Tauranga: you are now entering Winston country

01:43, Jan 31 2009

THE FOREIGN affairs minister always orders a whole snapper, says Rangi Smith over the crackling roar of deep-frying potato chips. Even though he lives in Auckland and works in Wellington and travels all over the world, Winston Peters comes to Tauranga's Fresh Fish Market every couple of months - and he's rude.

"He just goes, 'I want a whole snapper'," says Smith, 25. "He doesn't say please or anything like that." She won't be voting for him in the election.

In fact, New Zealand First's abrasive leader hasn't even put his hat in the ring yet - to the evident frustration of the party's rank and file. But last week the battle for Tauranga started without him (Labour's candidate, Anne Pankhurst, is not expected to be a serious contender) when the National Party nominated its candidate - a young, good-looking, well-dressed, part-Maori, church-going lawyer named Simon Bridges, who has been a Crown prosecutor in the city since 2001. Bridges intends to inherit the seat from the clownish National MP Bob Clarkson, the local millionaire who beat Peters by a whisker in 2005 (in no small part because "Bob the Builder" had generously given the city a new stadium and speedway).

Depending on whether New Zealand First can win 5% of the party vote, the Tauranga seat could be all that stands between Peters and political oblivion, and when the Sunday Star- Times conducted an unscientific poll early last week, Tauranga seemed to be in the negative phase of its love- hate relationship with him.

"Winston doesn't have any integrity," says second-hand bookshop manager Kirsten Allan, 36. "Whatever it takes to get power, he'll do it."

"Winston Peters," says retired IRD worker Edward Munn, 83, "had the qualities of a good leader, but somehow he lost it along the way."


"Why would you put someone who can be openly racist as foreign affairs minister?" says Sarah Craven, 22, a visitor host at Tauranga Art Gallery. "The only thing I like about Winston is that he got the bridge extended." (Peters promised Tauranga he would extract the toll-free construction of a new bridge across the harbour from his coalition agreement with Labour.)

Once, Winston Peters could count on Maori votes, but at Huria Marae, chief executive Sylvia Willison says although she supported him until recently, "there's been a shift in my generation towards supporting the Maori Party".

Such Winston-bashing is just the sort of thing Bridges wants to hear, but he declines to join in. At 31, he's been neck-deep in the National Party since his teens, taking numerous official roles, most recently as chairman of the Tauranga electorate. From Young Nats years on, he has learnt how to politick, how to appear humble, how to sidestep awkward questions.

Late on Monday afternoon, three days after his nomination, his voice is a touch croaky, but he has little trouble plucking phrases from the authorised list of electioneering platitudes.

So: "Tauranga is a vibrant and exciting emerging city that's got a great future," he tells the Star-Times. He represents "a fresh face with a fresh vision", and the people of Tauranga need to decide if they want to move on from "the tired old politics of the past".

Aha! A coded insult. Does Bridges mean to imply Winston is a tired old politician of the past?

Probably, but to admit it would be to break the rules of engagement. Bridges fudges. "Um, look. If I talk about myself - I'm 31. Obviously if I get into parliament, I'm not going to be there for just three years . . . " etc.

BRIDGES GREW up in West Auckland, son of a Baptist minister with Ngati Maniapoto heritage and a Pakeha mother from Waihi. He is the youngest of six - the fourth son - and attended Rutherford College, where he was taught by Chris Carter, now Labour's education minister ("a really good teacher"), and became head boy.

He can't remember exactly why he joined the National Party when he was 15 or 16, but "some people are really into yachting; some people are really into rugby; I've just always been really into politics".

He studied law at Auckland University, then tutored while working at commercial law firm Kensington Swan. He moved to Tauranga in 2001 to become a Crown prosecutor but took leaves of absence to take a scholarship at London School of Economics and then do a postgraduate law degree at Oxford. There he met his future wife, Natalie. He likes running, tennis and playing the drums, but seldom has the time.
Bridges is confident and personable and looks you in the eye. He is Christian, but not too much, attending the Anglican Holy Trinity church, and "not every week". "I don't go down to parliament with my religion on my sleeve."

He is Maori - three-sixteenths if anyone's counting fractions - but doesn't speak te reo, and has been to Ngati Maniapoto's Te Kuiti marae just a couple of times. "I'm proud of it. It's part of me, as is my English ancestry . . . Ultimately I see myself as a Kiwi."

Oh, how funny - that's just like the slogan on Don Brash's contentious election ads. What did he think of those "Kiwi not iwi" billboards?

"I didn't give it a lot of thought." He gives an awkward laugh. "I certainly really like John Key's approach to social issues. He's more sensible, he's about what works, not what's ideologically um . . ."
Was he comfortable with where Brash was taking the National Party?

"I wouldn't say I was uncomfortable, but I do think that . . .". A breath. ". . . that John Key's moderation on these issues, reaching out to all New Zealanders, is admirable."

