Lets just get the obvious question out of the way.
Nationals support has collapsed. The partys leader Judith Collins is staggeringly unpopular.
And one of the most obvious contenders to replace her has just written a book. Politicians only ever write memoirs for two reasons: they are retired, or they are plotting their way to the top.
So, does Simon Bridges, Opposition leader 27 February 2018 22 May 2020, want his old job back?
READ MORE:* The New Zealand accent explained* Simon Bridges says new book isn’t a covert pitch for National leadership
National MP Simon Bridges has written an autobiography: National Identity, confessions of an outsider.
I thought: I know therell be one question. So, thats the only one I prepared for you, he laughs.
And my cute answer is: this isnt the book you write if you want to be leader.
I mean, I put a lot of stuff in there. If that was what I wanted when wrote it, I would have done it differently.
But it is exactly the kind of book youd write if you wanted the public to revaluate your image, perhaps give you a second chance.
The stuff runs the gamut from the taboo (race, class, masculinity, religion) to the mundane (family, marriage, food, music).
Bridges speaks at the National Party conference in Christchurch in 2019.
Theres a chapter titled Politics. But for the Beltway junkies its disappointedly light on juicy, behind-the-scenes revelations.
Theres also precious little on his time as minister in the John Key Government somewhat unusually for a politician, his Beehive achievements are relegated to a page or so. (He puts the omission down to his bad memory and failure to keep a diary).
The clue is underlined on the cover of National Identity, Confessions of an Outsider: Not a political memoir.
Bridges says his book is a chance to tell my truth.
Bridges says that, when he started the book, it was less than six months since hed lost the leadership. And what is true is that all books are some kind of self-help, at a level. It is me working through the loss of the leadership, but its certainly not about that.
But, I’ll acknowledge, there probably is a sense that I’ve got something to prove. I do want people to re-evaluate me. I’ll just be honest about that, because as leader you’re on a treadmill, and you’re going along in a certain way and the public see you in a certain way and that’s not the full story.
And so, you know, this is definitely a chance for me as twee or cliché as it sounds to tell my truth. And some might say it is revisionist on my side of the story.
But no, it’s not about leadership in the future.
I don’t know what the future holds. But I do want to contribute. And probably thats politically. I do enjoy this.
Bridges doesnt dwell on his time as a minister in the John Key-led government.
That Bridges can still say that is remarkable. His deposition and the fall-out, was one of the messiest in recent political history.
Bridges, 44, succeeded Bill English as leader in February 2018, and although he faced poor personal approval ratings, Nationals overall popularity remained high. (They even out-polled Labour at 45 per cent in July 2019).
Bridges writes about the obsessive focus on weekly opinion polling within the party, a throwback from the Key years.
This drove the partys social media strategy, on which he partly blames his downfall. It takes 14 chapters for him to detail the demise.
Bridges succeeded Bill English as Nationals leader. They are pictured together in 2017 with MP Chris Bishop and some kittens.
In August 2019, then associate Minister of Transport Julie Anne Genter proposed a car feebate emissions scheme (a forerunner to todays ute tax).
We were down on our luck polling wise… I spotted an opportunity. I instructed the team to go all guns blazing on social media against the car tax.
Bridges says the effect was rapid, pushing polling up by several percentage points.
A number of campaigns followed on gangs, Kiwibuild and a contentious series featuring Labour MP Deborah Russell, that earned a rebuke from Speaker Trevor Mallard.
Some in the team were squeamish, he writes. They wanted Kumbaya with the Government (and still do). The mainstream media were in full moral panic mode… In addition, the left weaponised the Advertising Standards Authority. Complaints began flooding in
Bridges wonders if the party became too obsessed with weekly polling numbers.
He stands by the approach, pointing out only one complaint was upheld and arguing the campaigns were behind a consistent three to four per cent increase in the polls, keeping Nationals support consistently well into the forties.
Facebook was his friend, until it wasnt. One post demanding the Government come out of the Covid-19 level 4 lockdown early might be viewed as the beginning of the end for me as boss of National.
