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The Nation: National Party Leader Simon Bridges

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


National Party Leader Simon Bridges says he got Gerry Brownlee into his office to discuss allegations of bullying, "looked him in the eyes, and ... asked him clearly for an explanation about what has gone on".

He says he was satisfied the allegations against Gerry Brownlee are "arrant nonsense".

Simon Bridges will not commit to firing the leaker if he finds out they are from within his own party. He says he will let the process happen and then "deal with the cards that we’re dealt".

Lisa Owen: It hasn't been a great couple of weeks for the coalition. There are questions over who's in charge, Jacinda Ardern or Winston Peters? So it should be the perfect time to shine for an opposition leader. But National's Simon Bridges personal polling is stuck at around 10 per cent and the investigation into who leaked his expenses is dragging on. He's been in the job six months, so i asked him what his biggest achievement is so far.

Simon Bridges: I’m being very focused on the issues and making sure we’re really driving policies. We’ve got great plans for New Zealand in 2020 and keeping very strong in the polls and in the public’s perception of the National Party as the biggest, strongest party.

Lisa Owen: You bring up the polls. So, you’re party is polling strongly at about 45 per cent, but you’re on just 10 per cent. Why is there that disconnect?

Look, I suppose it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on. I think we’re out of the cycle, if you like. It’s not like it’s the hot glare of a media campaign. I certainly don’t take it lightly. Albeit, what I would say to you is what really matters, ultimately, is the party vote. That’s what determines power, and it is, without overstating it, gratifying that – not last year; not five years ago – National’s still incredibly strongly supported under my leadership.

Yeah, but the thing is – at some point, you lose the mandate, don’t you? If you’re only polling 10 per cent, can you really conceivably see yourself as a prime minister? And at some point, your party will make that decision. So what’s the magic number? What do you need to get up to?

Without over analysing it, I don’t accept that. I think if you go back and you take, actually, any Opposition leader who’s been a strong prime minister for the most part who didn’t come in in the very last bit of it – you take a Clark, a you take a Bolger; you go back through the others – even the Langes of this world – there often is that disconnect that is there. But I repeat – I don’t take it for granted. I don’t take it lightly. I’ve got to keep working, and I’ve got a couple of years to justify the faith that New Zealanders would want to have in their prime minister. But–

So put a goal on it, then. Put a number on it. What are you aiming for?

I would say the most important thing is the party vote.

Well, that gets the party in, but it doesn’t guarantee that the party keeps you on. And, in fact, Bill English was 20 per cent in the preferred prime minister stakes when he was rolled out; Little, just five per cent; Shearer gone at 13 per cent; Cunliffe at 18 per cent - almost double what you’re polling at the moment. So what’s your goal?/

You’re missing the point.

What’s your goal?

You’re missing a fundamental point about all of that. It wasn’t the personal approval ratings that did them. It was the party ratings. It was where the party was at.

Not Bill English. Not Bill English.

No, you’re absolutely- Bill English didn’t get rolled as leader. He decided earlier this year that he had had a long innings in politics, he had contributed a huge amount, and he left on his terms. My simple point to you is actually a sensible analysis of those numbers makes really clear it is the party vote that matters.

So you’re not prepared to put a number or goal that you’re headed for?

No, but what’s true is that I don’t take it lightly. I’m out there working. I feel very good about where we are, only a year in. In fact, I’d say this to you, Lisa, and to New Zealanders – we have never seen an opposition party, in the history of New Zealand, a year in under a new government doing as well, being as high profile, raising important issues and actually setting the agenda the way the National Party is today.

Okay. Well, let’s talk about your own party support. How confident are you that you’ve got 100 per cent support of your caucus?

Look, I’m confident. I feel very buoyed by the support I get, by the messages I get every day. We are a strong, energised caucus. And you only need to look at how we’re performing in Parliament, how we perform in the media to see that that is true.

Yeah, but, you know, people will be wondering how you can possibly say that when a leak about your travel expenses could have – and some people believe probably did come from – within your own party.

Look, you know, sure. I get that, and we’re taking it seriously. There’s all sorts of discussion about whether we should’ve or not. Actually, I think it’s the right thing to do. We’ve got a process that’s winding its way along, trucking along, and we’ll see where we get to. I ultimately don’t know who it is. What I’d say to you, Lisa – if – and it is a big if – if it is a National Party MP or a staffer, I will be incredibly disappointed. But I’ll tell you what – all of my other colleagues, my members of Parliament will also be very disappointed about that.

So disappointed that you’d sack them?

Well, we have to see what the circumstances are. But, you know, it will be a mixture, I think, of being clear and strong, because it’s not good enough if it was one of us, and we just don’t know that yet. Let’s go through the process and see. But we also know there are some other issues at play here, potentially in terms of wellbeing and so on, so we’ll just have to, look, actually exercise some clear, effective leadership on that.

