Q+A: Simon Bridges interviewed by Jack Tame
SIMON We’ll start with the party vote. I think basically what people see is right about this time, they are feeling the costs. The tax is being piled on. I think there is a sense with this government they’re failing to deliver on their promises. Look, whether it is, dare I say it, cancer drugs and big promises there or with infrastructure. In relation to me, all I would say to you is I’m not going to be on the cover of Vogue any time real soon, you know, but what I am going to be is someone who drives the National Party in terms of what I think of as real leadership – it’s values; it’s vision. And ultimately in political terms what matters is victory, because I have a deep sense, I think, of what we need to do over the next year or so.
JACK But here’s the thing. Like it or not, personality does matter in politics. And if we were to line up seven National Party voters in front of us, only one of them would have you as the preferred prime minister. You must have some sense as to why that is.
SIMON Like it or not, ultimately we’re at 45%. Nearly one in two people in New Zealand today want to vote for the party. And I think that’s because what does matter ultimately is a sense of what they think we will do for them. That’s why I went into the–
JACK But it’s not what they think you will do for them, is it? There’s a difference there.
SIMON Ultimately, I lead it. If I think about the things we have done in the last wee while – people can have their different views and be critical. Whether it’s car taxes, whether it’s rents, whether it’s our economic approach, I am with a tremendous team, but I am leading that, and I’m proud of that.
JACK The truth is, at the moment, one consistent thing across all of these polls, be it Reid Research, be it Colmar Brunton, is that New Zealanders don’t want you as prime minister. We look at Christopher Luxon here. He’s come through at 1% in this poll. He’s not even in parliament. He’s not even officially affiliated with any party. Are you concerned that halfway through the rugby game, a star contender is coming on to the field?
SIMON But the other reality of that is this – one in two want National, and they want National under my leadership.
JACK What do you make of Luxon?
SIMON I think he’s a great guy. He is possibly New Zealand’s most high-profile chief executive. Let’s just be a little bit fair on the guy, though. He hasn’t even declared he’s necessarily coming, so let’s see where he goes with that.
JACK Let’s talk about this policy you’ve unveiled over the weekend – a national cancer agency, not dissimilar from Labour’s campaign promise. Does that mean you guys are taking a bipartisan approach to this?
SIMON It’s pretty simple. If that’s the case, why don’t they get on and do it? Why doesn’t Jacinda Ardern just do this? She hasn’t. They talked a big game. They talked about world-class cancer. They talked about a national cancer agency. My sense of it now is they aren’t. And I think it’s this simple when we look at it now, what is a hugely important issue. This kills more New Zealanders than anything else.
JACK So what did National do in nine years in government to address this issue?
SIMON A whole lot more than the current Labour government is doing.
JACK Like what?
SIMON I’ll tell you. In terms of what ultimately matters, funding, we put $24m more in each year, some $220m. So that more than kept up with inflation. Let me just finish this point. This government – who’s talked a massive game, as they do in so many areas – do you know how much they’ve put in? 10 million bucks. They’re not even keeping up with inflation.
JACK You’re talking about Pharmac funding alone, but I’m specifically looking at cancer here, because this is what your policy addresses. In 2015, the then National health minister Jonathan Coleman scrapped his ministerial advisory group, Cancer Control New Zealand, saying its role had, and I quote, ‘been superseded by the progress made in improving cancer services for New Zealand.’
SIMON Yeah, let me talk about this. So this was a steering group. Look, that’s fine. Ultimately it was a far cry from what I am talking about and want to do.
JACK No, no. He says that you’d made the progress that meant that they no longer necessitated a working group.
SIMON Okay, I’ll give you that.
JACK If you’d made the progress, then we wouldn’t be in a position where in 2019, just four years later, you’re announcing a new agency.
SIMON There’s two things going on here. There’s many things, actually. But let’s just focus on the wider picture of cancer. Right now I am convinced that people who have serious cancer are not getting the treatment and the time they want. The waiting lists are growing. Actually, these guys scrapped the targets.
