The major factor in Bridges’ decision to leave was his failed bid to regain the party leadership. He was rolled as leader in 2020, and in 2021 he was again rebuffed by his colleagues, in favour of Christopher Luxon. Yet Bridges will be missed, and it’s an understatement to say that National is the poorer for losing him.
He was a talented leader – possibly their best out of the last four or five. He was also an incredibly valuable frontbench politician for the party. Without him there, the chances of National winning power in 2023 have been reduced.
National was already suffering from a serious diversity problem before Bridges’ departure. There were some significant resignations in the leadup to the 2020 election, and a poor election result meant that emerging talent from outside the party’s traditional demographic, failed to get into Parliament.
Bridges was National’s first Māori leader. His departure now leaves only Shane Reti and Harete Hipango making up National’s “Māori caucus”. Melissa Lee, is the only other non-pakeha MP.
National is therefore being rightfully mocked by many for its lack of ethnically diverse representation. One journalist quipped last week that “there are now more Christophers than there are Māori in the National Party” and the “party has got as many Nicolas, Todds and Simons in the party as it does Māori”.
The Tauranga branch’s recruitment of a replacement for Bridges didn’t help matters. They came up with a short-list of four youngish pakeha males, with Sam Uffindell prevailing as the candidate. Luxon attempted to cite him as an example of diversity, explaining “He’s a person who is actually well-educated, gone off overseas, worked in a really complicated area of financial crime and has come back and is an agri-business champion as well for the Tauranga electorate.’’
It wasn’t just National’s opponents who found this astonishing – rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton was incredulous that party officials didn’t “headhunt at least one Māori candidate for the shortlist”. Hooton elaborates: “it’s quite incredible that the relevant party officials, whose job it is to headhunt promising candidates and vet those who apply down to a shortlist, failed to deliver to local delegates a shortlist that at least tried to respect the new leader’s call for diversity”.
According to Hooton, National’s failure on diversity is more to do with a fixation on seeking out extremely bland politicians: “I don’t think today’s National is racist or sexist. It might even be said to be worse than that. It’ll take people of any gender, sexuality or ethnicity – just as long as they are blue-suit and white-shirt people, with bland personal and managerial backgrounds, who think politics is about acting out The West Wing and that government is about signing off the most modest and safest proposal their bureaucrats recommend.”
Hooton worries that National is now in the habit of avoiding more interesting and potentially controversial candidates, which contrasts with a National Party that used to be more politically tolerant and inclusive: “As far back as the 1970s and early 1980s, National was sufficiently cosmopolitan, ideologically diverse and lacking in fashion sense to be choosing Marilyn Waring, Winston Peters, Ruth Richardson and Norman Jones for safe provincial seats… I doubt today that the likes of Waring, Peters, Richardson, Jones or Wood would get past the vetting process, because they just aren’t bland enough for the National Party today. I even wonder: Would Jenny Shipley, Simon Upton, Lockwood Smith, Doug Graham, Murray McCully, Nick Smith, Georgina te Heuheu, Gerry Brownlee or Tau Henare get through? Or even Tim Groser, Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges?”
Unfortunately for Luxon’s supposed diversity drive, what happened in Tauranga may be repeated throughout the country in 2023. In National it’s the branches that decide the local candidate, with no reference to the overall makeup of the caucus. And even if National’s party list has an incredible range of candidates, it’s likely that National will win back many electorates it lost in 2020, meaning few MPs will come from the list.
National’s problems don’t end with diversity. It also has a serious lack of talent and experience in its caucus, particularly with the loss of senior MPs over the last few years, such as Amy Adams, Nikki Kaye, Chris Finlayson, Bill English, Steven Joyce, and Paula Bennett. This means if a National administration was elected next year, it would have very little governing experience. Even “Prime Minister Luxon” will have been an MP for only three years.
Will Simon Bridges eventually make a comeback?
There’s speculation that Simon Bridges hasn’t really retired from Parliament for good but intends his reported retirement to be more of a sabbatical. There’s certainly a lot of logic in this theory. It might well be that Bridges simply takes 5-10 years out from politics, coming back as an elder statesperson with an enhanced reputation after working in different roles. He would surely be welcomed back into a post-Luxon party, when National might well need an experienced leader with a proven track record.
It’s now on the record that Bridges intends to move with his young family to Auckland, where he can take on other less demanding roles and spend more time with his family while his three kids grow up. But he’s hardly leaving politics behind – he’s taken on two media jobs in which he will discuss politics and current affairs. His weekly column with the National Business Review, and his new digital audio programme with Stuff, will keep him in the public arena.
