5. Bridges limbers up for the race ahead

National leader Simon Bridges speaks to an audience member at his Connecting with Communities event in Wellington. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

While National continues to ride high in the polls, the jury is still out on new leader Simon Bridges. Sam Sachdeva was at one of Bridges’ community events as he spoke about National’s lack of friends and how it will bring “some sizzle with the sausage” come 2020.

Palmerston North, Feilding, Waikanae, Paraparaumu, Johnsonville.

From bowling clubs to car museums, it was a whirlwind 24 hours for the Simon Bridges listening tour, and fielding questions in the liberal enclave of Wellington Central may not have been the most relaxing end to his Thursday.

Given the frenetic pace, it was understandable the National leader flubbed the name of one of his newest MPs; at one point he mentioned a member’s bill from backbencher “Alex Penk” ( the MP for Helensville is of course Chris Penk).

Minor brain fade aside, the son of a Baptist minister seemed at home in the town hall environment.

With one hand tucked in the pocket of his blue suit trousers, at times propping up one elbow on the lectern, Bridges warmed up the crowd on a chilly Wellington night with some banter straight from the stand-up playbook.

“Any other Westies here? Two, three brave people...have we got any Poms here? Most meetings there are more Poms than there are Westies, so there you go.”

The crowd received a potted personal history, including an (apparently well-worn) line about his first encounter with wife Natalie which received the biggest laugh of the night.

“She’d gone home and told her mother she’d met a handsome Japanese guy - I liked the handsome, not so sure about the Japanese.”

There was a reference to his time as a Crown prosecutor dealing with “some of the most serious jury trials New Zealand has seen”, offering a chance for the first of many pokes at the Government’s supposedly soft approach to crime.

'The capacity to surprise'

As with every new opposition leader, Bridges promised a different type of opposition, offering the Government not just brickbats for its failures but bouquets when it made the right call.

“We will give you, Prime Minister, all the support on free trade you never gave us,” he quipped.

He offered himself up as “a more modern face” for National, promising a greener hue and a new climate change plan later this year.

It wasn’t about cosying up to the Greens, he said, but recognising the importance of the environment to all Kiwis.

“I think in 2018, New Zealanders all agree we’re all environmentalists...there’s no point having a strong economy but a crap environment.”

Of course, he said, “we’re not going to suddenly not be the National Party”.

But, he added, sticking to traditional conservative talking points wasn’t enough, pointing to Bill English’s social investment strategy as an example of thinking outside the box.

“We do have to have the capacity every now and again to surprise.”

National high, Bridges low

The latest round of political polls from TVNZ and Newshub offered few surprises for Bridges, but mixed blessings.

National is still the largest party, on 45 percent in both polls - a remarkable result for a party entering opposition after three terms in government.

However, Bridges himself is well behind Jacinda Ardern in the preferred prime minister stakes, registering either side of 10 percent to Ardern’s 40 percent plus.

Any opposition leader barely three months into the job is going to struggle with their profile, but with Judith Collins lurking nearby in the preferred PM stakes - albeit in the low single figures - Bridges will be keen to lift his numbers sooner rather than later.

One questioner asked how Bridges would “capture the imagination” as previous prime ministers had, leading National back into power rather than mired in multiple terms of opposition.

“I can’t say to you we will do it, I’d be a madman if I did - we can definitely do it though, we can definitely do it,” he replied.

The instability which had led to Donald Trump’s presidency and Australia “changing prime ministers more often than you change breakfast cereals” had crept its way here, Bridges said, with politics “more dynamic now, a lot more volatile”.

A former National prime minister (sadly unnamed) had drawn comparisons between the current Government and New Zealand’s last one-term administration from 1972 to 1975, with inexperienced ministers coming up against a “big, vigorous, dynamic opposition”.

Not that Bridges was comparing himself to Rob Muldoon, he hastily added: “I’m simply saying to you we’ll have some sizzle with the sausage.”

A lack of friends

Another obvious problem is National’s lack of friends - even 45 percent wouldn’t be enough to get them back into power without help from elsewhere, as several people in the crowd pointed out.

One option off the table is a sponsored splinter party from some of National’s more conservative MPs - although Bridges used a rather implausible option to knock down the argument.

“Some people would say we should get Chris Finlayson on a horse and give him some cowboy boots and he can form the Country Party: that’s probably reasonably unlikely, and it’s a silly idea - we need to stay big and strong.”

There was also tepid support offered for ACT’s David Seymour, with Bridges praising his dance moves but saying only that National would “make an assessment” on its Epsom deal before the next election.

Instead, Bridges suggested there would be some new options for National to play with come 2020.

“I can’t tell you tonight whether it’s going to be a breakaway from New Zealand First, New Zealand First imploding [or] going with us, a conservative Party, a christian party, a law and order Party, a Lance O’Sullivan Party, a Maori Party, a real green Party as opposed to this kind of communist Green Party, but we will have one of those options or potentially several of them.”

Pushed again on the issue, Bridges betrayed some frustration but also offered another hint that the Kaitaia GP and former New Zealander of the Year may be a future ally.

“I talk to a range of people, I talk to Lance O’Sullivan, I’m talking to others - I’m not going to give you all my magician’s tricks today, but you can have a sense that we’re doing, that I think in the next year or so things will start to shape up.”

With the current Government not even a year in, Bridges apologetically offered the cliche that it was “a marathon, not a sprint”.

He’s right, but he must be hoping his training run through New Zealand's towns is a step towards running down Ardern’s head start.