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The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Simon Bridges

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews National Party Leader Simon Bridges

Lisa Owen: After fending off four other contenders for the National Party leadership, Simon Bridges is now reshuffling his team. His fellow Westie, Paula Bennett, has kept her Deputy job, but no other roles have been confirmed. Mr Bridges says he’s focused on positioning the party as a strong alternative government for 2020, and he joins me now. Good morning, Mr Bridges.

Simon Bridges: Good morning.

Now, we understand that the leadership race was very tight, so do you think you have the mandate for change?

Yes, I do. I think one of the issues, there are always a number of things going on in Members of Parliament’s heads when they’re thinking about this, was the degree of change that was required. And I think what I would say to you is, you say it’s tight; who knows, actually, at the end of the day, but what I can tell you is you think about the context in which this happened with Bill English, after a very long, successful career standing down, a lot of candidates, I think, showing the strength of the party. We’re in really good shape.

But with a 44 per cent vote count, that would seem to indicate that you have very little mandate to change, because people liked you how you were.
I think that’s exactly right. So we don’t need to be radical, I don’t think, in terms of what we’re doing. I think in terms of the economy, people understand that we’re the best economic managers, that we’ve got a very strong platform there to build off. So I accept that.

Okay, so what is generational change, then?

Look, I think it’s two things. Firstly and more superficially, yeah, let’s state the bleedingly obvious — John Key and Bill English are no longer in Parliament, and so the leaders of the National Party aren’t there. So that level, going from them to me, has changed. But I think it’s more than that. I think what I’m talking about is modernisation, that is both in terms of the personnel. It’s not about getting rid of experience. We do need heft and experience to make our party and to keep the strength that we’ve got. But it is also about bringing new talent through. I think even more importantly than that, though, it is in policy setting, and again, I repeat what I’ve said; we are the strongest in the economy, we are focused on that because that’s what give opportunities to New Zealanders. But what is also true is that we aren’t the government now. We can’t just say to voters in 2020, ‘Look, this is how we did things in the past. Stick with us.’ We also need to, I think, modernise, put things in context for the 2020s. And if I can just finish on this point; if we have the best policies in 2020 that are looking forward, that are aspirational, we can win.

Okay, there’s a lot in there, and I want to just delve into a bit of it.

First off, I’m still a bit confused. What are the top three things that Simon Bridges’ National Party stands for? Top three.

Well, one, two and three, if you want to be glib, is the economy, because that’s what provides opportunities to New Zealanders. But I made clear through the campaign, if you want to call it that, for the leadership that I do think we also want to make sure people understand that we have other values and we care about other things. So I did talk about the environment.

And we will talk about the environment, but when you say, ‘Economy — one, two and three,’ that’s no different to John Key or Bill English’s National Party.

Well, no, I agree, and that’s because to your point earlier, 44.5 per cent. We’ve been the strongest polling party now for a very long time. I’m simply saying to you this. Yes, we stay on that. Yes, we continue to have

So you’re going to look different and have a different leader. Sorry, this is really important. So you’re just going to look different and have a different leader, but you’re going to be the same party?

Well, we are the same party, Lisa. I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking.

Well, because you’re talking about generational change and you said policy is important too and having aspirational and forward-thinking policy. But you’ve just named economy, economy, economy, which seems to reflect the old National Party’s views.

The values of the National Party around free enterprise, around competition, around law and order and safer communities, around strong families — they’re the same. But I’m making the case that in 2020, rather than 2008 or 2012, of course we need to continue evolving. Society evolves. Things change. Let me give you the example of the environment. The reason I’ve said, ‘Yeah, there is a need for some emphasis from us,’ is because I understand that not only is that the right thing to emphasise, I think it’s also where New Zealand’s at. We’re New Zealanders, and we represent nearly one in two of them in Parliament, care passionately about the environment. And so that’s something we need to reflect in our policy settings.

Okay, before we move on to the environment, given you said that you were the best economic managers for the country and you’ve also said that you provided a strong legacy in that respect, does that mean you are happy with the economic direction that you were taking previously?

Correct.

Okay, so are you going to keep Steven Joyce? Because he was one of the stewards of that.

Steven Joyce has undoubted strengths both in the economy, also in terms of running our campaigns. I’m not going to be drawn on what I’m doing in terms of line-up. I’ve made quite clear, though, a number of times, he’s got a very strong role to play should he want it.

Okay, so just to be clear on that, you are happy with the economic direction under the old leadership, you think you’re strongest on the economy, but you’re not guaranteeing Steven Joyce the finance minister portfolio.

Just to go back to your fundamental point on the economy, of course I think it’s self-evident. We’re third in the OECD, I think, in terms of GDP growth. We created nearly 10,000 jobs — not nearly, over 10,000 jobs — a month. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to have fresh ideas in the economy. Of course we are, because we know that to win in 2020, we need to have the most exciting, refreshed plan for New Zealand.

