Because if Tracy Watkins can come up with a ridiculous and over the top headline so can I.
One becomes a critic when one cannot be an artist
The above is a quote from Gustave Flaubert and could be paraphrased to New Zealand Journalism as One becomes a political reporter when one cannot be a politician.
Political journalism in NZ is going through a dull patch at the moment or to be more precise; with no scandal to feed the media, many political reporters have been reduced to reporting on mundane political occurrences or, even worse, writing speculative “think pieces”.
This is ugly journalism at its worst and it shows how the high drama of the political campaign can twist and warp a reporters mind so that they get lost in the glare of personality politics and forget that outside of the campaign, trail politics is not actually about grandstanding political egos (think Winston Peters), personal events (think Jacinda’s baby) or petty political nit-picking (ala all the recent focus on Simon Bridges).
And in the wind up to the recent National Party conference in Auckland the two remaining mainstream outlets in the political media went, what could be politely termed, into overdrive, spewing out page after page of low wattage drivel about Bridges, his leadership prospects, his hairline, his gel quota, his family, his background and absolutely anything but the actual problems afflicting the National Party.
Such star focused reporting shows exactly why political reporters need to be conversant in the Three P's of Politics (Principles, Policy and Personality) rather than just their relentless focus on personality, which is fine for the campaign trail but becomes all but irrelevant once the election is won (or lost) and government and opposition settle down to the day to day of Policy and, on those rare moments when the planets align, Principles.
Its simple stuff really, yet we are still getting articles speculating about Bridges fate as leader or Mike Hoskings sponsored BS about how well the party is doing. Worse still is the kind of bland spin via David Cormack who really needs to just stop writing these suck up articles like some overgrown teacher’s pet (in this case the teacher being Labour) and stick to being the self-confessed “PR guy” role that he refers to himself as. And for the love of sweet baby Jesus take that horrible picture of yourself out of all those articles you write, you look like a total creep.
And finally, it’s clear that the sun has well and truly set on Bryce Edwards as political commentator. Bryce, sweetheart, trolling the internet and for stories and then presenting a rather over worded list of other people’s work as your own is shallow beyond belief. Just stop, please, or at least write something original because in reality the problem with National is NOT Simon Bridges or his leadership (the Personality part of the three P’s) but rather the other two (Policy and Principles).
Even veteran reporters like Audrey Young of the NZ Herald and Tracy Watkins (as noted above) have, at times, been sucked down to this level of verbal diarrhea with catchy headlines and little else beyond to pad out their articles. It’s as if the respective editors of Stuff and the Herald ordered their staff to write about the upcoming National Party conference but the star struck reporters simply could not conceive of anything beyond the same campaign style reportage (with its relentless focus on the negative and the personal) that they were turning out during the election campaign last year.
There are exceptions to this mess with Henry Cooke from Stuff and the Spinoff (despite the disaster of its “hipster TV” channel) being very conspicuous exceptions to the poor state of the general political media by producing ongoing quality assessments of the situation in NZ politics.
However I am 500 words in and I would be no better than Bryce if I was to keep on with this line of analysis rather than getting to the question at hand: that being the question posed in this posts title, but I would be remiss if I did not at least pause a moment to consider why political reportage in NZ is so often the kind of knee jerk tabloid muckraking akin to the gossip magazines at worst or, on a good day, barely pedestrian factual reportage without a hint of in-depth analysis.
But journalism, like life, has posed a question to which there is no single answer (much like why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near or why side A of Marc Jacobs Mannequin is just so damn good or the answer to life the universe and everything is 42 but what’s the question?) however if I was pressed to consider NZ political reporters as a whole I would simply say that most of them are far too close to their sources and as focus too much on the human/personal element of politics and thus become so tainted with the foul stench of politics* that they can’t be too critical lest they piss off their sources and loose access.**
So what is the problem with Simon Bridges at this time and place in NZ politics? The Answer: Nothing, nothing at all and if you don't believe me, check out Liam Hehir from Stuff.
What kind of P is Simon smoking?
Bridges, as I noted a few months back, has the hardest job in politics as the leader of the loosing party in the wake of government change election and that job has been made harder by a number of factors which relate back to the Policy and Principles aspects of the Three P’s rather than the Personality factor.
First up for Bridges is that he was picked for a role which, in the wake of the dark magic of John Key, is not really tenable because expecting Simon bridges to have the superstar polling of John Key is just not realistic and highlights that even the National Party is desperately trying to ignore its failing in policy and principle by pumping up the personality factor to the Nth degree.
Problem is, John Key and his Teflon personality was an anomaly in NZ politics but it’s easy to see how and why so many have tried to follow the trail he blazed but instead got shot down in a screaming mess of ugly revelations and piss poor polling (think Labours endless run of dip-stick leaders prior to Jacinda) because Key used his magnetic polling skills to keep the party afloat when it was otherwise politically bankrupt and hollowed out in both the principles and policy areas.
Yes Bridges is still in single digit polling and yes Bill English was higher BUT outside of an election and definitively in the wake of Jacindamania the last thing Bridges needs to worry about is how high he is on the preferred PM stakes.
Instead the fact that the party still holds a solid core of political support should be more than enough to settle any questions about how well the party is doing when the grim fact is that the tide is going out on National as a party after nine years in power and it’s going to be spending some time in opposition before the body politic decides it’s safe to trust it again (or more accurately Labour pisses it off enough) to let it back into power.