Okay. Well, there’s a few things in there. First off, you’ve potentially got more than one leaker, because you’ve got the person who released your travel expenses, and then someone leaked the fact that you had received this text, so you’ve potentially got two leakers, haven’t you?

I doubt that, personally.

So you think they’re one in the same, the person who leaked the text?

I think so. And, in fact, what we have a sense of–

Do you have some proof about that?

No, no. But what I do know is that the police have made clear that the leaker is the same person as the texter.

Yes, I’m talking about how that text to you came into the public domain and was reported by the media. Someone from within must have leaked that.

I think the point of that is I personally – and, no, I accept that it’s not on the base of any evidence, because I don’t think actually Radio New Zealand in the case of that leak knows who it is either – I personally would say there’s a case for it being the same person. But ultimately, Lisa, we don’t know. These are legitimate questions, but let’s actually see what happens.

So why are you so determined to find this leaker?

Well, I’m not, actually. I’m just answering your questions.

You’ve hired two agencies to come in and help find this person. You are determined to find them.

Actually, it’s pretty simple. We’ve got a process going on. I don’t think about it. I’ve got Gerry Brownlee and Paula Bennett doing it. I am incredibly focused on the things–

Do you expect people to believe that you do not think about this?

Absolutely I do!

You’re putting money and energy into this. You’ve hired two outside agencies to help you find this person. Why are you so determined?

I haven’t had a conversation with someone inside the party in at least a week on these issues. These are not things that day by day–

Why not just drop it, then?

Because actually I think it’s the right thing to do in terms of–

Why?

Because of the overall integrity of the system. I don’t think these are things you want to see happening. They’re not desirable. But I wouldn’t overplay it.

You’re looking for a traitor, aren’t you? That’s what you’re doing.

No, look, I think we’re doing the right thing here. But all of your questions ultimately in the fullness of time, I suspect we’ll have answers to. We don’t today. I don’t think it’s worth getting too hung up on.

I put it to you that the reason you are so determined to find this person is that you are concerned they are from within your own party, and you want to deal with that lack of loyalty.

No, because I think, actually, whatever the scenario was, as I say, if it was inside my caucus, it would be very disappointing and my colleagues would be very disappointed about someone. But let me finish this, cos this goes exactly to what you’ve said. But actually it would be equally troubling if it was outside of that. So let’s see the process truck its way along, let’s see what happens, and let’s deal with the facts as they come.

You’re talking about strong leadership, but you’re sitting on the fence as to whether you would dismiss this person if they’re one of your own.

Because I don’t have the facts yet to make that call. I’d make the case to you, Lisa, it is abundantly different to what we’ve seen from the Prime Minister in recent weeks.

Why is it different?

She has had the facts. Actually, let’s take the Clare Curran one – she has known the situation there. A prime minister in that situation should get the person in, should do what we’re doing face-to-face, look them in the eye, ask them the straight questions and get to the bottom of it. I can’t do that because I don’t know who the person is yet, whether it’s in our party, whether it’s in parliamentary services, whether it’s wider. But what we do–

You could do it with all your MPs, and you haven’t, have you? You haven’t pulled every one of your MPs in there and asked them if they’ve done it.

I actually would say today I probably have talked with all of the Members of Parliament. I certainly have collectively–

Have you asked them directly, each of them? So have you asked them each directly if they are the leaker?

Did you think–?

That’s what you’re suggesting.

Do you think, in the instance, that the leaker was there that they’d say, ‘Yeah, look, it’s me, hands up!’ I doubt that very much.

Okay. What have you done about the allegation that Gerry Brownlee bullied a junior lawyer during a phone call?

I have done precisely what Jacinda Ardern has never done in relation to the difficult issues she’s faced. I’ve got Gerry Brownlee in, I’ve looked him in the eyes, and I’ve asked him clearly for an explanation about what has gone on. And I have satisfied myself that the discussion that has come from this law firm is arrant nonsense.

So you believe Gerry Brownlee, then, when he says he wasn’t bullying this person on the phone?

Absolutely. And that’s what leadership does. That’s what Jacinda Ardern should have done in relation to Clare Curran. That’s what Jacinda Ardern should have done in relation to Meka Whaitiri. That’s what Jacinda Ardern should be doing at the moment around a raft of complex, pretty difficult issues with Shane Jones, with Winston Peters, with the Young Labour camp and a lack of accountability there. It’s called leadership.

But you’re not going to do the same in your own house if it turns out that the leaker is one of your own?

No, well, we haven’t got to that yet, Lisa.

I’ve asked you categorically – if it is someone from within your own party, will you sack them?

I’ve made clear what I will do, and that is–

…sit on the fence?

No, no. We don’t know the facts yet, Lisa. This is a silly – with respect – line of questioning. It’s a pretty clear point. When we know the facts, I will deal with things as they come. But we’re not there yet, unlike where Jacinda Ardern was on Clare Curran; on Meka Whaitiri; on Shane Jones and his defiance around her on business stuff; on Winston Peters in a variety of areas where he knows what he’s doing and Jacinda Ardern does too.

