By Peter Dunne*
It took a testy Morning Report interview this week to remind me that Simon Bridges was still the Leader of the Opposition. Until then, he had been largely invisible as the events of recent weeks unfolded.
Of course, this could have been a deliberate strategy on his part.
He may well have decided that as the Prime Minister squirmed on the hook of her credibility over the ongoing Labour sex scandals issue, and the wider #metoo ramifications, it was best that his Deputy, Paula Bennett, was left to front that issue, especially since the disgruntled and dissatisfied Labour complainants had approached her directly some while ago.
Perhaps he may have felt that his becoming involved would raise afresh the spectre of the Jamie-Lee Ross affair, and put National on the back foot over its internal handling of that matter, so best that he stay right out of things. Or, that the Prime Minister would doing such a good job all by herself of skewering her credibility through her vague and inconsistent answers, that there was no need for him to get involved. Whatever the reason, the upshot was that he was left looking very much missing in action.
Now, being Leader of the Opposition is both the most difficult and the worst of jobs in New Zealand politics, even at the best of times.
A Leader of the Opposition who is too sharp and critical is often dismissed as too negative and carping a critic, forever chasing every parked car they come across, no matter its size or significance.
If, on the other hand, the Leader of the Opposition is more balanced and prone to constructive criticism and promoting positive alternatives, they are seen as not up to the job of holding the government to account. It is the ultimate “no-win” job, and Mr Bridges is by no means its first occupant to have struggled with this dichotomy.
However, there are times when the Leader of the Opposition can make a positive impact and present themselves as more than just the perennial critic, and become a Prime Minister in waiting. Usually, these are times of some national crisis or disquiet, where people are seeking reassurance and certainty, or just a return to common-sense.
At its heart, politics is about trust.
When trust goes, governments soon go too. Labour’s woeful mishandling of recent events will have shaken many people’s trust in the party and its leadership. Consequently, there was probably a moment in time – now most likely to have passed – where the Leader of the Opposition could have stepped into the fray and seized the high ground. But he did not do so.
Mr Bridges and National could have grabbed the moment to position National as the party that would deal with the increasing incidence of sexual abuse in large organisations. He could have backed this up by demonstrating good faith, and releasing for public scrutiny, with all the personal details withheld, the full record of National’s recent inquiry into its own internal culture to show that his party is serious about dealing with this issue. And he could have committed National to pushing Speaker Trevor Mallard to implement fully the recommendations of the recent Francis report on bullying within the Parliamentary Service and the Parliamentary complex generally. But he stayed silent. In any case, that moment has passed now, so picking up these issues at this point would seem clumsy and contrived. Instead, National is left flat-footed once more.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister has jetted off overseas again to the comfort of the international stage, no doubt seeking more of the international fawning and adulation she has come to enjoy. While she is away, the country has been left in the hands of her grumpy, irascible do-nothing Deputy. And the Speaker continues to seem more interested in protecting the interests of the Labour Party than making the Parliamentary complex a safe place for people to work in.
Meanwhile, business and consumer confidence levels continue to fall and the prospect of recession increases; suicide rates are climbing to abnormally high levels; housing waiting lists and shortages are at all-time highs; the numbers of students achieving NCEA credits are declining; overall dependency levels are rising; and, the government’s self-proclaimed “Year of Delivery” looks more and like likely to join KiwiBuild on the policy scrapheap.
With just on a year until the next election, all of these are presenting a further round of opportunities for the Leader of the Opposition to assert himself and for National to step into the increasing leadership vacuum.
Bare dare we hold our breath waiting for him to do so?
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.