Simon Bridges wants to start a new life, but strangers keep flashing him
Simon Bridges wants to move on from politics, with a new life in Auckland City. But, as Glenn McConnell discovers, you can’t just move on from being leader of the opposition.
Strange people want Simon Bridges’ attention.
Since moving to Auckland, the former National Party politician has enjoyed the “grit” of the big city. He likes riding Lime scooters down the city’s streets. He indulges in its nightlife “a bit too much”. He goes for runs through the central Auckland Domain, and along Karangahape Rd.
This is a new Simon Bridges.
He greatly enjoys a newfound sense of anonymity that comes with living in a city of 1.66 million people, and 23 electorates.
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Back in Tauranga, Bridges had been the local MP since 2008. He lived there with his wife, Natalie Bridges - who runs a PR firm - and their three children.
After 14 years in Parliament, and 32 years as a member of the National Party, you may have assumed Bridges lives and breathes politics. He admits to missing it, a few months down the track.
He misses the debate but claims to have stopped reading political columns. It’s the contest of ideas he admits to missing, but he does not miss the baggage that comes with it.
“There have been amazing things already,” he says, stressing the word “amay-zing” as a waiter comes over to deliver his piccolo coffee.
We’re speaking on Ponsonby Rd, enjoying some mid-winter fare at the front of a local café.
The amazing thing is the “freedom”; specifically, freedom to scooter down Symonds St and to tell people he doesn’t want to talk to them.
“I’ve done more Lime scootering and Beam riding in the last month than I have in my life,” he says.
“The other day on Symonds St, a middle-aged guy yelled out: ‘Simon! Stop! I want to talk to you.’ But I just said, ‘No! Too busy.’ Three months ago, as a politician, I would have felt duty-bound to stop. Now, places to be and people to see. That is freedom.”
Even so, many people still vie for Bridges’ attention.
In a way, this writer is one of them. Bridges has maintained a public profile since departing Parliament. He was announced as chief executive of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, shortly before delivering his valedictory speech early in May.
He has appeared on various television shows, picked up a role as a columnist for the NBR, and will soon start a new role as a podcast host at Stuff. He is not fading into normality post-Parliament.
In his valedictory speech, Bridges joked that Parliament is “Hollywood for ugly people”.
Those who succeed, he explains, enjoy a level of public personality. They become characters, like any celebrity, but he says the difference is that their personas are built through ideas and symbolism - not good looks or artistic abilities.
For a conservative MP, like Bridges, the stardom of politics is destined to be far less glamorous. Your supporters are more likely to be older, which means you’re unlikely to be greeted with hordes of excitable and adoring fans. There were few, if any, “rock star” moments.
Since leaving politics, Bridges has kept the name recognition but lost all the taxpayer-funded perks.
There’s a downside to that recognition. As we’re eating lunch, a scraggly man with greying hair spots Bridges at the outdoor table.
I wouldn’t have noticed the man, had Bridges not shouted that the passer-by had just exposed himself: “Look, that's what I’m talking about!”
“He literally just showed me.”
Strange men keep flashing Simon Bridges. He asks if it’s common, but I can’t recall ever being targetted by flashers. Apparently it’s happened quite a few times in the two months since Bridges moved to Auckland.
Public indecency was actually one of the first things Bridges mentioned, when I asked how he’s finding the new city.
He reckons it’s “a political hangover” with people still recognising him.
Bridges resigned from Parliament in March, with a far lower profile than he once held. In the John Key-led government, he was minister of transport, energy, and economic development. After Bill English left Parliament, he took over as National’s leader and held the role for just over two years.
He lost the leadership due to poor polling after the pandemic started, when the Government enjoyed record levels of support for its handling of Covid-19. Bridges, on the other hand, said he was facing death threats for criticising the use of lockdowns.
Many expected Bridges to lose the leadership even earlier. He and deputy leader Paula Bennett survived an all-out attack from former National MP Jami-Lee Ross, who accused Bridges of trying to hide donations from rich Chinese supporters, and released tapes of their phone conversations.
The tapes revealed how frank their behind-closed-doors discussions once were. The most memorable recording had Bridges describing one of his own MPs, Maureen Pugh, as “f..... useless”.
This week, Ross has been in court alongside three businessmen on charges relating to National Party donations. All four deny the allegations, which relate to sham donors being used to hide the identities of party donors.
At the end of it, Bridges left relatively unscathed by the whole Jami-Lee Ross scandal. Investigators did not charge him or Bennett, and neither lost their leadership as a result.
He looks back on it being one of the “wild” moments of politics – where the intensity ratchets up, and it becomes all-consuming, until the story dies down. Then, he says you look back and wonder what the hype was all about.
“With perspective, now I’m on the outside, that was the hurly-burly of politics and there’s no love in war. No hard feelings. Most of that, probably, did me a favour.”
And had he let one of those scandals get the better of him?
