Bridges faces daunt­ing test Com­ment

Weekend Herald - - News -

Odds are stacked against the Na­tional leader as Ardern ex­udes con­fi­dence

Next Thurs­day af­ter­noon Si­mon Bridges is go­ing to give his big­gest speech since win­ning the Na­tional Party lead­er­ship. He will be the first MP to re­ply to Grant Robert­son’s first Bud­get.

Jacinda Ardern will speak straight af­ter Bridges but, as Prime Min­is­ter, she’s had a six-month head start.

She is on top of her game. She is well-briefed across all of Gov­ern­ment be­cause of the Bud­get process, that much is ev­i­dent by the way she has been han­dling all in­com­ing is­sues from Bridges dur­ing ques­tion time.

Since her re­turn from Europe, she has also been ex­hibit­ing a con­fi­dence and harder edge in par­lia­men­tary com­bat. There has been no ev­i­dence of a gen­tler way of do­ing pol­i­tics.

The odds are stacked against Bridges mak­ing a big im­pres­sion. He will have only 60 min­utes to read the Bud­get, pre­pare a speech and comb his hair be­fore en­ter­ing the cham­ber.

It can be a de­mor­al­is­ing day for the Op­po­si­tion. It has to fight for vis­i­bil­ity and rel­e­vance as the Gov­ern­ment wheels out its blueprint.

Bridges should be rel­a­tively match fit. He is mid­way through his town hall meet­ings across the coun­try, which are draw­ing re­spectable crowds. He was also an as­so­ciate fi­nance min­is­ter in the last Gov­ern­ment.

But through time con­straints, it will be seat of the pants stuff. He will be re­ly­ing largely on his new team, some of whom have dis­ap­pointed and some of whom have shone. He will soon learn which of them is across their port­fo­lio and can zero in quickly on weak­nesses for Na­tional to ex­ploit.

On cur­rent per­for­mance that will be Chris Bishop with po­lice, Ju­dith Collins in hous­ing, Paul Gold­smith with eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, Nikki Kaye in ed­u­ca­tion and Jami-Lee Ross in trans­port.

Bishop, for ex­am­ple, ex­tracted an ad­mis­sion from Labour that it is count­ing 880 new po­lice of­fi­cers funded from Na­tional’s last Bud­get as part of the Coali­tion’s promised 1800 new po­lice of­fi­cers.

One crit­i­cal player has not yet shone.

Bridges’ main lead­er­ship ri­val Amy Adams was the ob­vi­ous choice as Bridges’ fi­nance spokes­woman as a de­tails per­son and a for­mer as­so­ciate fi­nance min­is­ter. But she has largely been miss­ing in ac­tion at a vi­tal stage of the build-up to the Bud­get.

She has asked ques­tions of Robert­son in only three of the past nine Ques­tion Times and had three weeks away on the Speaker’s Tour to Europe and re­lated travel. Next week should be her time to shine but more than likely she will still be get­ting up to speed.

In the mean­time, others have been run­ning the bat­tle over the Bud­get in a bid to counter the Gov­ern­ment’s re­lent­less nar­ra­tive that af­ter “nine years of ne­glect”, Labour has been left to ad­dress var­i­ous crises in health, ed­u­ca­tion and hous­ing. It has been ef­fec­tive in its sim­plic­ity.

Na­tional’s counter-at­tack is that this Gov­ern­ment will bor­row more, tax more and spend more, that it is awash with cash and that if things are tight, that’s be­cause it over-promised.

Lit­tle did Na­tional sus­pect Win­ston Peters would ad­vance Na­tional’s nar­ra­tive with his whop­ping $900 mil­lion fund­ing boost for For­eign Af­fairs over four years, $714m of which is to go on for­eign aid (ODA).

Na­tional could not have scripted it bet­ter, but it had a go. Na­tional has been run­ning so­cial me­dia ads this week fea­tur­ing its own script on a Peters poster: “$1 bil­lion more for diplo­mats ver­sus cheaper GP vis­its.”

That has been short­ened to Diplo­mats ver­sus Doc­tors. De­cep­tive, yes, but ef­fec­tive in its sim­plic­ity.

It sounds less im­pres­sive when av­er­aged out. It rep­re­sents on av­er­age $178.5m more a year for over­seas aid, which has $613.64m this year.

But its em­blem­atic value to Na­tional is man­i­fold: it is harder for Labour to sug­gest it is deal­ing with fund­ing crises in health and ed­u­ca­tion when it de­liv­ers so gen­er­ously to a min­istry that couldn’t be more divorced from or­di­nary peo­ple.

It sug­gests, per­haps, that it is more a case of New Zealand sec­ond, not first, to Peters’ sup­port­ers.

The patchy per­for­mance of Bridges’ team in­cludes deputy Paula Ben­nett.

It shows the raw power Peters has in the Gov­ern­ment. He got a 30 per cent in­crease for ODA but it could just as eas­ily have been 40 or 50 per cent.

Labour in­dulged in de­cep­tive Bud­get pol­i­tics this week, sug­gest­ing fam­ily vi­o­lence was an area Na­tional ne­glected for nine years.

Na­tional was slow to de­fend its ef­forts, in­clud­ing a $132m pre­ven­tion pack­age in 2016 to ad­dress this scourge, which costs tax­pay­ers $1.4 bil­lion and takes up 40 per cent of po­lice time.

Amy Adams and Anne Tol­ley, who led the work in Gov­ern­ment, could have in­stantly coun­tered the de­cep­tion but said noth­ing.

The patchy per­for­mance of Bridges’ new team in­cludes his deputy Paula Ben­nett. Ev­ery so of­ten, Ben­nett fails to zip it when she should, as was ev­i­denced this week in a stupid tweet crit­i­cis­ing Ardern for shar­ing a mu­sic playlist to mark New Zealand mu­sic month.

Quick as a flash, the Spinoff ’s Toby Man­hire thanked Ben­nett for the Guns n Roses re­view she did for him when Deputy Prime Min­is­ter, and tweet-loads of scorn piled upon her.

Ben­nett and Bridges and a small team — Todd McClay, Jami-Lee Ross and Gerry Brown­lee — are car­ry­ing the strate­gic role that was pre­vi­ously con­cen­trated in Steven Joyce, iden­ti­fy­ing Na­tional’s best tar­gets and lines of at­tack.

They are about to face their big­gest chal­lenge — and their big­gest op­por­tu­nity.

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