The swift public backlash which included two death threats started speculation about a leadership challenge.
The circling wolves got the chance theyd long been waiting for and a spill was on, he writes. As quick as that, I was no longer leader. The bedwetters won
Former whip Jami-Lee Ross leaked Bridges parliamentary expenses to the media, sparking a political storm.
And that is as strong as the criticism of his National party colleagues gets save a mild swipe at unappeasable Gerry Brownlee.
His former friend, and party whip Jami-Lee Ross whose leaking, accusations of corruption and bullying behaviour triggered the destabilisation of Bridges authority does not rate a mention.
Bridges is entitled to luxuriate in schadenfraude: Todd Mullers coup plunged the party into political turmoil, from which it is yet to recover.
The ambitious former Fonterra executive, ousted him after months of white-anting. But his 53-day tenure was a disaster, torpedoed by scandal.
Former president Michelle Boag and sitting MP Hamish Walker were outed for leaking confidential patient information to justify a racist press release. Andrew Falloon was forced to quit after five women complained the Rangitata MP and former staffer had sent indecent text messages.
Bridges was rolled by Todd Muller, who was replaced by current leader Judith Collins.
Muller couldnt cope: his mental health collapsed, and he resigned, to be replaced by Collins. It was too late to save the election Nationals vote crashed to 26.8 per cent, 20 MPs exited Parliament and voters deserted National in their rural heartlands.
I was talking to [his wife] Natalie about this a while ago, Bridges says. And …she was amazed about how relaxed I was to lose the leadership.
That’s not a pose, it’s genuinely true. And I think the reason for that [is] I’m not sentimental. I look forward.
He wasnt tempted to dish-the-dirt on his caucus Brutus.
It wasn’t what I wanted to say, And I knew, frankly, that if I did the Andrea Vances of this world would focus on that, he laughs.
I’ve got multiple faults. I don’t think bitterness or resentment is one of them, though. There’s no one in politics that I have significant grudges against.
Simon Bridges and his wife Natalie (left)with deputy Paula Bennett, pictured after they were voted Nationals leader and deputy.
Theres a right way and a wrong way to fall from grace, and Todd Muller should have taken lessons from Simon Bridges.
Muller is on his way out, forced to resign as an MP after back-stabbing a colleague. While Bridges, after his initial anger subsided, has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in his public image.
Hes gone from a serious dryballs (his words) to a man who cavorts with yaks online. Social media has destroyed me and then built me up again, he writes.
The demotion came with silver linings. Not that I wish that Id lost or anything but this has given me a chance to think about and recognise how blessed I am, he says.
The main beneficiaries are his wife of 16 years, Natalie, and their three children Emlyn, Harry and Jemima. Bridges writes in heart-wrenching detail about how his ambition took his away from his young family: I am not a natural-born father, he admits.
Simon and Natalie Bridges, and their three children, pictured in 2019. Emlyn (left), Harry (right) and baby Jemima.
A month after Emlyn was born in 2012, Bridges was promoted to be a minister outside Cabinet. The child had club feet and over the years endured painful procedures and a brace.
The young MP was present for the birth of all three but gone within 24 hours. I was always on the clock. Family came second, he writes.
Now he is busy catching up, experiencing their firsts including a hunting trip scheduled for October, which he confesses leaves me cold.
What is lucky is that I still have time, he says. And I can’t turn back time, but my children are all still very young.
The book also gave him time to reflect on his upbringing. Many pages are devoted to his father Heath, who died in July, aged 87.
Bridges, as a baby with his father Heath, mother Ruth and five siblings.
Bridges is the youngest of six children, and describes an emotionally crippled Baptist Minister in his own world.
He didnt hit me, but he didnt hug me. He was there, but he wasnt, he writes. There are also touches of affection memories of an Adrian Mole-type book-lover who devoured hamburgers.
The writing helped Bridges come to terms with his fathers death, which came after a long period of dementia. In truth, when writing it, I knew he wasnt in health to read it, so perhaps there’s some courage that it wasn’t going to be an issue.
