There is a reason Leader of the Opposition is referred to as the “worst job in politics.”
Against the backdrop of the National Party's leadership contest Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was always quick to make that point.
Opposition leaders do have to be mean. After all, it’s their job to challenge what the Government of the day does.
Simon Bridges, the new leader of the National Party, admits he does have concerns that at times he might come across too negatively – as the bad guy.
But he is making no apologies for that.
“Sometimes I will be assertive – my approach to that tone would be firm but fair.”
He says how an Opposition leader conducts themselves is a delicate balance between playing nice and playing hardball.
“We need to hold the Government to account, to probe it and question it.
“That makes governments better. By doing these things, we’re pointing out weaknesses we see and that should actually make the whole system work better.”
National will be voting with the Government on passing CPTPP trade legislation and Bridges says there are other opportunities for his Opposition to support “the good stuff” the Government is doing.
“But it can’t all be that – if that’s all we did, we would deserve to stay in Opposition.”
And it’s fair to say he has started his tenure as National’s leader on the offensive – taking aim at the Government’s $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund immediately.
He calls it a “slush fund” and accuses the Government of focusing on regions which are politically important to them.
Last Friday, as part of a $60 million new funding announcement, Minister of Economic Development and NZ First MP Shane Jones dished out $17 million to create jobs, address infrastructure deficits, enhance tourism opportunities and diversify Northland’s economy.
The Northland electorate was held by NZ First Leader Winston Peters until he lost it in the last election and would likely be keen to win it back from National’s Mike King.
“This is money spent for political reasons, rather than because the projects stack up and are going to enable growth in our regions,” Bridges says.
Some time to think
Bridges has made abundantly clear that the National Party he leads will have a strong focus on the environment.
In his press conference earlier this week, he was waving his “blue-green” flag for all to see.
“We in the National Party pride ourselves as being a broad-based party that reflects the views of our nation. We want to reflect what New Zealanders believe and I think that’s environmentalism.”
He says the previous National Government didn’t get enough credit for its work on ensuring environmental sustainability, citing its work on biodiversity and fresh water rights.
“Is there room for us in Opposition to be thinking about that even more – to be emphasising a few things, [with] the luxury of the time we have in Opposition?” he asks.
“Yes, there is.”
Bridges’ commitment to environmental policies has many people wondering if it’s an early bid to start wooing the Greens into a Coalition agreement in 2020.
He won’t rule this out, saying National is open to doing deals with any other party, outside of Labour, to win back the Treasury benches.
“I can’t predict, I don’t think anyone can, where parties will be – who will be up, who will be down in terms of NZ First, Greens, The Opportunities Party (TOP) or the Maori Party or some other form or iteration,” he says.
“But obviously we will be thinking about that and will be open to considering possibilities.”
He is not willing, however, to pull his punches on the Greens in a bid to win the party over, calling it out for not being a “true environmental party,” as it’s focus was sometimes on other “bits and bobs” such as some of its social policies.
Although not completely ruling out a Coalition in 2020, Green Party co-leader James Shaw is not yet convinced, saying Bridges would have to wait a long time for the Greens to shed its non-environmental issues.
In the video Bridges also talks about his achievements in government, and how "Winston chose the Government."