JACK But you had nine years to fix that. That’s my point.
SIMON And I want to tell you what we did.
JACK You scrapped the ministerial advisory group. We found ourselves in a position that hasn’t just happened in the last 18 months.
SIMON You’re saying this, Jack, like the ministerial steering group had some huge significance.
JACK I’ll repeat those words. Jonathan Coleman says, ‘Its role had been superseded by the progress made in improving cancer services.’ He says that cancer services have improved under National. What you’re telling me is that we have such a deficit now that we need an entirely new agency and $50m–
SIMON I can tell you this. Categorically, today cancer treatment – in fact, general health treatment in New Zealand – is worse than it was under this. And let me tell you why. All right, it’s two things that health systems need. They need decent funding. Actually, if you take general health, we’re going backwards. And then they also need accountabilities that drive performance. This government scrapped them. We don’t even know in New Zealand because the minister wants to shut his eyes. He doesn’t want to measure it – how long it’s taking for people to be seen with cancer and then get the treatment. But anecdotally, whether it’s Blair Vining or others, we are going backwards.
JACK So how many people will get funding that otherwise would’ve missed out with this $50m a year you’ve pledged?
SIMON Oh, thousands, because the reality is for–
JACK Give me a more exact number than that.
SIMON No, I’m not going to, because–
JACK Have you done the numbers?
SIMON No, I’ll te– Yes. $50m buys you a lot, but the reason why I can’t do that is this simple reason, right? Ultimately what we are saying is we want to fund proven cancer drugs. But I’m not– No, no, because it’s a really important point. I’m not going to tell Pharmac it’s these seven. And actually it’s for decent medical professionals and experts to do that. And obviously drugs have different costs.
JACK Okay, well, here’s the thing. The Cancer Society has come to us today and says that $50m a year will only fund two or three additional treatments.
SIMON I’d need to see the detail of that.
JACK You’ve got the details. You said you had the numbers.
SIMON So, come on. So you tell me this – what is the $10m this year under this government when they did nothing the year before–
JACK With respect, Mr Bridges, you’re the politician here. This is your policy. $50m a year – I want to know how many people’s lives that’s going to change, because the Cancer Society says, although that sounds like a big fat figure, it’s only going to fund two or three additional treatments, because these drugs are so expensive.
SIMON I would argue that thousands of people will be better off under this $50m a year for Pharmac specifically for cancer drugs.
JACK Let me ask, then, about broader issues around it– around cancer. Do you oppose alcohol advertising?
JACK Okay. Do you oppose the advertising of junk food to young people in New Zealand?
SIMON Well, it depends what you mean by young people and all the quid pro quos that go with that. But I’m sorry, Jack, we’re not the fun police.
JACK Just let me speak. Do you support–? Okay, well, here’s what–
SIMON I’m not going to live in a world where all you get when you sit down is a few peas and a piece of broccoli. That’s not the world that New Zealanders want to live in.
JACK You’ve pledged $50m. The Cancer Society says 30% to 50% of cancers – an enormous amount of cancers – could be prevented by modifying key lifestyle factors and infections. And the things they say should be prioritised in New Zealand – and we’re talking about a stitch-in-time solution here – is reducing the marketing of unhealthy food to children, a national food ban– food policy or plan, and policies restricting the availability and promotion of alcohol. I’ll remind you when National was in government, you scrapped the healthy foods in school plan, but you don’t support any further restrictions on the causes of these cancers.
SIMON What I support is significant more funding for cancer drugs, because right now in New Zealand— When they fund them in Aussie, when they fund them in the UK, when they fund them in Canada, they don’t here. People are mortgaging their homes, selling their homes, setting up Givealittle pages. That’s not the sort of New Zealand I want to live in. But let me answer your question squarely; I’m not going to— And maybe Jacinda Ardern and David Clark want to go down this track. I’m not going to live in a world that’s nanny state, that tells New Zealanders what they can and can’t do, what they can and can’t say, because I don’t believe in that. Freedom’s important too.