“I’d probably be lucky to be pumping gas in Western Australia right now,” he says.
“Sticking in, thinking things through and changing has taught me a lot about myself. I feel blessed to come out not entirely beaten, bloody and scarred – even though there are some scars under my shirt which you’ll never see. Writing the book helped.”
The book came out after Bridges lost the leadership. That moment seemed to be a turning point for Bridges. His whole vibe changed. Even Grant Robertson noticed, saying he appreciated that Bridges stopped taking himself so seriously towards the end of his career in Parliament.
Bridges says he has no regrets, at all, about his time in Parliament.
His commitment to conservatism meant he voted against many bills widely considered as positive steps forward for New Zealand socially, and on the world stage.
He voted against Louisa Wall’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage, and also against a law banning “conversion therapy” – the practice of suppressing or trying to change someone’s sexuality or gender identity.
“Look, I think it’s done and dusted,” he says.
“There’s no need to apologise about anything in politics because in the end, you make your calls at the time. We know the history and that these [bills] went through.”
He says, broadly, that he’s happy those bills did pass. And he explains some of his reasoning for voting against them.
For one, he wanted to see more debate about the specifics of how the conversion therapy ban would work. He says there had been more thorough scrutiny and debate about similar laws in other countries, and the bill could have been improved if certain people didn’t shy away from debating it.
Now he’s out of politics, there’s no value in apologising, he says – although his former colleague Nick Smith did use his valedictory speech to apologise for not voting for the same-sex marriage bill. Bridges leaves it at that, adding that when it comes to politics “explaining is losing”.
Bridges used his valedictory to make a point about debate, or the lack of it in New Zealand politics. It’s a point he comes back to often; a concern that the media, politicians and many leading “thinkers” have become afraid to tackle difficult issues.
With the conversion therapy ban, Bridges thinks valid concerns were “swept under the carpet as people got caught up in what I accept is a very powerful and important kaupapa”.
“People, sometimes, do need to stand up and take the contrary – even if it means a few brickbats,” he says.
Bridges positioned himself as the figure willing to take a contrary view. It didn’t serve him well when it came to Covid-19, which only seems to have strengthened his view that more people need to play the contrarian.
A particular issue Bridges sees is that people are too often grouped together. He says it's increasingly assumed that all Māori or all young people, or all rural and urban people think the same. In turn, he thinks politicians, journalists and commentators are self-censoring for fear of falling foul of the zeitgeist.
“New Zealand is a small country, and whether it’s journalists, politicians or businesses, there’s a sense that you don't want to speak out or have a different view because you might see that person again and you’ll have hurt their feelings,” he says.
“I’m not saying be cowboys, but if we had a bit more boldness from time to time we would perhaps have a more vibrant, exciting and dare I say it, successful country.”
Bridges’ views often aren’t what you’d expect.
He speaks out against too much focus on identity, but notes one of his history-making achievements as being the first Māori to be leader of the opposition or leader of a major party. It’s a success he says no-one can downplay.
However, it’s been rare to see Bridges whakapapa acknowledged in political discourse.
He says it felt people tried to discredit his whakapapa, and he faced criticism from those on the Left that he was not a “fair dinkum Māori”.
“I was hard to box in, and it made the storytelling and the narrative harder,” he says. He names Shane Jones and Willie Jackson – although he “likes” Jackson these days – as people who used to question his right to identify as Māori given his conservative outlook.
But Bridges says he was representing a large chunk of the Māori population in his politics.
“I think there is a deep strain within Māoridom that is rooted in conservatism,” he says.
“Everyone likes to lay claim to the greats, you know like Āpirana Ngata, but it’s clear, in their speeches and thoughts. People forget that National held the Māori seats, until quite recent history – that’s why you get guys like Tau Henare who were able, with a straight face, to join National.”
He names Winston Peters as another member of the conservative branch of Māori politicians. He mentions him a few times, actually, agreeing the two of them are somewhat similar. They both also represented Tauranga, for one.
“The difference is, I’m not a populist,” he says.
“But just because it’s populist doesn’t make it wrong. The root word of populist is popular, and that’s not a bad thing.”
Anyway, Bridges interrupts his own train of thought. He says he’s getting a bit “philosophical” for this discussion, and all the talk of politics and old politicians is ruining his new Parliament-free style.
Now he wants to focus on policy – not politics – at the chamber of commerce, and talk with celebrities about fame and ideas on his show Generally Famous, there’s hope that the baggage of political fame will soon disappear.
Bridges insists his days in politics are over. He knew with certainty that he made the right decision in resigning, “about one minute after” his valedictory speech.
“Truthfully, honestly, and I hate to admit it,” he says, that was the moment he stopped wondering if he could have ever been prime minister.
“What I’ve worked out is, you can have every bit as much influence and some serious fun outside of politics. I think a lot of politicians make the mistake of thinking it’s the be-all and end-all of everything.”