Okay, well, let’s move on to the environment. The Green Party — you’ve signalled that you could look at working with the Greens. Now, why do you think that is possible? What makes you think it’s possible?

Firstly, what I’ve said about emphasising the economy is about the National Party, actually, not the Green Party. It’s about the fact that it’s right. I believe it’s where modern New Zealand’s at. I also think it’s—
Do you mean the environment? Sorry, you just said the economy.

I’m sorry, yeah, the environment. And I think that’s where modern New Zealand’s at. And I think it’s where the caucus is at. In terms of the Green Party, because you’ve asked, I think the situation is pretty much this simple. On genuine environmental issues, I think there is a case for Greens and National working together. I think we do have a difficulty, though, frankly, at the moment, which is it’s a Green Party that’s red as well. Its default position is to go with the Labour Party. A true Green Party in the middle that could work with both, in my view, would achieve a lot more for the environment.

Okay, this is really important, so let’s look at your green record in more detail and kind of discuss whether this is conceivable. 2014, you signed off on mining exploration on DOC conservation land — Victoria Park Forest. 2017, you opened up part of Maui dolphins’ breeding ground for exploration off the Taranaki coast. As minister, you made a statement at a forum for mining; you said, ‘Mining has been a mainstay on the West Coast for the last 150 years, and long may it continue,’ you said. And you’re probably familiar with this. This is your energy policy from 2017, and it says, ‘Our oil and gas potential is huge. We could be the richest little country in the world.’ So do you think all of those things are wrong? Those policies that you had before, previously, they’re wrong?

I think if you look at the speeches I gave consistently as the Minister of Energy, I made quite clear we need to transition to a lower-carbon economy. And so do I resign for any of those things? No. Because, actually, resources are important, whether it’s for cell phones, whether it’s in houses and so on. We do need to do that, but we also need to transition. But let me make this point.

But just before you move on, you also said that 100 per cent renewable energy, and it says also in this policy from the National Party, that 100 per cent renewable energy is not realistic, and that you’re putting the energy supply at risk when you say it is.

Well, actually, I think I’m on record in a variety of speeches saying that we need to do more in renewables, and if you look at my record as Minister of Energy, we went from the 70s in terms of the percentage of renewables in our electricity to well over 80 per cent. I led a very significant push in renewables. I understand what you’re saying, but I think, actually, if you talk—

What about greenhouse gas emissions, net greenhouse gas emissions, during the National government’s time? What was the situation with net greenhouse gas emissions during National’s time? Do you know how much they went up, Mr Bridges?

I want to make this point, because, Lisa, you’re effectively saying to me that, ‘No, you’re bad for the environment, and that’s your record.’ Actually, if you look across the span of my portfolios and what I did in transport, whether it was the most significant push in history into public transport, whether it was more funding for cycleways than any other minister ever, whether it was a significant push into electric vehicles and to new mobility; in energy, whether it was leading the highest percentage in renewables we’ve ever seen in New Zealand; my record on the environment is strong.

It’s about degrees. That’s what we’re exploring here. So I’ll just go back to that question I asked you. Greenhouse gas emissions — net greenhouse gas emissions — during a large chunk of National’s time in government. You know this figure, don’t you? How much did they go up?

Look, I couldn’t give you a percentage, but what I also know that in terms of intensity of emissions—

20 per cent, I think it was.

Right, well, in terms of intensity of emissions in relation to GDP, they’ve been decreasing. We improved that significantly. Now, I’m not saying to you, Lisa, that in terms of environment and economy, these things are simple. They are not.

We do need to continue to have economic growth, because that provides opportunities. We also need to transition. I’m simply saying to you at a really high level, National emphasises the environment, and under me, I think we’ll emphasise it a little more, because we understand that that’s important to New Zealanders and it’s important to me.

How will that translate in policy, then, if you’re going to pay more emphasis on green issues? Because, to be clear, the Greens’ policy is no fracking, no deep-sea drilling, no new coal mines, right?

Well, actually, I think you’ll find that today in this government, that’s not necessarily their policy. Let’s see what happens in this government.

But that’s Greens policy. What, the coalition government is a different scenario.

Well, they’re in Government. They are fully in Government. And gas is happening under this Government. Oil and gas is happening under this Government. Mining in terms of gold and coal is happening under this Government.

We’re talking about your intentions. If you are thinking about the prospect of a relationship with the Greens, how is your policy going to change to make that possible? How is the National Party going to look different when it comes to green policy?

