OPINION: In the hubbub over tax, it's easy to forget how imperilled Simon Bridges continues to be as National Party leader. At the very least, he should be thanking the Tax Working Group for arranging a stay of execution after some dire poll numbers.
But his clunky video on the related subject of the capital gains tax and the "Kiwi way of life" – which at times seemed like an unintentional self-parody – demonstrates why he remains acutely vulnerable as National's leader.
The worst poll for Bridges wasn't from last month, but the previous one, before Christmas, which showed he had nothing to worry about. Instead of spending the holiday period shoring up support and recalibrating for the year ahead, he and National coasted. KiwiBuild is doing our job for us, one National MP told me over Christmas; all we have to do is keep the focus off us.
Perhaps they think the troubled rollout of the Tax Working Group recommendations will save Bridges. I doubt it. Bad poll numbers are hard to reverse, and even harder to ignore.
In the usual ebb and flow of electoral politics, the Nats were bound to face a decline in support after losing in 2017, especially given the ongoing popularity of Jacinda Ardern. In fact, staying in the forties is pretty good going. Labour would have done anything for numbers like that at any point during its long stint in opposition.
But politics isn't supposed to be fair, and the stars are unmistakeably lining up against Bridges, most likely in favour of the base-pleasing Judith Collins.
I'm not a Nat, but I will get no satisfaction from Bridges' likely demise. In many ways, he's an impressive guy – self-made, hard-working and smart. He's the kind of role model I want for my son.
But, in another way, I don't feel like we really know him much at all. He's admirably self-contained, but this is an era that rewards authenticity. Love her or otherwise, Jacinda leaves nothing on the paddock. She creates connections effortlessly.
By contrast, Bridges talks just like the careful, intelligent lawyer he is. Despite the breathless commentary that surrounded them, the leaked phone calls with Jami-Lee Ross were most striking to me for their extreme politeness. In hundreds of phone calls with party leaders over the years, I never took part in a conversation quite that measured and serious, not to mention light on expletives.
Observing Bridges at Waitangi, he strikes me as almost shy – or at least not entirely comfortable in his own skin. In that sense, he reminds me somewhat of Andrew Little, another whose limitations were shown up in the leader's chair. Also like Little, he has the tendency, common in politicians, to speak at people like they're a public meeting or a radio microphone.
He doesn't possess an easy charm – even his hongi seemed awkward – and, whatever else your attributes as a leader, it's hard to make up for that. While Bridges is a capable communicator, he doesn't exactly bring the house down, especially in a bicultural setting where leaders like Shane Jones and John Tamihere shine in contrast.
The problem for Bridges, and for his colleagues casting an eye towards 2020, is that no amount of grit or determination can overcome shortcomings like these. Part of it is the curse of a new opposition, part of it is being unlucky enough to face an unusually appealing foe in Ardern.
But, however you dice it, it's hard to envisage a contest between Simon and Jacinda that doesn't end up as a one-sided shellacking. That Nats can keep telling themselves the stardust haloing Ardern will dissipate to expose a weak vulnerable government but, if I were them, I would begin planning for another eventuality.
* Shane Te Pou is a former Labour activist, Tuhoe, blogger and commentator.
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