The book was meant to be and the timing was right. And that actually made me much more at peace with his passing because I’d reconciled myself to what I think of him, and our relationship and his significance.
And as glib as it might sound, at his funeral my fatherhood chapter really was the format for my speech.
Bridges confronts a range of controversial topics, including race and toxic masculinity.
The book also devotes a chapter to race, in which Bridges explores his whakapapa. Despite being the first person with Mori ancestry to serve as Nationals leader, he has never been quite Mori enough for critics.
His paternal grandmother Naku Joseph was Ngti Maniapoto, but made it clear to her children that the Mori world wasnt for them. On his mothers side his great-great grandfather was a London Jew and inveterate rooter who immigrated to New Zealand, and then Australia, where he became both an MP and merchant banker.
Bridges grew up in Aucklands Te Atat as a white kid with brown skin. Not a Mori, not really.
John Key with Bridges as he campaigned to become Tauranga MP in 2008.
By the time he was elected MP for Tauranga in 2008, he hadnt resolved what it meant to be one-eighth Mori.
Politics made him confront his discomfort: journalists and colleagues were rude, effectively calling me an Uncle Tom.
I began to feel I was too Mori to be Pkeh and too Pkeh to be Mori. Not a proper one at least… If you cant speak te reo you aint a real Mori. And real Mori are Labour, he writes.
If politics challeged his identity, writing the book has helped him come to terms with who he is, and celebrate it. He is learning te reo but would prefer to read a book on French clocks.
Bridges says he doesnt regret steeping himself in Pkeh culture he bloody loves the United Kingdom where he studied at Oxford. But insists he is just as Mori as Rawiri Waititi, the Te Paati Mori co-leader he sits next to in Parliaments debating chamber. New Zealand needs to adopt a more nuanced view of racial identity, he argues.
Just as all Scots dont wear kilts, we cant put Mori over there as the ones with te reo, moko and marae, he writes.
Bridges, aged six pictured in 1982, after being dressed up by his sisters.
The naval-gazing is fascinating reading. While the book might not be an insiders tell-all, it does deliver insight about what is inside the mind of a politician.
Bridges explores the traditional view that political leaders are extroverts. John Key was energised by people, Helen Clark is serious and likes introverted ways best. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has a brand so strong its relatively hard to know who the real Jacinda is.
He is a high functioning introvert who likes to lock himself away with history books in his garage study. He balances his need for solitude with his sociable wife Natalie, a former journalist and public relations practioner.
Bridges says he is a high-functioning introvert who prefers reading to rugby.
Did this propensity to shut himself away contribute to the decline in the relationship with his MPs? That could well be true, he says. I hadn’t really thought about it significantly. I would say, I was regularly getting around.
But, what is true is if you are head down, bum up in the papers, working on policies, thinking of the next issue to take to the country, there is a sense that while the cat’s away, the mice play.
So I think there’s definitely something plausible in that.
There are other tropes Bridges tackles one chapter focuses on traditional ideas of Kiwi masculinity. Hed rather delve into a book on pre-Leninst Russia than watch Super Rugby but concedes this is courageous confession for a Kiwi politician, and probably bad for book sales. Nor can he back a boat, or build a deck.
I can see John Key shaking his head in disbelief, now more sure than ever why he backs Chris Luxon and Nicola Willis, he jokes.
But Bridges argues that an emphasis on male physicality can be toxic, and recounts how he was beaten up as a school boy and had his jaw broken as a teenager.
He is candid about how his wife is the main breadwinner something he would have struggled to accept as a younger man. And how workaholism became a damaging part of his masculine identity.
Losing the leadership reprogrammed him his identity isnt as a high-flying Crown prosecutor or Minister, but as a loving husband and father.
Ill put my hand up, he says. I’ve been prone to look down on stay-at-home dads, because our conception of masculinity, whether we like it or not, is of breadwinners.
