Bridges promotes rivals and demotes older MPs

Bridges delivers a reshuffle and a refresh, but is it fresh enough? Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Simon Bridges unveiled a fresh National Party lineup that rewarded his leadership rivals with high spots and demoted some of the longest serving MPs. Thomas Coughlan reports.

Simon Bridges has unveiled his new-ish look National Party List, promoting some younger MPs and sending gentle signals to some of the party’s more senior members that it might be time to move on to greener pastures.

“I want to learn from the Labour party’s mistakes in opposition,” Bridges told a thin crowd of Sunday media as he announced shadow portfolios that tried to balance out “decades of experience” with “fresh new talent”.

Building Bridges

The real story is the decision to promote defeated leadership contenders Amy Adams and Judith Collins into his top four and Mark Mitchell to number seven, displacing longtime National frontbenchers like Gerry Brownlee. Unlike other leaders who take the opportunity of a reshuffle to banish challengers to the back bench, Bridges has his former competitors forming a Praetorian Guard around himself and Paula Bennett.

Further down the list, the reshuffle was something of a lolly scramble. One of the challenges with a caucus this large is placating so many ambitious young MPs, while keeping powerful and popular senior MPs loyal. Bridges' solution was to reward nearly all 56 MPs in one way or another. He was quick to tell journalists that his opposition will be a 56 MP policy factory. Every MP down to Nicola Willis, who has not yet entered Parliament as she awaits Steven Joyce’s formal departure, has a responsibility.

There are some losers. Brownlee has fronted National line-ups since he challenged for the deputy leadership in 2001 and he went into the 2005 election as deputy leader. He just hangs on to a top placing at number ten. Christopher Finlayson clings on at number 16, down from 8. He has been stripped of his GCSB, NZSIS and Commerce portfolios. Bridges may be signalling to this list-only MP that the time is right to resign and bring in fresh blood from lower down the list.

Rounding out the nosebleed seats is Nick Smith at number 26. Bridges said he had plenty to do with the Electoral Law Reform portfolio, but didn’t provide a ringing endorsement of Smith, the last survivor of 1990s ‘rat pack’ of new National MPs, when asked whether he would encourage him to run stand again in 2020.

One of the biggest surprises of the reshuffle was Jonathan Coleman retaining his health portfolio and his place in the top ten. Coleman was widely considered to have presided over a problematic ministry as Minister of Health in the previous government. His retention suggests Coleman still has enough residual knowledge as ex-minister to mount a serious challenge to incumbent David Clark.

Privately, senior National Party MPs have talked of the importance of mounting a strong attack on the Government while the iron is hot. Currently, the party is brimming with ex-ministers who know what to look for when attacking the government. Over time, as these MPs resign, attacks become more and more difficult. New MPs have to rely on the appeal of their freshness over the knowledge of an experienced ex-minister.

Coleman’s position shows Bridges is wise to this challenge and he is willing to retain experienced MPs who may appear stale to the electorate, in return for their experience and effectiveness at launching attacks on the Government.

On the other hand, he has an enormous caucus, engorged from a strong turnout for National in 2017. He needs to make sure he doesn’t encourage instability on the backbenches by not refreshing roles at the front.

“I’ve got 56 MPs that want to move forward,” he said. “It’s tough because we are brimming with talent.”

Reshuffles are all about signalling, and Opposition leaders want to be sure that the public can read the tea leaves of a reshuffle well enough to distill the spirit of the opposition.
The way that the reshuffle of portfolios relates to each MP’s place on the list is an opportunity to single out areas of vulnerability for the Government. Bridges told media that he saw weaknesses in Housing, Regional Development and Justice.

Housing is an area the Opposition wants to attack the Government on. Labour has set an ambitious targets with Kiwibuild, but changes to the Overseas Investment Act and difficulties in recruiting tradespeople may hamper the policy. Bridges said that Collins asked for the portfolio.

“Phil Twyford is on notice, Judith is coming…,” said Bridges.

Hey Jude, you were made to go out and get her

Labour will be concerned that one of National’s more relentless MPs has chosen to tail them on a portfolio in which they have set difficult targets.

The housing portfolio also indicates some of the problems Bridges will face as he heads towards 2020. Rolling a Government requires relentlessly pursuing their failures. The difficulty for first term Oppositions is that many of those failings are their own. House prices in Auckland more than doubled under National’s tenure. Pinning Labour down in this area could be the political equivalent of spitting into the wind.

Announcing Collins as Housing Spokesperson, Bridges and Bennett grinned broadly, thinking their reshuffle had dealt a trump card. But both grins swiftly turned to nervous frowns as Bridges was pressed on whether there was a housing crisis and why National had not had a Minister of Housing under the previous government (they had Ministers of Social Housing and Building and Housing). Bridges equivocated, refusing to call the Housing situation a crisis. You could “use all manner of words” to describe housing, he said, before conceding that it was a crisis "for those involved".

A similar misstep occurred over value capture, an idea Minister of Finance Grant Robertson said the Government was currently considering. Value capture is intended to help cash-strapped councils to fund infrastructure by allowing them to raise rates on areas that will benefit from new developments like rail.

Adams and Collins both chastised Robertson on social media for the idea, labelling it an extra tax. Unfortunately, in an interview with POLITIK from last April, former Finance Minister Steven Joyce confirmed that the previous Government had itself been looking at the idea.

When asked about Adams’ and Collins’ comments, Bridges again seemed nervous and affirmed that now (as opposed to a few months ago) National had looked at the idea, but said that "the devil is in the detail". He would not distance his position from Adams’ and Collins’.

There are already signs of this. Bridges was keen to single out new MPs and “new ideas,” not attached to the previous Government. From a caucus of 56 MPs, you have to cast your eye quite far down the list to find them. One example cited was Sarah Dowie, who has been given the Conservation portfolio.

“Newcomers a wee way back, I’m backing,” said Bridges

“They bring new energy, new ideas and challenge some of what we have thought over time,” he said.

Bridges would not outline precisely what ideas would be challenged by the newcomers, but it is an indication that the party orthodoxy may be about to shift. National's policies have barely moved since 2008.

“This reshuffle is designed for 2020. It’s designed with 2020 firmly in our sights,” said Bridges, as he has to, but he knows that his work is cut out for him.

In election year, 2020 it will be 45 years since the last one-term Government and 60 years since the one before that. Both were Labour Governments. Both victories had more to do with failures on the part of the Government than particular magic from the opposition.

Early signs from Ardern’s administration suggests Bridges’ task won’t be quite so easy. If he wants the Beehive, he can’t rely on any bungling on Ardern’s part.