Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Simon Bridges and National go populist

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Current leader of the National Party, Simon Bridges.

Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards – Is Simon Bridges really trying to channel Donald Trump? Or is he taking his cue from Scott Morrison? Or is he looking to emulate Boris Johnson? Whatever the inspiration, there’s been a clear change in the National Party leaders’ political positioning and tactics in recent months that suggests he’s decided to go down a more rightwing-populist path in the search for power. 

This week’s debate over the Government’s proposed Parliamentary Budget Office gave yet another indication of this more Trump-like orientation. Covered in yesterday’s column, Playing politics with proposals for an election policy watchdog, it is clear that National is not just pushing back particularly aggressively on the Government’s proposal, but asserting a new populist line about the untrustworthiness of state institutions.

Bridges spoke out against the idea, saying “They want to illegitimately, undemocratically screw the scrum on the opposition”, and he “said he would block it every step of the way, because he did not trust the government” – see Jo Moir’s Policy costings plan: Opposition’s response ‘absolutely ridiculous’ – Robertson.

This led to Government ministers implying Bridges was adopting cynically motivated populist stances. Finance Minister Grant Robertson said: “This feels to me like political gameplaying, potentially electioneering. I think it’s the introduction of a style of politics into New Zealand that New Zealanders don’t want… We don’t want to be taking the very worst of American politics or the very worst of the Crosby Textor playbook again. That’s what this feels like from Simon Bridges”.

Greens co-leader James Shaw had some equally strong allegations to make: “It’s really consistent with everything Simon Bridges has been doing recently which is to try and undermine public confidence in public institutions, especially independent objective institutions that are designed with upholding the quality of our democracy. So he’s had a real go at those sorts of institutions recently and this language is consistent with that”.

Others in the media have shared some similar concerns this week. Veteran political journalist Richard Harman said “The comments raise questions as to whether he is embarking on a Trump-like populist trajectory” – see: Bridges withdraws support because of staffing dispute.

And Harman asked Bridges whether National was therefore now attempting to challenge the Government’s integrity and trust, to which Bridges replied: “No, I wouldn’t go that far… I think it’s more about competence and the Government’s ability to get it together a bit over halfway through their term”. Harman reports that Bridges “says that though that raises questions of trust, it’s not a core component of National’s pitch to the electorate.”

The Press newspaper highlighted Bridges’ strong opposition to the Parliamentary Budget Office idea in an editorial: “It is a colourful phrase, and one can almost admire Bridges for finding a feisty tone that he has mostly been lacking, while also having serious concerns about what he is actually implying. It appears to be part of a wider strategy to encourage ever deeper distrust with the operations of the Government that goes far beyond ideological disagreements” – see: Voters would be well served by a referee in the fiscal fight.

The newspaper complained that National’s blocking of the new idea was regrettable as “it is clear that the rights of voters to be fully informed will have been sacrificed for short-term political gain.” They also warn against National going down the path of stirring up populist distrust: “Bridges is essentially asking the public to see the Government as unethical. This is a risky game to play, and it signals that we may be in for an ugly and contentious election.”

Newsroom political journalist Sam Sachdeva was even more disparaging, saying the episode was an indication of “Bridges’ creeping paranoia over independent government institutions”, writing a column arguing “to suggest that a statutorily independent entity would somehow conspire with the Government to embarrass National is nonsensical to say the least” – see: Bridges digs himself deeper over policy costing plans.

Sachdeva criticises Bridges for sowing distrust in general, but particularly about the idea of the Parliamentary Budget Office: “Just because something may win you votes does not mean you should do it, however. In a world where shrieks of ‘fake news’ are thrown around too liberally and the public trust in politicians is steadily eroding, flippantly sowing distrust without good cause is dangerous.”

Raising questions about election legitimacy

Bridges’ position on the Parliamentary Budget Office is not a one-off, but comes after a number of other statements and attacks that have raised questions about him deliberately adopting a Trumpian or populist approach to holding the Government to account. Part of this was covered last week in my column Toxic clash over census stats. In this, I asked whether it is “Trumpian” to dispute the veracity of the botched census statistics.

Bridges’ dispute over Statistics NZ’s handling of the Census related more broadly to the role of questionable data being used to redraw electorate boundaries for next year’s general election. Henry Cooke explains National’s ongoing political orientation to this exercise: “National’s argument has strong emotional resonance: They screwed up the census, so should we really allow them to screw up the election too? Instead of just attacking the Government, you attack the entire system” – see: Election 2020 is going to be a huge mess.

Cooke elaborates: “It remains to be seen how far National will take this matter. It is easy to loudly register your discontent, but going to court or seriously torpedoing the commission is a whole other matter.” But it could indeed get serious, he says: “National has the potential to seriously destabilise the election with this attack, and it’s got the Government worried. Even though electorates are extremely unlikely to decide who gets to form governments under MMP, attacking the legitimacy of an election is a potent tool rarely used in New Zealand politics.”

The questioning of the legitimacy of elections is an well-used populist technique, and one that Donald Trump has been associated with. And that’s why it’s notable that Bridges has also been calling into question the legitimacy of the last election outcome, saying on the AM Show last week: “I reckon that there is a very strong majority of New Zealanders right now who say ‘you know what, actually National at the last election got 44 percent, the system was in a sense gamed, there was one old rooster who held the country to ransom’ and so I think people are open to National making sure it does have options and the ability to be in Government in 2020” – see Jamie Ensor’s Simon Bridges says most Kiwis believe system ‘gamed’ at last election

Attacking Ardern as “a part-time PM”

Generally, Simon Bridges and National haven’t been focusing their firepower on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. But that seems to have changed recently, especially with criticisms of the PM going to Tokelau earlier this month, and Bridges using this to attack her for being a “part-time prime minister”.

