Simon and Natalie – JFK and Jackie of New Zealand politics

NEW National MP Simon Bridges comes to Parliament with high expectations – for himself, and from supporters, who believe there is something a little special in the handsome, well-educated Tauranga representative who peppers his conversation with enthusiastic “awesomes”.

SANDRA DICKSON interviewed him: 

SIMON Bridges and his fashionista wife Natalie have been dubbed the John F Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy of New Zealand politics. 

Charismatic, ambitious and earnest, Simon Bridges is very much an optimistic fresh face epitomising John Key’s new government.

The Tauranga electorate certainly saw something they liked, voting the former Crown Prosecutor into Parliament with a majority of more than 11,000 – the largest swing to National of any electorate seat in the country.

He is already, at 31, a party veteran of 15 years, and has whanau connections through Oparure Marae to former Labour minister Koro Wetere.

His father Heath’s mother, the late Naku Joseph, is his connection to Maniapoto hapu Ngati Kanohaku, and the 12 or so families from the marae near Te Kuiti are planning a celebratory event for their new member of parliament next year.

Mr Bridges does not speak te reo but wants to improve his pronunciation.  He is not familiar with his whakapapa, partly because his grandmother died before he was born. 

But he has fond memories of his father’s sister Lorna, who was based in San Franscisco for most of her life,  coming home with an early camcorder to record footage of a family tangi about 25 years ago.   

The Maniapoto boy grew up in Te Atatu, west Auckland, the son of a Baptist Minister father and primary school teacher mother, and his early claim to fame was becoming head boy at Rutherford High School.

His later education included arts and law degrees from Auckland University and a postgraduate law degree from Oxford University in England, where he met Natalie.

Despite the relationship with Koro Wetere, Mr Bridges describes his family background – he is one of six children – as not particularly political.  His Pakeha mother, a “soft National” voter from Waihi, was probably most influential on his thinking.  He says he was always interested in “what makes the world turn, what makes things tick, what gets things done”.

When he joined the Young Nats in 1992, he didn’t have a grand world view: “But I could see what I still see [in the National Party], it’s about individual responsibilities, people doing well under their own steam, those sorts of things.  I still think those kind of values are a better way to run a place.” 

When asked how he turned the formerly closely fought Tauranga seat into such a rout, Bridges is characteristically modest – and, in keeping with the rest of his “clean” campaign, declines to comment on whether he picked up anti-Winston Peters votes.

In fact, Mr Bridges believes his decision to keep his campaign respectful, about the issues rather than the personalities, was a hit with Tauranga voters sick of name-calling and sideshows dominating politics: “In hindsight, it was the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.”

He also credits a strong desire for change to a John Key-led government and a hard-working campaign team for making the difference in Tauranga.  “We ran a high-energy, grass-roots campaign.”

Mr Bridges talks proudly of the efforts put in by his campaign team, which he led for previous MP Bob Clarkson before resigning to stand as a candidate.  They were, of course, “awesome”.  He says they put up the most hoardings, were out waving National signs at commuters every morning, and did more door-knocking than the other 10 candidates put together.

He took every opportunity to talk to voters, speaking to about 3000 people in small house meetings over the months leading up to the election and often getting out of his comfort zone.

“One minute you might be discussing concerns with a group of Sikhs, the next you’ll be down on the wharf with some wharfies,” he says, having clearly enjoyed the chance to hear from people directly. 

His funniest moment campaigning was when he let a fierce dog out because he was trying to avoid being bitten, much to the anger of the home-owner.  “He was just spewing, called me every name under the sun.  I think it’s fairly safe to say I didn’t get that man’s vote.”

He was the only Tauranga candidate who used “net-roots” campaigning, setting up a Facebook page, where his 263 friends include other National MPs and sympathetic, and influential, bloggers David Farrar and Cameron Slater.

Mr Bridges is very much the new guard of politics – young, talented, and not necessarily Pakeha.  National, for the first time, has the same number of Maori MPs as Labour – six – and new Pacific Island, Asian and Sikh representatives.

He’s been busy as a new MP setting up both a constituency office in Tauranga and a parliamentary office (pictured right), which looks out, appropriately enough, over the partly built new Supreme Court.  The walls are blank the day we visit, apart from a Women’s Refuge calendar he plans to hang.  “I need some art in here, my wife will be the leading consultant on that.”

The intake of 35 new MPs – “serious recycling jobs” for both major parties, he says – means he doesn’t know when he will get to make his maiden speech in the House. 

“I’ll be sitting there like a well-behaved schoolboy,” he says with a smile, because he has no speaking rights until after his maiden speech. 