JACK I’m merely suggesting that if you really cared about our cancer rates, you might consider the root cause, and this is from the Cancer Society. What should the government do about Ihumatao?
SIMON Look, I think it’s pretty simple. I think Jacinda Ardern has made a bad mistake. I think she has set a very bad precedent, and I think it shows what, in a sense, most New Zealanders now have a sense of with KiwiBuild and the failures there that they’re not serious about building more houses. And let me make this point to you. Look, I’m no philistine. I understand what Vincent O’Malley, an eminent historian, has said and so on and so forth, and I accept this has its complexities. But the reality is local iwi are for it. The reality is Fletcher’s have been very sensitive in the way they’re doing this development. I support 480 new houses going on in the way that Fletcher’s and that local iwi want to do it.
JACK To be clear, then, would you support police removing the people who are occupying the land at the moment?
SIMON Well, it’s pretty simple when it comes to protests. You have an absolute right in this country to legitimate, fair, vociferous protest; you don’t have a right to break the law and get in the way of other people’s lawful activity.
JACK So should they be moved on? Are they trespassing, and should they be moved on by police?
SIMON Well, I don’t know the ins and outs…
JACK No, you’ve got the opinion here.
SIMON And my opinion’s pretty simple, right? If they’re breaking the law, that is a different proposition from lawful, sometimes vociferous protest.
JACK Let’s talk about the next year or so. How would you describe your personal relationship with Winston Peters?
SIMON Look, it’s fine. Ultimately, this isn’t about me or Winston Peters. I take a pretty colour-blind approach to the political parties on the other side. You know what? I’m going to – and the National Party’s going to – hold them to account, whether it’s NZ First, the Greens or Labour.
JACK So NZ First is on the other side? You consider them on the other side?
SIMON Of course they are. Of course they are.
JACK Have you had a coffee with Winston?
SIMON A coffee? No.
JACK Have you had a drink with him ever?
SIMON I may have had a drink; I certainly haven’t had a coffee.
JACK When was that?
SIMON Not in the last year.
JACK What sort of social interactions have you and Winston had over the last year?
SIMON Well, I beat him in Tauranga. We had many times on the campaign.
JACK Yeah, but in the last year, what have you done socially?
SIMON The reality is most senior politicians are at the same functions. We meet. We’re pleasant. We’ll make a decision on NZ First next year, and we will clearly communicate that to the electorate. But at the moment—
JACK Could you personally work with him?
SIMON I could personally work with any politician in New Zealand’s Parliament. James Shaw—
JACK Hannah Tamaki?
SIMON Well, she ain’t in New Zealand’s Parliament, right?
JACK But anyone in New Zealand Parliament?
SIMON In New Zealand’s Parliament… But the reality is this – and I’d flip it on its head – Winston Peters and NZ First have made pretty clear they don’t want to work with us. Look, the day of the election, he was suing my colleagues.
JACK So that’s a problem for you, though. I mean, even if you’re at 45% come election day next year, you’re not going to be in government.
SIMON Not really. There’s three scenarios here. Look, one is that a party in Parliament right at the moment decides at the end to change horses, if you want to put it that way. Well, people have their different views on that. The other one is that parties don’t get there. The reality is NZ First has consistently been under 5% for a long time. People say, ‘Well, he’s Houdini…’
JACK This happens every cycle, right?
SIMON They do, but it doesn’t actually happen. When he’s in government, he finds it much harder. And then the other reality of all of this is that, in the New Zealand political landscape, there are some real gaps in the market, whether you’re talking a Maori movement—
JACK So you still see a party coming through?
SIMON There are many things that could happen. National’s in a good position. The second half of this rugby game is going to be our best half.
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