Its some deep evolutionary thing. We’ve been hunting animals, and then we’re meant to be out working.
And as I say in the book, whilst Im not the tough guy playing rugby, for me masculinity I have always associated with work. Long hours is what real men do.
But of course, in 2021, we need to be clear that a real man can be a guy who’s at home with his children while his partner is out as the breadwinner. And Im glad Ive woken up to that reality.
Bridges writes about the rise of the technocrat Beehive politician.
He also angsts about the rise of the Beehive politician MPs who shuttle to Parliament straight out of university to work for an MP or minister before they stand for election.
Bridges fears this caste are turning politics into a game, with a culture of leaking, strategising and gossip replacing experience and a contest of ideas.
I’m not gonna suggest that theres been no moments in my life where the gamesmanship has meant I’ve done something. But if that’s all it is, that’s a real problem, he says.
We’ve got this narrow political culture where Red and Blue are actually pretty similar. They’re all professionals.
I worry over recent times that its been a contest of competency. And that’s clearly important. The polling will tell you [that].
I just find it very sterile, while ultimately if your only point of difference is: well, well do it better.
Bridges and wife Natalie on their wedding day, at St Cross Chapel, Oxford in 2005.
He worries both about the decline in membership of parties, and community organisations. But his longest treatise is on the deterioration of the education system, which he believes to be in crisis.
There is inconsistency and inequality, and he is scathing about self-directed or child-centred learning, arguing for a return to more traditional teaching.
It fits with a central theme: that we are turning into Aotearoa, Lifestyle Nation, rather than one that places value on excellence.
The chapter is one of the more serious in a hodgepodge of ideas, he says. I put it in because I do think it is so central to our collective identity.
As to be expected from an author who is still invested in a political career, he glosses over important details.
As Energy And Resources Minister Simon Bridges expanded oil exploration.
Environmentalists will balk at the chapter in which he extols the virtues of nature, despite presiding over the expansion of oil drilling and mining as Energy Minister. Likewise, the gay community will search in vain for his explanation of voting against same-sex marriage in his chapter on religion.
The scrappy politician who revelled in argy-bargy with Winston Peters, Mallard, John Campbell and more recently Police Commissioner Andrew Coster, is concealed.
But he is self-effacing and obviously proud to have a book published, although it might go terribly. Bridges neednt worry about the critics hes cannily sown up the fiercest, literary editor Steve Braunius and television political editor Tova OBrien, to speak at his book launch parties. (Braunias is an old mate who helped land him the HarperCollins publishing deal).
Bridges memoir includes a chapter on his love of food but confesses he now suffers from gout.
There are delightful and touching moments. He clearly adores Natalie the hero of the book who tolerates his ambition, habit of snapping unflattering photos while she sleeps, and his re-telling of an embarrassing episode that culminates in a posterior injection.
A whole chapter is devoted to his love of food, a passion that means he occasionally suffers from gout.
He reminisces on his extra parts in Young Hercules with Ryan Gosling, and Xena: Warrior Princess. This is the Cliff Curtis crossover quality that I have. In Xena I was an Asian warrior, running shirtless through a field of bombs or something, he says.
His strong Kiwi twang is much mocked commentary that really got to Bridges.
And he lets down his guard, readily admitting to being an outsider throughout university (My mullet didnt fit in… I was all brain and no etiquette.), an imposter during his legal career (a loser from Te Atat…a brown uncouth Westie).
But nothing stung as much as the mockery of his distinctive Kiwi accent, a consequence of accepting the leadership.
For some reason these comments really got to me, more than the huge buckets of shite I had poured over myself on relatively regular occasions about a bunch of other stuff, he writes.
Bridges admits criticism of his distinctive accent was hard to take.
Bridges admits he sought professional help but ultimately passed on the advice.
I could spend a long time trying to do something about it. But no, that would feel like a betrayal of who I am. And in a world where identity and authenticity are such big things, it just wouldnt be any of that.
Its possible, as the author of a book exploring identity, that hes right.
Lets just get the obvious question out of the way.