He sees the speech as a benchmark, a chance to tell New Zealand about his values, and says one of the most challenging aspects is fitting everything into the 15 minutes allowed. “It’s got to be something from the heart.  It’s funny how the first time you speak in Parliament is one of the most important.” 

He expects his parents and wife Natalie to come to Wellington for the day to support him, but probably not his three brothers or two sisters.

It’s likely though, with a quarter of the house freshly elected, that the new kids on the block will eventually have quite a say in Parliament, and Simon Bridges believes he is well-prepared for this, given his background in court.

He also thinks his background as a prosecutor in jury trials – “the glamour end of law” – has made him a good judge of character and personalities.  When he talks about his past in court, the sense is of a shrewd operator, probing the characters of those accused of crime to see justice done.

“I think I would be the most experienced criminal lawyer in Parliament at the moment.  Certainly I’ve done the most jury trials.”

But he believes staying in criminal law too long leaves people cynical and jaded.  “Not everyone is a liar.  There is good in everyone.”

He sees law as a public service where he wrestled with how to keep his community safe, and thinks his move into politics is an extension of this concern.

“I had a really satisfying and fulfilling legal career, but my take on the world is that people who make a great contribution to politics do get in early.”

There is no doubting the man’s quiet ambition – his examples of other early starters in politics include former prime ministers Helen Clark and Jim Bolger.  And he is open about his intention to seek a number of terms, and pursue further roles.

“It’s fantastic and a real privilege to be an MP, full stop.  But as a Cabinet Minister you have a greater opportunity to do more for your electorate and the country.”  

Mr Bridges has volunteered for roles on the Law and Order and Justice and Electoral Select Committees.  Although he does not want to be pigeonholed as a single-issue politician, he relishes the opportunity to use his legal skills.

He is keen to examine changes in the law with respect to rape and child abuse in particular, having been involved in many rape trials since taking up the Crown prosecutor role in Tauranga in 2001.

He thinks New Zealand should consider examining the right to silence for the accused, and argues in favour of juries being trusted with more information about previous convictions.

“They just even up a balance between victims of crime and accused,” he says.

While the right to silence is important, he says it may be unfair in rape trials, which are a “contest between the credibility of the accused and the complainant”.  When rape complainants have their credibility attacked but those accused of rape take up their right to silence, Mr Bridges says it sets up a “bad dynamic” in the courtroom.

The possibility of juries having information about previous convictions is particularly relevant in child abuse cases, Mr Bridges believes, where juries can be fooled.

He gives the hypothetical example of a stepfather who may have been accused of sexually abusing his five children.  If each case is heard separately, which happens sometimes, the potential to recognise the patterns and full extent of the accused’s behaviour may be missed.

He has a touching faith in democratic principles, and says given the full story, most juries will get things right, most of the time.

Mr Bridges is also keen to be part of electoral law review, and believes that when the Electoral Finance Act is scrapped, which he expects to happen quickly, previous laws should be strengthened through small changes.

His other passion is the constitutional review planned as part of the agreement between National and the Maori Party.  “It’s important to come with quite an open mind,” he says, because some things which sound good in theory do not work out that well in practice.

While at Oxford University, he studied constitutional theory and he is keen to work with Maori Party MPs on developing a sound base for constitutional reform.  He has already met Hone Harawira and Rahui Katene, but says, “I haven’t seen the top brass.”

You get the feeling that when he does, it will be a productive relationship.  He already enjoys a warm rapport with Georgina te Heuheu, from Ngati Tuwharetoa, who, as National’s most longstanding Maori MP, will be crucial to the relationship between the two parties.

For his first term, however ambitious, the top priority for Simon Bridges is Tauranga.  He wants to “lock myself in as an effective, hard-working local MP”.  He will continue living there so he can focus on the city through his constituency office, and plans to fly into Wellington on Tuesday morning and leave late Thursday night while Parliament is sitting.

He and his wife, who met at Oxford University, will spend weekends together at home.  Natalie, an English literature graduate, has been working at Auckland-based magazine Simply You. 

“She just keeps getting promoted,” he says proudly.  The couple are keen to have children, but it probably won’t be for a while.

“I think the way to get her back living in Tauranga permanently is to get her pregnant,” he says jokingly. 

Simon Bridges is certainly someone to watch.  Even after 15 years of active duty in the National Party, by his own admission his new role in Parliament feels, just now, like he’s a third former starting college.

 “But that’s cool.  I’ve got some time,” he says cheekily.  No one would be betting against him at this stage – the 31 year-old from Maniapoto is, after all, already well-educated, well-travelled, and a seasoned court and party political veteran.



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