Bennett vs Bridges: Battle of the westies

3:36 pm on 9 December 2016

Bill English might have cemented his position as Prime Minister but National Party MPs still have to decide who will be his deputy.

Paula Bennett & Simon Bridges

Paula Bennett & Simon Bridges Photo: RNZ

Barring any last minute candidates the MPs have to choose between westie Paula Bennett or the more urbane Simon Bridges.

Both are Māori, but neither identify strongly with their Māori heritage.

In a Listener interview in 2013 Mr Bridges said when he went overseas he was not a Māori, not a Pākehā, "I am a New Zealander".

If Mrs Bennett has an advantage over Mr Bridges it is that she is an Auckland MP.

As deputy leader and deputy Prime Minister she would contrast with Mr English's southern rural links.

Jenny Shipley was the last Prime Minister to come from provincial South Island, but since National's defeat in 1999 two Aucklanders - Helen Clark and John Key - have run the country.

Paula Bennett at the opening of a new social housing development in Glen Eden.

Paula Bennett at the opening of a new social housing development in Glen Eden today. Photo: RNZ / Sarah Robson

Paula Bennett identifies strongly as a westie, dressing the part and even painting her car to promote her westie bogan image. Mrs Bennett was brought up in Taupō and, when she first moved to Auckland as an adult, she lived on the North Shore.

Her westie image might grate with Mr Bridges. He is no bogan, but has deeper roots in West Auckland.

"I'm a Westie. So I grew up in Te Atatu North," he said in 2013.

He is now the MP for Tauranga, while Mrs Bennett is the MP for the Auckland seat of Upper Harbour.

Being a woman in a male-dominated National Cabinet might also help Mrs Bennett's case as National attempts to throw off its image still of being dominated by middle-aged men.

Mr Bridges is a lawyer and has alluded to generational change. He is only 40 and would mark a shift to a new generation of National Party politicians. Mr English, while not old, is 54 - but more significantly has been in Parliament since 1990.

Simon Bridges at the launch of Glenn Innes to Tamaki Dr shared path.

Simon Bridges today at the launch of Glenn Innes to Tamaki Drive shared path. Photo: RNZ / Tom Furley

Mr Bridges was only elected to Parliament as the MP for Tauranga in 2008 at the start of National's term in government. But nor is Paula Bennett from the old school. She was elected as a list MP in 2005. She is older but at 47, still younger than that generation of National MPs who have been in Parliament since the 1990s.

Her life story has also been well canvassed. Pregnant at 17, she was sole parent and has been a poster child for National's changes to welfare policy.

But it has not been without controversy. She released information about the welfare benefits received by two sole parents who had dared criticise the intended reduction of the training incentive allowance. Despite breaching their privacy even today Mrs Bennett is unapologetic.

There have been other hiccups and she has struggled to deal with the social housing portfolio, but these have not dented her popularity nor credibility among her fellow MPs.

From the government's perspective it has always been politically palatable to have Mrs Bennett as a former beneficiary fronting what have been traditionally problematic policy areas for National.

Mr Bridges' life story is less well canvassed. The son of a minister, he went to university, did law and eventually settled in Tauranga as a Crown prosecutor.

When the time came, he succeeded National's maverick MP Bob Clarkson and beat New Zealand First leader Winston Peters in 2008 to retain Tauranga for National.

He has courted less personal controversy than Paula Bennett but attracted plenty of criticism, particularly from environmental groups, in his role as Energy and Resources Minister. In fact in 2014 Greenpeace campaigned to have Mr Bridges sacked.

But a Greenpeace campaign is more likely to promote than undermine the career of a conservative politician.

The question now for National MPs is who will be a more effective deputy to Mr English as the government heads into election year? There is little doubt Mrs Bennett has a quite different personality to Mr English. She is more colourful and louder. Mr Bridges is less so.

In interviews earlier in their political careers, both candidates downplayed leadership aspirations. But their careers have followed fairly similar paths as they rose quickly through the ranks.

Paula Bennett was immediately appointed Social Development Minister after National won the Treasury benches in 2008. She now holds the portfolios of Climate Change, Social Housing and State Services.

In Mr Bridges' case, he was only elected an MP in 2008 so he had to wait until 2012 before being appointed a minister outside Cabinet. But his elevation was swift and the next year he went into Cabinet as Minister of Labour and of Energy and Resources.

Despite downplaying their political aspirations, it has been clear from the start that Mr Bridges and Mrs Bennett are ambitious.That ambition got them into Cabinet and is now driving their respective bids to be deputy leader.

And do not think that for either of them their ambition stops there.

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