After a rocky start to the year, Simon Bridges has shored up National’s polls and his own leadership. But can the party find the electoral friends it needs for 2020?

Simon Bridges’ verdict on the National Party’s 2019? “To state the obvious, it finished better than it started.”

That may be an understatement. Bridges and National entered the year on the back foot from Jami-Lee Ross’ split with the party and the electoral fraud allegations he hurled on the way out, while rumours spread about Bridges’ shaky hold on the leadership as the party’s polling steadily dropped.

Yet with Christmas around the corner, nobody (bar some mischief-makers on the left) is talking seriously about a leadership spill, with the party back above its 2017 result in most polling, and opposition MPs chipping away at their government counterparts in a number of portfolios.

Bridges attributes his good year both to National’s policy work – Newsroom is presented with a “gift” of the eight discussion documents it has put out in 2019, with a promise of two more to complete the box set – and the coalition’s failure to deliver on key promises.

As for his own performance, Bridges thinks he turned a corner with the public after the party’s July conference, developing a clearer sense of his own leadership style and stamping his mark on issues like the welfare system and law and order.

That increased assurance is yet to find its way into public polling, however: while National has outperformed Labour in all but one poll since the middle of the year, Bridges continues to lag well behind Ardern in the preferred prime minister stakes.

The National leader brushes off the numbers, saying that is partly due to the inherent disadvantage in being in opposition and less relevant than National’s robust numbers.

“I don’t feel the need to be, you know, loved, to be this, this, this person that everyone wants at the dinner party.

“What I do hope and believe New Zealanders are seeing though, and it is reflected in our party numbers, is that I am competent and very experienced, and on the issues that New Zealand’s got today … we’ll get things done under my leadership.”

That is not the only polling problem that may give Bridges and his team pause for thought.

Simon Bridges says he will make a public call on whether National could work with New Zealand First before the next election – but the early signs suggest a partnership is unlikely. Photo: Getty Images.

National’s support has remained surprisingly robust for a party on the wrong side of nine years in government, but it still suffers from a crucial lack of electoral friends.

Even an election result in the mid-40s may not be enough to win back the baubles of office if both the Greens and New Zealand First return – although as Bridges is quick to point out, the latter’s current polling means that is no certainty.

He remains optimistic about “gaps in the market” for minor parties either returning to Parliament (in the case of the Māori Party) or entering it for the first time (as with Vernon Tava’s nascent Sustainable New Zealand), but says the focus must be on maximising National’s own vote.

Almost certainly off the table is a National-New Zealand First coalition, given the mud being flung by both sides over alleged electoral infractions.

Bridges will confirm next year whether or not his party would work with New Zealand First if necessary, but hardly seems warm to the idea now.

“I look at the stuff that Shane Jones has done around businesses and New Zealand and you know, that doesn’t make it more likely we go with them, I can tell you that for nothing, and you look at the New Zealand First Foundation issues and the murkiness of that, and it’s in the same category.”

Indeed, an alternative to finding new partners would be trying to push New Zealand First below 5 percent and hope to sneak past a Labour-Green combination.

Bridges denies that is a strategy in development, but offers a sniff of a potential play to deter National-leaning voters from backing Winston Peters in the hope of a blue-black coalition.

“When Jacinda Ardern, as she has very recently, talked about not ruling them out and how good they are and so on, it starts to sound very much like a vote for New Zealand First is actually a vote for Labour.”

“I reject the view that somehow the left is just this holier-than-thou crowd who don’t do anything wrong, butter wouldn’t melt, and that somehow there’s this group on the fringes on the right that are the bad guys.”

In some quarters, there still seems to be some resentment about the outcome of the last election: a National-penned section of the long-awaited select committee report on the 2017 election notes the “significant historic aspect … that, for the first time under MMP, the largest party in Parliament and the party with the most votes did not get to form the government.”

Bridges says he does not hold a grudge over the outcome – “that’s MMP and that’s the way it goes” – but some of National’s more rabid online supporters seem to have a visceral hatred of the Government, and of Ardern in particular, flipping around books and magazines with her photo on the cover in stores.

Some of Bridges’ critics have argued he has stoked this rhetoric, such as when he labelled Ardern a “part-time Prime Minister”, but he dismisses the suggestion it falls on him to discourage such behaviour.

“It somewhat goes with the territory: I mean, to be clear, [I’ve got] nothing to do with any of that and won’t do, but the truth is I haven’t met a senior politician in New Zealand, including myself by the way, who doesn’t have on a daily basis disgusting things sent, threats and the like… 

“I reject the view that somehow the left is just this holier-than-thou crowd who don’t do anything wrong, butter wouldn’t melt, and that somehow there’s this group on the fringes on the right that are the bad guys.”

Pushing social media

Bridges also dismisses “one of the great left-wing memes” that National has over 30 people working in its social media team to push out content on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms.

“That’s [the figure] of our entire policy team, and believe you me I am working hard to get strong policy people…

“We are working hard on our social media, but the truth is it’s a small team of young people who aren’t that well-resourced.”

National’s use of social media has been a notable strength in 2019, although not without some justified criticism – statistician Thomas Lumley pointed out distortions and inaccuracies in several graphics being shared online by the party.

Bridges professes ignorance, but says “we want to make sure these things are accurate” – then swiftly pivots to an attack on the media and the Government.

“There does seem to be in our media landscape … a very clear sense that they have to fact-check everything National says, and not a whole lot of that going on with the left…

“None of this is an excuse for National, we need to be scrupulous on our facts and so on, but I do respectfully say to aspects of our media and Twittersphere, let’s have a bit of that going on in relation to the Government as well.”

But while some of Bridges’ harder-edged attacks on social issues, coupled with twin referendums on cannabis and euthanasia, suggest a potentially divisive election campaign, he insists it will be more orthodox issues that will win the day for National.

“It’s got to be won and lost on who New Zealanders think have the best economic plan, a sense and understanding of their cost pressures and their hip pocket, infrastructure…

“I’m not naive, I understand we’ll have to be talking about a cannabis referendum and so on, but I will be, every chance I get, making sure New Zealanders understand … the main [vote] that matters, and that spends all their money and determines the country’s future, is that of the general election.”

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Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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