Lack of humility is Simon Bridges' fatal flaw

by Graham Adams / 23 April, 2019
Opinion
simon bridges

Simon Bridges' high-handed approach was seen at his first press conference as National Party leader, when he asked deputy Paula Bennett to “give us some water will you, love?” . Photo/Getty.

A surfeit of self-belief often trips up National’s leader.

You know politics is getting back to normal after the Christchurch mosque attacks when attention shifts once again to Simon Bridges’ future as leader of the National Party.

As has been the case for some time, questions about his widely predicted demise don’t appear to faze him. Usually, when the drums are beating so loudly for a leader’s execution — fuelled recently by yet another low personal rating as preferred prime minister and even louder caucus rumblings — you’d expect to see at least a flicker of fear in the eyes of someone threatened with an axe.

In fact, Bridges invariably looks pleased with himself. Self-doubt clearly doesn’t feature prominently in his psychological make-up, even when it should.

When RNZ’s Guyon Espiner interviewed him about the review Bridges commissioned last year into the party’s culture — and particularly whether its women felt safe — he wouldn’t say who was doing the review and admitted female MPs may not have been spoken to.

He also said he hadn’t read it and that it wouldn’t be released until another wider inquiry into how parliamentary staff are treated was made public. 

As Espiner became increasingly perplexed to the point of exasperation that National’s leader couldn’t see why all this might be a problem, Bridges looked more amused than defensive and reckoned Espiner was making a “mountain out of a molehill”.

Bridges’ ability to see victory where others see defeat is remarkable but it’s more often a liability than an asset. Its great advantage is that he rarely appears to be back-footed, but it’s a clear disadvantage when it blinds him to the reality of situations where the public can see better than him what has really happened.

When Jacinda Ardern announced Labour would not campaign on, or implement, a capital gains tax so long as she was leader, Bridges immediately claimed the backdown was a result of his opposition and clear evidence of his “strong leadership”. And this despite Winston Peters having been universally nominated as having killed the proposal after negative feedback from NZ First party members reinforced his longstanding hostility to such a tax.

Furthermore, some commentators have suggested that Ardern may have deliberately let the proposal die after Michael Cullen’s Tax Working Group had issued its report because she had known for some time there was no popular mandate for it.

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Nevertheless, Bridges was not going to let anyone rain on what he imagines is his own victory parade.

He brushed off questions about his grip on power within his party with repeated references to the rejection of the proposed CGT.

Was he about to get rolled? “No. National supporters right now will be feeling really good, and that’s because of my leadership in the National caucus.” 

Were the numbers “firming up” for Judith Collins? “I’m sure that’s not the case. Right now National supporters will be feeling really good about this victory.”

Was he refuting caucus rumblings about his leadership? “I completely refute anything other than the fact that I’m a strong leader for National.”

The only other sitting politician who immediately comes to mind as exhibiting this sort of chest-beating blather is Shane Jones, whose self-satisfaction levels as a “feisty, earthy, industrial-grade retail politician” and “first citizen of the provinces” would rate quite highly even on a Trumpometer.

Despite heavy exposure over many decades to US culture in film and television with their brassy stars blowing their own trumpets as loudly as possible, most New Zealanders still expect at least a moderate degree of humility in others, and particularly in their leaders.

Blowhards are generally regarded with a mix of suspicion and distaste and Bridges unfortunately often appears to be among their ranks.

It’s one obvious reason why he can’t convince many voters that he is a good candidate to become prime minister. Many will conclude that if he’s this cocksure when he’s failing to hit double digits as preferred prime minister, he would be insufferable if he were actually leading the government.

Furthermore, in line with Bridges’ bullish personality, he doesn’t seem to understand that the decision to reject a CGT will hurt him and the National Party more than anyone else in politics. It was the stick they were hoping to use to beat Labour all the way to the next election but now they will have to cast around for something else.

In fact, if Bridges had a more subtle intellect, he would have avoided chest-beating entirely after Ardern’s public backtrack and made a lot more of being a politician who intuitively understands the New Zealand psyche.

He could easily have argued that by saying she had rejected the tax “not because I don’t believe in it but because I don’t believe New Zealand does”, the Prime Minister was implicitly agreeing that a CGT would indeed be an “assault on the Kiwi way of life”, as he asserted in February, to widespread derision. 

That would have been a much better tactic than repeatedly and loudly declaring himself to be the strong man of the National Party.

Bridges’ bullishness was mostly an asset for him when he first became leader in February last year. Assailed by publicity about a string of disasters that were seen to be a product of National’s mismanagement during its last term — including Middlemore Hospital’s woes, Mycoplasma bovis and the methamphetamine testing debacle — he confidently stood up to the barrage of attacks without faltering.

However, in a little more than a year, he has accumulated serious problems of his own, many of which have been because of his aggressively confident and self-assertive style.

Chief among them is the disaster he created by backing frontbencher Jami-Lee Ross into a corner last year after the leaking of his travel costs. Ross is clearly not a man to be bullied, and certainly not someone who would quietly shuffle off-stage after being publicly humiliated by a colleague he had recently helped into the top job in his party.

The Ross saga has been a weeping sore for Bridges ever since but it could have been easily avoided if he hadn’t so seriously underestimated his former lieutenant’s pride and capacity for retaliation and overestimated his own ability to bully him into submission.

A more intuitive and less aggressive politician than Bridges would also have understood that in ordering an inquiry to unearth the leaker he was always going to look like a man stumbling around with a blunderbuss who had overreacted to a trivial and inconsequential leak given that the information was due to be released within days anyway.

His latest blunder has been his claim that an “emotional junior staffer” deleted a petition opposing the UN Migration Compact from the National Party website after the mosque attacks when it was in fact deleted by a respected senior adviser.

His caucus, who are said to be increasingly dubious about their leader’s judgment, appear to see this as just another example of a man who doesn’t understand that effective leadership means taking people willingly with you and not dumping on them from a great height.

In fact, his high-handed approach to those beneath him in the pecking order was clearly evident at his first press conference as leader when he indicated to his deputy, Paula Bennett, that he needed a glass of water.

He pointed at a jug on a low table and uttered the immortal command — “Give us some water will you, love?”

Bennett — who just a few months earlier had been deputy prime minister and Bridges’ superior — looked flustered but she bent down and poured him a drink while he continued to hold court in front of the cameras.

In an era when society has become hypersensitive to how men in positions of power treat women, it was a jaw-dropping show of obtuseness and a textbook case of how not to behave. With that one patronising and demeaning instruction, Bridges showed just how deeply tone-deaf and overbearing he is.

If he does survive as leader to the next election, it’s hard to imagine that swing voters in the “soft” middle — especially women — will support a party he leads in sufficient numbers to tip the result National’s way.

And it’s certain he won’t be leader for long after the election if National loses.

Nevertheless, you get the impression that Bridges will be upbeat to the very end. He’s the sort of person who would be loudly lauding his own abilities even as guards were leading him to face a firing squad, all the while believing that things could still turn out well for him.

Only when the rifles were trained on him and a blindfold put over his eyes would he finally click that his number was up.

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