The Front Page: The qualities that made Simon Bridges such a dangerous political foe

The things that made Simon Bridges a popular politician would eventually become his greatest flaws.

This according to senior NZ Herald political reporter and On the Tiles podcast host Thomas Coughlan, who recently joined the Front Page podcast for a discussion about the outgoing politician’s legacy.

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Bridges’ valedictory speech this week drew the curtain on a 14-year political career that spanned more than a few scandals.

Coughlan says that Bridges’ survival in the cut-throat world of politics came down to a combination of unique skills.

“He’s very smart. He went to Oxford and worked as a Crown Prosecutor, so he definitely has book smarts. But he’s also got this scrappy West Auckland street-fighter vibe as well,” says Coughlan.

“Politicians find that very threatening. Here’s someone who can outwit with street smarts in an all-out political scrap, but he also happens to be a policy brain capable of hitting you with book smarts too. That double threat is quite dangerous in this place because it very rarely comes together.

“Bridges also came across as a pretty down-to-earth, normal guy. But behind that, you have a very clever, calculating politician.”

Bridges’ charming smile and willingness to laugh at himself also gave him a likeability that’s priceless in politics. He also had a knack for making decisions quickly and speaking without leaning on the crutch of a script. But those strengths would ultimately also become his greatest weaknesses.

“One of the things he said in his [valedictory] speech was that you have to follow your gut a bit more,” says Coughlan.

“There’s a perennial criticism of modern politics that it’s too focus-group driven and that politicians never take risks. They never lead with gut or instinct. Bridges was quite an instinctual politician. Sometimes that was to his advantage. If you look at the polling National had when he was leader of the Opposition, it was incredibly high… It’s actually quite remarkable for an Opposition to keep that polling so high.”

But following your gut isn’t always a great idea when it comes to politics.

“The weaknesses for Bridges come from that same gut instinct. Sometimes those instincts led him down the wrong path,” explains Coughlan.

“There were some dubious calls, like the decision to oppose the UN Migration pact, which was a fairly benign United Nations agreement. This kind of fed into a fringe conspiracy theory, which made National look quite silly and then bad when March 15th happened… It was just an unlucky coincidence, but it showed the flaws of that decision making.”

Bridges also faced criticism over his voting track record, which was sometimes even too conservative for members within his own party.

“He comes from that socially conservative wing of the National Party, which has always been the dominant wing of the part numerically. His voting record on social issues does trend toward the conservative. So when same-sex marriage reform came up in 2013, Bridges was opposed.”

After the new government was elected in 2017 abortion laws reforms went through Parliament, which Bridges opposed.

“And then in this term of Government, we had legislation related to conversion therapy, which Bridges strongly opposed.”

Bridges was so opposed to the ban on conversion therapy that he made the case for the entire National Party to vote against the legislation.

“This was incredibly controversial at the time because many members of the National Party were unhappy with backing something that they didn’t agree with,” says Coughlan.

“When the legislation finally passed under the new National leader, most MPs voted for the ban. Of the 120 members of parliament, there were only eight opposed to it, and Simon Bridges was one of them. So Bridges was a minority not only in Parliament but within his own party on that.

“He is this likeable character but his socially conservative voting record has certainly rankled, offended and hurt many people.”

While Nicola Willis has already stepped in as the replacement Finance Spokesperson, the departure of Bridges has again laid bare the lack of diversity in the party.

There are currently only two Māori politicians left in the caucus, Dr Shane Reti and Harete Hipango, and one other non-white representative, Melissa Lee.

When it came to finding a replacement for his vacated seat in Tauranga, four white men stepped into contention.

“This problem goes back some way for National,” says Coughlan.

“Bridges leaving obviously makes it worse, but he probably also contributed to it. Successive leaders at National did not do enough to look at the way they were selecting MPs for seats and did not do enough to diversify the candidate selection so that there was a talented pool of diverse candidates ready to go.”

The onus now rests on Christopher Luxon to look into changing this – but it’s yet to be seen whether the appetite for change exists.

The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald,available to listen to every weekday from 5am.

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