Bridges faces daunting test Comment
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.