of nine years in power is a stop-gap choice who is bound to fail. Road kill for a Labour-led coalition on a first-term roll.

Bridges could yet be that unfortunate marsupial caught in the headlights and dispatched before the next poll, with a Collins or Mitchell left to pick up National's pieces.

However his colleagues, who had choices, have seen in him the possibility of something better than that. They, and Labour, will know there was a reason why, all those years ago, TVNZ's Breakfast Show invited him to be the National first-term MP up against Jacinda Ardern on its political panel.

And why the all-seeing commentator Colin James asked as far back as 2012 whether Ardern and Bridges might be the ones to see a different path for the politics and New Zealand of the 2020s.

See Tim's full article published this morning on Newsroom.

4. The wrong emissions direction

Newsroom is keen to 'kick into space' on some days where the media is in pack focused on one thing. We like to go off and find something else important that few are looking closely at. We've done over the last couple of weeks with our reporting on sexual misconduct at Russell McVeagh.

We also regularly go 'off piste' in our coverage of the environment and the economy. We think climate change is one of the hottest topics of our age, and the pun is intended.

So yesterday, while everyone else around the news gallery was looking at the National Caucus's blued-out door windows, we asked Thomas Coughlan to go to Statistics New Zealand's briefing on its its first set of Environmental-Economic Accounts.

New Zealand needs to reduce its greenhouse emissions to 11 percent below its 1990 level of 61 million tonnes by 2030. Instead, our emissions have risen 25 percent since 1990, albeit at a slower rate than economic growth, and they are now below their 2005 peak.

But Thomas reports the bigger problem in the last five years has been a collapse in new tree planting at the same time as an expansion in tree harvesting. Low carbon credit prices and high log prices in China appear the culprits, along with the worst possible combination for the climate and water quality of dairy conversions of forestry on free draining soils near Taupo.

Cutting down trees to farm cows both removes a carbon sink and creates new methane and carbon emissions, along with dramatically increasing nitrate leaching into water tables, and eventually lakes and rivers.

The report highlights the scale of the new Government's task to turn the forest planting trends around and to accelerate the de-carbonising of the economy to reach a target of being carbon neutral by 2050. It also helps explain its need and hopes to ensure one billion trees are planted.

Here's Thomas' full report, which was published on Newsroom Pro first last night.

These two charts from the Statistics New Zealand tell the story of how re-plantings fell after 2013 and how the net de-forestation of the last 30 years was driven in large part by dairy conversions in the Upper Waikato basin around Wairakei and Tokoroa.

5. Wevers vs Woods behind the scenes

Newsroom's Christchurch reporter David Williams has been digging around the behind the scenes of last week's surprise resignation/sacking of renowned senior bureaucrat Sir Maarten Wevers as chairman of the EQC.

He has found a series of strongly worded letters between Wevers and his minister Megan Woods.

They show irritation and combativeness on both sides and a huge gulf between their perceptions of the Earthquake Commission’s work in Canterbury.

It's clear Wevers was very unhappy with the way he and the EQC were treated.

And somewhat surprisingly, he's not going quietly.

In an interview with David yesterday, Wevers – who worked with three prime ministers: David Lange, Helen Clark and Sir John Key – said he had never seen a letter like Woods’ in his career.

Given its tone and criticism, he felt it was time to move on. The minister’s letter was sent on February 22, the seventh anniversary of the February 2011 quake, in which 185 people died.

“I just found that extraordinary, to be criticising the staff of our organisation on a day when some of the members of our staff had had family members impacted by the quake, I just didn’t think that was appropriate,” Wevers said.

He said Woods had not asked to be briefed by EQC on the outstanding claims or whether the concerns raised by private insurers were valid.

“We have no knowledge of Treasury, as the monitoring agency, raising the need for there to be a deeper understanding about outstanding claims – that viewpoint has never been made clear to the board; and I’ve checked with the secretary of the Treasury," he said.

“We report on outstanding claims to the Treasury every six months and in between that as well. We have New Zealand’s finest actuarial valuation company reporting to the board all the time. We are audited by our own auditors, the Office of the Auditor-General and by Treasury. I just don’t know where that comes from.”

See David's full report, which includes the full text of the letters back and forth.

It's the bureaucratic equivalent of pistols at dawn between a senior mandarin and a minister.

6. Coming up...

Greater Christchurch Regeneration Minister Megan Woods is expected to make several important announcements later today, including naming EQC’s interim chair and a new ministerial adviser. The terms of reference of the adviser’s work will be made public. Woods will also signal her intention to appoint new EQC board members. The terms of two members, Roger Bell and Dr Alison O’Connell, expire at the end of June.

Migration and international travel figures for January scheduled to be released today at 10.45 am. Building consent figures are due on Friday.

ANZ is scheduled to release its monthly Business Outlook survey of business confidence at 1 pm today. ANZ is scheduled to release its monthly consumer confidence survey at 1 pm on Friday.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters is delivering a speech to Australian think-tank The Lowy Institute in Sydney on New Zealand's role in the Pacific tomorrow. Peters' speech precedes the arrival of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on that side of the Tasman.

Ardern will meet her Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull in Sydney on Friday, before the pair take part in the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum with a delegation of ministers and business representatives in tow. Newsroom's foreign affairs and trade editor Sam Sachdeva is accompanying Ardern and will report on the events from over there.

7. Some fun things...

Guyon Espiner was in confronting form with Simon Bridges on Morning Report this morning, asking: "Are you a boy sent to do a woman's job?"

Also, while we were all focused on New Zealand's domestic politics, Jacinda Ardern was delivering her first major speech on foreign policy and Britain's Government was mapping out its Brexit strategy. Here's Sam Sachdeva's report on Newsroom Pro on the speech, and in particular what was not said in the speech.

UK International Trade Secretary Liam Fox announced overnight Britain didn't want a customs union with Europe because it could win much more through unencumbered deals elsewhere.

But Independent sketch writer Tom Peck had a look at the background behind Fox as he made that announcement:

"Quite amused that Liam Fox's map apparently showing Britain's new trading opportunities actually cuts Australia, New Zealand and South Africa clean off."

8. This morning's political links

These are available in the morning subscriber email.