People in your own party have said if you don’t get rid of this person if they are a member of your caucus, then you will appear weak and you will spend the rest of your days looking over your shoulder. Are they right?

Look, this is all speculation about where it may go. Let’s let the process happen. Let’s see where we’ll get to and then deal with the cards that we’re dealt.

All right. Let’s move on to policy and your stance on crime. You said at your National Party conference that you’ll have the best ideas on law and order, on how to keep people safer by keeping our most violent predators locked up. What are those ideas?

Pretty simple. Actually, it is being tough on crime, on the course of crime. I don’t think–

No change?

No, no. Do you wanna let me…?

Yeah.

There’s a couple of things here – that’s crucial. Actually I defy you to go around and say, actually, fewer prisoners means anything other than more victims in a New Zealand context. But what is also true, and I’ve made clear repeatedly, that actually if Andrew Little were up for a serious conversation about rehabilitation, about reintegration, actually about fundamentally social investment pre and post prison – actually during as well – we are absolutely up for that. We started those things in government. Whether it was Rangitahi Courts, whether it was very serious drug and alcohol and work programmes in prison to get people ready for the outside, those things are all right. But, you know, it does not mean softening up on the sentencing, the bail and the parole laws. It just doesn’t have to mean that that’ll mean more victims of crime.

Okay. Are you extending your hand across Parliament and saying that you will give them cross-party support if they sit down with you to discuss justice policy? Are you committing to that?

I can give you this categorical assurance. If there is genuine rehabilitation and reintegration measures pre-prison, to stop and prevent people getting there in the first place within prison and actually after, that isn’t about just going soft on the sentencing, the bail and parole. We’ll be there, and we’ll support those measures.

You’ve said that you want teachers to be highly respected, and part of that is pay. So how much do you think teachers are worth in this pay round? So they’ve been offered 3 per cent over three years. What do you reckon is fair?

I’ll be really clear with you – you go look at my maiden speech. Education and the value of it and teachers is littered throughout it.

Give me a number.

I’m not going to give you a number, but I have been crystal clear in the first speech I gave to the National Party conference this year what a priority education is, how important teacher quality is, and that does mean higher pay for teachers. I can’t responsibly–

Those are easy things to say when you are not giving specifics. So the other thing you talked about was decreasing class sizes, okay? So to what – what class size, ratio, teacher ratio?

We will be crystal clear on that for the election. I promise you on the show right now that New Zealanders will know the ratios we’re talking about going into the election.

All right. So if you won’t name a number, just generally, where do you think those teachers are coming from? Because Nikki Kaye said in July 2017 that we were 300 teachers short in Auckland alone and we know that recruitments to teacher training are way down – way down. So even if you won’t put a number on it, you’re making a promise. Where are you getting the teachers from?

So to be clear, the reason I won’t put a number on it is right now, I’m not in government, I’m not in negotiations. I don’t know the nuances of the teachers’ position and what things they say will ensure they’re valued. I think fundamentally what we’re talking about when we’re talking about teachers is a long-run issue where teachers no longer, to some extent, feel like they are a respected profession in our communities, the way, say, a lawyer or doctor is, and they should. It’s not good enough. I know this from the teachers in my family, the teachers in my community. Part of that is pay, and I’m saying really clearly we should deal with that, actually. But part of it is also conditions; it’s things like the time they’ve got outside of classrooms; it is things like the teacher-classroom ratios, which I think teachers would acknowledge that would make a huge difference to the quality of their work.

All right. We’re almost out of time, but I just want to ask you a couple of quick things. Very quickly, looking at what’s going on in the coalition, in your view, yes or no, has Winston Peters gone a little rogue?

Yeah, I think he has. In as much as we always knew he is that rogue, and he is still acting like the acting prime minister he was for a time, but the prime minister is letting him do that, and that’s a failure of leadership.

So, in saying that, if you were in a coalition with Winston Peters, how would you handle it?

Look, I think it’s about having clear processes. It’s about eye-to-eye meetings. It seems to me that isn’t happening. I don’t think anyone could deny, looking at this government closely, what you’ve got is a situation where both the top level but also underneath that, there just aren’t the people and the processes to make sure that actually on issues like refugees, everyone’s crystal clear on what’s going on. On issues like-

Sitting down with them and having a conversation that would solve it?

Actually consistently doing that, having people managing those things, they are all important. But even Winston Peters knows. He knows right now that that’s not happening. He knows that if he pushes it, he effectively has a presidential veto on the issues of refugees, of law and order, of industrial law, of Crown-Maori relations. A prime minister showing leadership – a Clark or a Key – actually they didn’t let that happen, and Jacinda shouldn’t either.

So you could work with him, then? You could work with him in government?

I’m not going to get into a discussion of where we’ll go on those things. You’ll know our position, Lisa, come election time.

All right. Thanks for joining me this morning. That is Simon Bridges, the leader of the National Party.

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


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