Building Bridges: Nats' new target should be Peters

8:36 pm on 27 February 2018

By Brigitte Morten*

Opinion - In 2008 Simon Bridges got into Parliament by becoming the MP for Tauranga, running a strong campaign against a well-known politician - Winston Peters.

Simon Bridges will stand for National Party leader.

National's new leader, Simon Bridges. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Mr Peter's failure to secure the seat, combined with NZ First falling below the 5 percent threshold, meant that both Mr Peters and his party were out of Parliament.

As National leader almost 10 years later, Mr Bridges will be looking to do the same again and ensure National wins in 2020.

In the 20 years prior to Mr Bridges winning the seat, Mr Peters was Tauranga. The so-called blue rinse brigade in the retirement capital of New Zealand loved him despite him losing the seat to National's Bob Clarkson in 2005.

After Mr Clarkson's retirement in 2008, Mr Bridges beat Mr Peters with an impressive 11,000 vote majority.

NZ First Leader Winston Peters

New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Since Mr Bridges has become the MP, Tauranga has changed significantly. Its booming port and geographic closeness to Auckland has meant it is now the town of aspirational young families. And they are the voters that Mr Bridges will be courting over the next three years.

The positive and upbeat message he drove home in his first press conference as leader reflected that. He understands aspirational voters will be one of the key drivers of his success.

The National Party and Mr Bridges also know - from years of watching Labour trying to attack the popular John Key - that there is little point in running a personality contest against Jacinda Ardern.

Nonetheless, they do understand the importance of their leader's brand.

Mr Bridges has a young family, he is Māori, he worked hard to build his career in law, and he understands the suburban regional life that most kiwis live and enjoy. He will be looking to tell his story wherever he goes in the community - all in his strong kiwi accent.

He will also be looking to sell his experience. Having held senior positions in government, he can point to actual deliverables - an area where the Labour-NZ First government is struggling. When asked about what Mr Bridges brings to the table, Green leader James Shaw reportedly said "lots of roads".

Mr Bridges will no doubt be keen to ensure the electorate knows it.

However, the real target for National will continue to be the stability and effectiveness of the government coalition.

The latest poll shows that NZ First and the Greens are at real risk of falling below the 5 percent threshold - and with that so goes one of Labour's pathways to a second term. Taking on the Prime Minister won't get them far, but going for NZ First voters could.

This same poll would have been back of mind for National Party MPs as they went in to the caucus room. Labour is polling at its highest result in 15 years - at 48 percent. This honeymoon poll should be put in context. In 2009, National polled at 60 percent in the first major poll after coming to power - up from their 2008 election day result of 45 percent.

This means that while National will be keen to ensure they don't miss opportunities to look new and fresh, they also don't want to abandon what brought them electoral success previously.

Mr Bridges has already stated he will not be undertaking a full review of the policies that went to the 2017 election. And he has kept to the narrative that the government is just delivering working groups and reviews.

The first test of the fine balance Mr Bridges must make between the old and new will be the announcement of his shadow cabinet. He will need to ensure that there is not too much change to push away National's base, but also ensure that the shadow front bench looks like the government that they would put in place in 2020 if successful.

Over the first 24 hours, Mr Bridges will be across every media outlet selling who he is as a person. But he will also be looking for the first opportunity to get the government and its coalition partners on the ropes, and begin the job of ensuring that National wins back government in 2020.

* Brigitte Morten was a senior ministerial adviser for John Key's National-led government. Prior to that she was an adviser and campaign director for Australia's Liberal Party.

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