Bridges will, no doubt, continue to reshape his reputation, and probably develop his new standing as a thoughtful observer on public life and deeper issues. His “National Identity” book last year, which was very well-reviewed, was a real template for how he might broaden his appeal and show his depth of thinking. It is certainly in sharp contrast to Bridges’ reputation when he was Leader of the Opposition – back then his unfavourability ratings in surveys were gigantic.
But with a role as head of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, Bridges will be able to retain a serious profile as someone on the right of politics connected with the business world. Just as former Green Party co-leader Russel Norman left politics, became the CEO of Greenpeace and resigned his Green Party membership, Bridges will leave National. And we’re likely to see him throw some pointed criticism at his old party from time to time, which will elevate Bridges above being the party hack.
Bridges might well end up enjoying this post-parliamentary life more than his time as an MP. But there will always be a gravitational pull back to power for someone who is very obviously a “political animal” and has left with thwarted ambitions. He was so close to becoming PM in 2020, before Covid struck when National was ahead in the polls. And so, a more mature and emboldened Bridges, re-entering politics during kinder times, might well be able to take care of unfinished business.
Bridges’ important valedictory speech
In leaving Parliament Bridges certainly gave an impressive valedictory speech – and notably one that resisted burning bridges alá Louisa Wall, leaving the door open for future involvement in politics. He gave a speech of unusual thoughtfulness and depth that was appropriate for Bridges’ desired reputation as a “conviction politician”.
There were suggestions for reforming politics to make it more democratic and useful. For example, Bridges believed that select committees are too often dominated by the government of the day, and need to be strengthened. Likewise, the Speaker of Parliament should be elected by secret ballot, instead by dictate of the largest parties.
The biggest plea, however, was for a shift away from elite, technocratic, and centrist politics at every level, bemoaning that New Zealand had become “Nice Beigeland” – ideologically “narrower and narrower, beiger and beiger”.
The media, for example, were challenged to diversify their coverage of politics and society, as their views are often too conformist and narrow: “I do… despair how narrow the viewpoints are as opposed to in the UK, the United States, and even Australia. More viewpoints are tolerated, actually encouraged in their deeper media environments.”
He suggested to the press gallery that journalists are too often soft on the government of the day and caught up in beltway-type thinking: “if every one of you has the same basic position on a complex matter, you are probably all engaged in group thinking, quite probably wrong. Go spend some time in the provinces or one of our bigger cities that’s not this one to recalibrate, and get a fresh view.”
Bridges also warned his National colleagues against becoming too ideologically narrow and elite: “Give primacy too narrow a spectrum through a belief that the prevailing views in central Wellington and Auckland make up New Zealand, and National will over time cease to be the strongest, most representative political movement we have.” His message was that National was in danger of collapsing its traditionally broad-church approach into one where provincial, rural, and conservative voices are less tolerated.
The most important part of his speech was a critique of how politics in general had become too bland, centrist, and pragmatic. He told his fellow parliamentarians: “Let’s have less small target, short term political tactics and more large, long term strategies please. Big bold battles of ideas’ won’t hurt us” and “please, let’s not be quite so poll and focus group driven. They will make you nice, and beige, and timid – in short, wishy-washy.” In terms of polls, Bridges argued, they “should only ever be an aid, helping you to decide how to get to where you think is right. Let’s more often do what we think is right, and lead the polls and the people to where they should go for New Zealand”.
Writing in his first column today for NBR, Bridges again discusses his leadership style, which he compares to that of Elon Musk – being bold, instinctual and values-driven rather than technocratic and incremental. He argues that this “Musk/Bridges-type approach” served him well when leader of the National Party: “I certainly don’t accept that acting instinctively after listening to a handful of close colleagues did me ill as a political leader. For starters, I had little choice, having to react swiftly without the luxury of planning sessions over time. Second, I still back those quick calls, and believe they probably kept National stronger, longer, until pandemic politics took over in 2020.”
In his farewell speech, Bridges called himself a “conviction politician”. There might be some reason to doubt that self-characterisation, given some of the decisions that the former leader made while in power. But if Bridges does ever make a Parliamentary comeback, it would be a welcome return if he can be part of a principled reinvigoration of both Parliament and the National Party – which is sadly lacking.
Bridges departure is a good reminder that New Zealand politics needs a focus on its shortcomings in demographic diversity, but also in terms of ideological diversity. This is definitely a case in the National Party, but every other party as well.
Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society.