To be very clear, at the moment, I’m not focused on the Green Party. What I’m saying in relation to the environment is fairly and squarely focused on the National Party, and I come back to that. That’s because—

So I’m asking you. You’ve said you’re going to place more emphasis on it. So I’m asking you, ‘How will your policy look different under National if you’re placing more emphasis on the environment?’

I’m not going to go there today. I’ve made quite clear that I’m not going to come out with policies in the next little while.

Do you not have fresh policy when it comes to the environment?

Yeah, I do have ideas, and it’s something I want to talk about in some detail this year.

So just give us a taster, then. Give us a taster.

No, I can’t do that.

Is that because you don’t have any new environment policy?

It’s because I’ve said to you I’ve signalled that there is a shift that I’m wanting to talk about it, but I do want to do it right. These are complex issues in relation to climate change and so on, and I want to do that in the right way.

Imagine you are in government in 2020. What’s your time frame to bring in agriculture into an emissions trading scheme or a climate fund?

No, I’ve been really clear, Lisa. I’m going to do that in a speech later this year where we’ll talk about some of these issues and what they mean for the National Party.

So will you bring agriculture in?

Well, as I’ve said, Lisa, I’m going to make clear our position on some of these things a little later this year.

So you’re not clear on your position right now?

I think I made clear what my position is in terms of those issues.

Okay. Let’s go on to some quick-fire questions, because people want to learn a bit more about you. So do you want the Maori Party back in Parliament? Yes or no?

Well, no, it’s very simple in terms of coalitions. At the moment, my focus is on National. We’ve got two and a half years to run.

Can’t govern without mates. Do you want them in or out?

We have to explore all opportunities.

So do you want the Maori Party back in Parliament? Yes or no?

I’m not a member of the Maori Party. You’re asking a complex question on coalitions, so can I just have a second on this? It’s pretty simple. We’ve got two and a half years to run. I’m not going to give you answers, ‘It’s going to be X, Y and Z today.’ I’ve got to make sure, though, because it’s the same for Labour as well, that my party is strong, that we’ve got the best offering in 2020 in terms of policies that are modern and fresh. In terms of parties under that, look, clearly, we need to explore our opportunities.

Okay, would you keep the Maori seats?

At the moment, we’ve got a pretty clear policy which is that over time they should go, but that’s a matter of finding consensus.

Do you still agree with that? You’re the leader now. Would you keep the Maori seats?

That’s our policy.

Okay, do you believe that there is a gender pay gap?

Yes.

Okay. Do we need to build a bigger prison in Waikeria?

Yes, we do, because the reality is this — we have some very serious criminals in New Zealand, whether that’s taking serious family violence more seriously, which we should; whether that’s banditos and gang members coming in from Australia who are doing serious crime in this country, we need to take that seriously. Does that mean that there needs to be a policy around a decrease in crime? Of course there does. And we’ll work very hard on that. But simply not having new prisons so there’s fewer prisoners but still the same amount of criminals is soft on crime, and I don’t agree with it.

Are prisons a fiscal and moral failure?

Yeah, well, I know—

Yes or no. Are they?

Of course they are, but is this a complex issue where the answer definitely isn’t, Lisa, to shut down prisons and say, ‘Criminals out on the street,’ so communities aren’t safe. That would be the wrong answer. But I fear it’s where we’re going with this government.

So should prisoners be allowed to vote?

It depends on the level. I think the answer that we came to in government was under, was it, two or three years, yes. Where they’re in for really serious lags or really serious offences, no.

Well, none of them can vote at the moment, so would you look at changing that?

Well, I thought that was the bill that we had put in place.

So you would support prisoners with sentences, what, three years and less voting?

Well, no, I support the position we had. I thought we had that right in terms of it’s for the more significant offences.

At the moment, they don’t vote. They can’t vote.

But let me be clear with you. Is there an issues with prisoners in prison not having the vote? Do I feel prissy about that? Am I worried about the Bill of Rights implications? No, I’m not. I think when they committed serious crimes, and they have to be serious to be in jail, they forewent their right to vote at a general election, while they’re in prison, at least.

Do we need specific policies targeted at reducing Maori inequality?

I think we need to do two things. Good policy is good policy. It should be good for Maori. It should be good for Asian New Zealanders. It should be good for European New Zealanders. So good policy settings across the board. But I think what is also true when you’re talking about Maori, sometimes there is a need for specific help in certain areas.

So that rules out New Zealand First as a coalition partner? Because they don’t agree with targeted laws or policies for Maori.

Well, last time I checked, New Zealand First is in coalition with the Greens, and they’ve got some pretty different policies.

Okay, should churches be included in the Royal Commission into state abuse whether or not the state referred people to the church’s care.

I haven’t considered that. I’m not sure.

No position on that?

Yes.

All right, thanks for joining us this morning, Simon Bridges, the new leader of the National Party.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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