THE SENSIBLE and moderate Mr Key had swooped on Tauranga that morning, leading Bridges on a whistle- stop flesh-pressing exercise to demonstrate that National is taking this electorate seriously. At 9.15am Key droned his way through a stunningly boring speech about tax to 30 local exporters; Bay of Plenty MP Tony Ryall gazed on raptly, Bob Clarkson fidgeted and Bridges furrowed his brow in a convincing imitation of concentration.

Next, Key led a small posse into Tauranga's shopping district, Bridges trotting to keep up with Key's hyperactive bonhomie and bullet- pointed policy announcements.

"How's business!" yelped Key in Limelight Homewares. "Gidday!" said Bridges. "Why the hell should you be terrified in your own home? It's not right!" announced Key in Diamond Design jewellers. "How's business!" said Bridges, picking up the refrain.

It was no more ridiculous than most political walkabouts. The pair pawed the shoulders of elderly women in a coffee shop, then rushed off to a lunch with the Tauranga chamber of commerce at a winery.

Back in Diamond Design, manager Jacquie Mullen, 49, said she was impressed with Bridges: "Very charismatic."

Does that mean good-looking?


What does she think of Winston Peters?

"He's charismatic . . . but he's here for the old people and that's about it." She'll be voting for Bridges.
The extent of National's support for Bridges will be fully apparent only when the party reveals its candidate list: a high position would mean Bridges could become an MP without winning Tauranga, but he's focusing on the electorate, taking leave from his job from now until the election.

Most passers-by questioned by the Star-Times weren't yet familiar with his name. But at Alimento cafe, Jean Calvert, former principal of Palmerston North Girls', knew who Bridges was. "He's a very well-educated young man; a very fine person," she said, although "he just shouts National." She only ever votes Labour, but Bridges seems "very personable - the girls love him".

How does she feel about Winston Peters? "I'm not a fan at all."

If you want a Winston supporter, suggests Calvert, 83, "look for an old lady".

But he won't be getting Jean Round's vote. The 93-year-old admits she must have voted for Peters when he was the National MP - she has belonged to the party since 1947 - but wouldn't dream of voting for him now.

She saw Bridges at an event on Sunday. "I was very impressed. He's young. He's full of life."
Tauranga, where a third of residents are over the age of 50, has been Peters' stronghold. He was MP here from 1984 to 2005 (for the National Party before 1993 and for New Zealand First after).

Senior citizens are drawn by Tauranga's warm climate, and possibly the ubiquitous traffic-calming measures. On Monday night an old Toyota with over-wide wheels and lowered suspension inched along the Strand like an arthritic Labrador, crossing each speed bump at a sharp angle. The four hoodied youths inside looked very bored.

Tauranga is growing fast. The population is 110,000 and is expected to double by 2050, says mayor Stuart Crosby, and young families are streaming in to take advantage of opportunities in agriculture, horticulture and manufacturing, not to mention the lifestyle. But right now, "we've still got twice the national average of over-60s", says Crosby. "It would be a foolish person that wrote Winston Peters off."
Ian Anderson, regional director of Grey Power, isn't so sure. "Grey Power in Tauranga used to be called Winston's Army. There are still a lot of members who think that Winston is just the greatest, but I think there are less than used to be the case."

Members felt betrayed when Peters didn't vote for a bill to cap council rates, says Anderson. They were also unimpressed by NZ First's "shifty" repayment of election overspending to charities instead of to Parliamentary Services, and Peters' refusal to announce if he'll stand for Tauranga.

It's an example, says Anderson (a National supporter), of how Peters has separated himself from the interests of his own party.

New Zealand First rank and file aren't talking. Tauranga chairman Roy Townhill rang to cancel a meeting with the Star-Times, leaving a plaintive message. "I've been advised by the board that, until Winston makes his announcement, we have got to stop talking to the press because there's all sorts of rumours flying around."

At the Cherrywood shops, Stan Marwood, 79, doesn't care when Peters finally makes the announcement. It will happen, and Stan will vote for him, as ever.

"Winston does more for Tauranga than the other politicians," says Marwood. "He's still working in the background."

Peters is being challenged by a 31-year-old. Is he getting over the hill?

Marwood laughs. "Aren't we all?" No, he says, Peters is still the man for the job: "I reckon it's an old dog for a hard road."

WINSTON RAYMOND PETERS, 63 New Zealand First leader, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Racing, Associate Minister for Senior Citizens Born: Whangarei, April 1945 Ngati Wai (father); McInnes clan (mother) Educated: Whangarei Boys High School, Dargaville High School; BA LLB (Auckland); Dip Tchg. Divorced, two children. Entered parliament 1978 as National MP for Hunua MP for Tauranga 1984-2005

SIMON BRIDGES, 31 Tauranga Senior Crown Counsel, National candidate for Tauranga Born: Auckland, October 1976 Ngati Maniapoto (father) Education: Rutherford High School; BA LLB (Hons) Auckland); Bachelor of Civil Law (Oxford) Married to Natalie Bridges Member of National Party since 1992; former chairman of northern Young Nats; former chairman Mt Roskill and Tauranga electorates.

Sunday Star Times