This marked a shift, according to Henry Cooke, who says the criticism was “a much more personal attack on the Prime Minister than what Bridges had previously tried” – see: Simon Bridges seems to be finally settling into his own skin, but the road ahead is bumpy.

Cooke says the broadside seemed quite a deliberate low blow: “while it made no logical sense, it made for a strong emotional argument. There is a sense among a subset of people that the Prime Minister cares more for her international image for her domestic matters, that she would rather be chatting wellbeing with people thousands of miles away than actually embedding her government’s work at home”.

For Claire Trevett, the attack was clearly made to take advantage of Ardern’s apparent slipping popularity: “Bridges will not have missed that Ardern’s ratings as preferred PM had slipped from 51 per cent in April – soon after the mosque attacks – to 45 per cent in June, to 41 per cent in July. He clearly deduced the stardust was reaping diminishing returns, and tried to hasten the process” – see: Simon Bridges’ ‘part-time PM’ jibe about Jacinda Ardern a lesson all round (paywalled).

Trevett also suggests that there’s a general desire amongst National’s base pushing Bridges to take a more aggressive stance towards the PM: “For good measure, Bridges coupled it with a couched dig at Ardern for again appearing in international media, saying he would never get on the cover of Vogue – ‘but I am going to release good policies’. It was the most direct attack Bridges has mounted so far, and was more for the benefit of core National Party voters than anything – those supporters who want to see the leader take Ardern on”.

A number of commentators were scathing about Bridges’ attack. John Armstrong spelt out the inconsistencies and fallacies in the criticisms of Ardern, and deemed those statements “unacceptable” – see: Simon Bridges’ ‘part-time’ dig is a garbage ploy someone like Donald Trump would use.

Here’s Armstrong’s main point: “It is not only garbage. It is garbage tainted with a nastiness that is not that far removed from the kind of sick politics in which Donald Trump loves nothing better than to wallow. Bridges’ none-too-subtle recourse to dog-whistle politics to pander to the prejudices of those who cannot cope with the roles of Prime Minister and new mother being carried out by one and the same person has National’s leader veering into unacceptable territory.”

Similarly, Oscar Kightley wrote: “As political sledges go, it’s hard to recall one more disrespectful. National leader Simon Bridges this week calling Jacinda Ardern a ‘part-time prime minister’ seemed to represent a new weirdly nasty tone entering New Zealand politics” – see: Was nasty ‘part-time PM’ slur a hint Bridges is adopting Aussie smear tactics?

Kightley suggests there is more to come: “these tricks have been pretty effective overseas (eg Brexit and Trumpism) so why wouldn’t those seeking power, try it here. It will be a very interesting next 12 months and when it comes to our political discourse, we haven’t seen the end of this nasty tone.”

At the same time, Bridges has also criticised the Prime Minister for not taking a stronger stance against Ihumātao protesters, suggested they should be told “to go home”. This has led to comparisons with Trump’s widely-condemned instruction to elected US congresswomen to go back where they came from.

All of this is nicely parodied in a fake interview with Bridges by Andrew Gunn – see: ‘That line went down a treat in the focus groups’.

National’s other attack lines

The National Party leader recently made a rather Trumpian-style statement that “One person’s misinformation is another person’s fact.” This was in reaction to National MP Chris Penk’s claims about late-stage abortions being allowed under the proposed new abortion law reform.

This has alarmed former government minister Peter Dunne, who says that Bridges is Crossing the bridge to a post-truth world. In this, Dunne criticises the National leader for suggesting that “facts and misinformation are interchangeable”.

National has also been embarking on a much more negative advertising strategy against Labour and the Greens. This is examined in Thomas Coughlan’s article about the various “car tax” ads on Facebook and other such advertising strategies – see: Next election will be Simon Bridges v Julie Anne Genter v Jacinda Ardern.

Coughlan says to expect more of this from National: “National thinks it’s got a winning formula. Sources within the party say Bridges’ meeting in Sydney in July with Australian PM Scott Morrison changed the party’s political messaging to be closer to that which brought Morrison victory in May. They think Morrison’s formula of near constant mini video ads, created by Kiwi team Topham-Guerin, helped secure the embattled Liberals an unlikely return to power.”

However, National might be sailing too close to the wind with these advertisements – see Coughlan’s National’s ‘desperate’ attack ads to be investigated by Advertising Standards Authority.

So, if National is going down the populist path under Bridges’ leadership, where is he likely to go next? Martin van Beynen wrote about this last month, suggesting targets might include: “the state’s renewed focus on redress for Māori”; “political correctness”; “the sneering and out-of-touch political class”; “the new gun legislation as an infringement of the rights of people who have done nothing wrong”; free speech; “foreign ownership of New Zealand assets”; and immigration – see: What a populist National Party would look like.

Finally, Chris Trotter asks: where will it all end? He suggests that if Bridges takes National “into the dark territory of whatever it takes” to win, the end result might not be very rewarding for the National leader: “By the time Bridges gets to switch on the lights on the Beehive’s ninth floor, ‘whatever it takes’ will have wrought its inevitable changes. The face that stares at him from the mirror of the prime-ministerial bathroom will be as unfamiliar as it is frightening” – see: Simon Bridges leads National down into the dark.