Whaleoil transcript: Ben Thomas & Michelle Boag on Simon Bridge’s leadership

Guyon:

Well rumours continue to swirl about a possible challenge to Simon Bridge’s leadership by senior MP Judith Collins. Caucus met yesterday for the first time after a two-week break. Arriving at the meeting National MPs were asked if they were still putting their support behind Mr Bridges.

(Recording played)

“Let’s see what happens, but so far Simon is our leader and caucus is very united.”

“By and large we’re pretty united, it’s hard being in opposition and it’s certainly hard being in opposition when you’ve had nine years of government.”

“Well, we can always be more disciplined, I think.”

“Do you support Simon Bridges as the leader of the National Party?”

“Yes.”

Guyon:

Well, with me in the studio to talk about this, Ben Thomas political commentator, tena koe – good morning to you.

Ben:

Hello Guyon.

Guyon:

Michelle Boag who’s a former National Party president, of course, and she’s with me now.

Michelle:

Morena.

Guyon:

And we’ve been talking about this already, haven’t we? They’ve both been getting into it. Michelle, if I could start with you, what do you think’s going on here?

Michelle:

Exactly the same thing that has been going on for the past six months and will continue to go on for the next 6, 12 or 18 months – whatever it is. This, ah… is when the media gets themselves into a frenzy ah… they know that ah… the prime minister’s doing so well the leader of the opposition hasn’t got any chance. It’s interesting when you reflect on the fact that Labour had four leaders during the period of the Key government ah… and yet Helen Clark withstood ah… six years as leader of the opposition, including a challenge from Mr man-of-the-moment, Michael Cullen. Let’s not forget that he challenged her for the leadership and lost. So, you cannot predict whether Simon Bridges is going to do a Helen Clark or whether he’s going to go the same way as Gough, Cunliffe, Shearer and Little.

Guyon:

Okay, are you cautioning the party to say “hey, tai ho, you know – cool your heels?”

Michelle:

 I… what I would say to the party is this. Don’t believe the stuff that’s coming out of the media’s view of what’s happening. Judith Collins does not have the numbers, she stood twice and polled miserably ah… for that job. Ah… anyone who believes that Judith Collins has the numbers, as Audrey Young said this morning, is dreaming because if she had the numbers she’d be there.

Ben:

Look, I think it’s clear that there haven’t been any head counts, there haven’t been any letters circulated, there haven’t been any, you know, henchmen calling up at midnight to ascertain support. There’s no coup underway right now.

Guyon:

No, but these are death of a thousand cuts, as it were. I mean, this is the way that they work isn’t it? I mean it never works on the first time but there’s a destabilisation campaign and…

Ben:

I think everyone in National understands the point Michelle was making which is that, you know you don’t want this kind of divided kingdom where all of them… you know… I was working for the National government when Labour had all of its… you know – ructions and under my…

Guyon:

You loved it!

Ben:

It was terrific! You know it was basically like a three-year holiday because the media was focusing on the opposition, you know, the least important party in government… in parliament… rather than what…

Guyon:

And they’re not digging into the policy… oh look, I’m not going to back the media here…

Ben:

But at the same time…

Guyon:

I mean I’ve done this myself. We play a big role in this don’t we?

Michelle:

You do, if…

Guyon:

There’s a big cultural role… now I can’t even work out in my own head whether it’s a good thing that we really smash out the opposition leader because if they really make it to prime minister, man they’re battle hardened. So that’s one way to look at it. The other way to look at it is we do get in this spiral, this blood pool spiral and we go, oh you know, once you start doing it, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy doesn’t it?  

Ben:

Well that’s right, and by us talking about this, you know in a meta way we are still contributing to the narrative. But we can’t ignore the fact that, you know, Simon Bridges… has… you know… what the National party… you know, it’s a low information environment, nobody’s got accurate head counts. National MPs are operating under the same information that we are all operating on, which is the public performance of their leader, Simon Bridges. Which has not been great. I mean, this is a government which…

Guyon:

Couple of quick points on that, then I’ll get to Michelle. What’s wrong with his performance?

Ben:

Well look, this is a government that’s… you know… it’s key policy’s KiwiBuild. Ah… capital gains tax failure, no action on mental health, the hospital system you know… no improvements there, they’re going back to the original timeline on the Dunedin hospital. Um… you know…

Guyon:

And…

Ben:

This government is a big juicy piñata and Simon Bridges is wandering around with a blindfold and hitting prison guards and junior staffers…

Guyon:

As someone who goes to lots of kid’s birthdays at the moment, I quite like your analogy. Um, and if I could turn to you Michelle, and I know you’re not sounding like a big fan of Judith Collins, and I don’t mean that in a personal way but um… she’s being making the hits on KiwiBuild.

Michelle:

Well, and who wouldn’t? With 30 houses built by Phil Twyford…

Guyon:

Hey, it’s 60 now, come on… don’t be unfair.

Michelle:

Oh, wow! And he was going to build 10,000. Um… no… I think … I think what’s happening here is you’ve got the media… for six months they’re been saying Simon Bridges is under threat, right? They keep talking about it, they keep talking about it, the issue is whether he can withstand it – and he can withstand it by having a united party. The other thing is, I think Simon Bridges needs better advice. I think he’s a young leader, he hasn’t got enough experience about how to lead people, he has got a team around him who don’t have decades of strategy experience.

Guyon:

Can you… or do you agree that Judith Collins is playing this up? I mean she knows exactly what she’s doing here. The raised eyebrows and the choice of language, I mean she knows what she’s doing…

Michelle:

But Judith’s been playing this game for years. And she’s failed twice and each time she’s polled the lowest.

Guyon:

What do you think, Ben? You… you… you from my memory have some belief that Judith Collins actually could do better than Simon Bridges, don’t you?

Ben:

Yeah, look Judith Collins is an extremely capable politician. Now this isn’t to say that the National party should convene and emergency meeting and suddenly install her as leader. But there’s no doubt she was one of the most capable ministers of the John Key government, she was…

Michelle:

Who got sacked!

Ben:

Yeah, and then got cleared by an enquiry – one of the only people who was officially cleared of any of the allegations arising from dirty politics. So, she actually came back into the cabinet with a clean bill of health…

Michelle:

After a time.

Ben:

…and then dedicated herself to being a very revenue minister and energy minister and the work that she did in about one year in those portfolios was the groundwork (indistinct) on multi-national corporations.

Guyon:

So, this would be her third crack at it, wouldn’t it, if she goes?

Michelle:

I… I think the issue is, she’s so polarising that what the MPs are worried about… at the moment there’s a four in front of polling numbers, if they do down Simon Bridges under threat if it becomes in the 30s but there’s absolutely no guarantee that Judith Collins could get them out of the 30s.

Guyon:

Quick final word cause I’ll be wound up soon. Ah… firstly to you Ben, what does he need to do to save himself, Simon Bridges?

Ben:

Well, the first step is, overnight there was news that ah… there might be a bit of a break through on the zero carbon bill, if Simon Bridges can get on a podium next to the prime minister and make an announcement about a grand coalition, you know, setting us up for the future… um… yeah, that’ll be great news for him. But look, he’s got to stop focusing on minutiae, trivialities, slushies… and he’s… you know… this is a hard thing. This isn’t something that you can just tell somebody to do in a checklist way. But he’s got to find a way of relating to ordinary New Zealanders better than he’s doing now.

Guyon:

Michelle, final word to you.

Michelle:

Learn how to be a leader. Get people around him who know how to make a leader and stop doing the gotcha politics.

Guyon:

Thanks for your time, both of you. Interesting discussion.

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