However that’s not to say that Bridges has not made some mistakes in his time as leader and its here that Bridges will have to up his game if he wants to stay in the job to see another party conference (in 2019) as leader.
Making National your bitch!
First up there is the fact that when Simon got the role from Bill English he did little to stamp his own mark on the party or more importantly his caucus. And super-duper mistakerino number one was the fact that he kept Paula Bennett as his deputy. Yes it was a nod to the old guard Gang of Five (Bennett, Brownlee, Smith, Joyce and Collins) (now four) in National that had monopolised the top spots in the previous government are now little more than tainted vessels (and that is me being extremely polite) and horrid reminders of what National is all about and why people should vote Labour.
Paula Bennett has clearly gotten the memo from Nationals image team to dress less like an on the make suburban housewife and more like a politician because she has ditched most of the god awful outfits she used to wear in favour of more sombre attire (think darker less bedazzled clothing and you get the picture) and a conservative hairdo but clearly did not get the memo on overusing the spray tan or behaving like a cast member from the Jersey Shore (given her behaviour in and out of the House) which clearly shows that beneath the jazzed up hair, clothes and makeup is a smouldering harpy ready to start screeching the moment someone upsets her wine cooler or says something catty.
The net result is that Bennett is now the Snooki LaValle of NZ politics with an image of someone who is a vapid attention seeker and nothing more than a simulation of human being rather a genuine person and as 2IC for Bridges Bennett should be the one getting the MPs into line and whipping up policy teams to be an effective opposition but she is not and Labour has had an almost free ride since getting elected despite an increasing stream of issues which it (and not National) have created or curated.
And replacing Bennett is easy; just add Amy Adams! Yes folks, if Bridges wants to strut the stage like John Key he needs an effective second fiddle (ala Bill English) to manage the numbers and keep things in the back office ruining smoothly and Adams is proven go getter in this area so having her playing second banana to Bridges would be a lot closer to recapturing the JK magic than just sending a younger, more ethnic, lookalike of John Key out into the glare of the footlights in the hope that the audience won’t see it’s just a roadie in a wig.
Sure Adams is a potential rival to the throne but, just like Key was clever enough to keep Bill English close by giving him the Deputy spot he was also smart enough to realise that English’s ambition (while not that of an actual leader) was perfect for being his right hand man (or just The Hand if you are a GOT fan). The result was that Key was free to be Key while English was in charge of the day to day and while it often pains me to say it English was very good as the power behind the throne (emphasis painfully mine).
So if Bridges was to ditch Bennett and promote Adams then he has at least a strong approximation of the Key situation and can focus on getting his personal popularity up (something that will be more important as the election approaches) without having to worry about what his minions are doing.
As for the rest of the gang of four; Brownleee just needs to be demoted to the backbenches as he is no longer effective in his role as flack catcher for National as he is now just as controversial as any issue he is sent into distract from (Brownlee might poll in his Ilam electorate*3 but he is still the most hated man in Christchurch for his role in fucking up the Christchurch rebuild and allowing corruption, nepotism and dodgy behaviours to flourish in the wake of the quake); Smith needs to be disinfected and strategically shaven before being made to work as the mop boy in Wellington sex dungeon.
Which just leaves jolly Judith Collins, who is more of a risk to remove, but could probably be useful as a productive shadow minister or perhaps as the leader of the conservative splinter faction that some in National think is the answer to its problems but needs to be kept on a short leash and kept busy guarding the perimeter, like the good attack dog she is, and not left to fomenting her own limited dreams of being leader, which if were to come to fruition would split the party down the middle.
Getting rid of these human dumpster fires is an essential prerequisite for Bridges getting the party back on track and if he can’t do that then there is no phase two (or three) to any plan to win the next election or be an effective opposition because these malingering cyphers do nothing but take up space and block more productive MPs from rising in the ranks. Bridges needs to cull and he needs to cull now. He has given these monsters a grace period after the leadership challenge and now it’s time to build a new team, in his image and stop relying on these decrepit throwbacks to another age.
The gang of five have been like STDs to the National party, disgusting reminders of a dirty moment of pleasure that they will now carry with them for life, like luggage!
If Bridges can sort the wheat from the chaff then he will have a new team and be able to spend the next two years working hard as the opposition party and rebuilding the policy and principle planks that the party desperately needs to go back into government. However there is just one problem with that and it’s that National scarified its policy and principles in the 1990s to the gods of economic “progress” and outsourced the work (how ironic) to the pro business goons at the Business Roundtable (now the pro-business goons at the New Zealand Initiative).
Surfing the zeitgeist
“But what’s the problem!” I hear you cry, whacking the side of the monitor in anger at the sheer lunacy of the suggestion that we don’t run our country on a pro-business model that exploits the many for the benefit of a small few and has lead this country to have things like a housing hernia, dirty dairy and a low wage, cheap labour economy.
The problem, Henrietta, is that Nationals current crop of policy plans around things like Marijuana, smaller classrooms and more of the same hands off business practices are not really going to address the problems that NZ faces today or in the future and, in fact, are a big part of the problems that helped get Labour elected (by saying they had solutions to those problems).
So National needs to step back and genuinely consider if it can win an election by proposing more of the same (as it has done for the last 30 years) or like medical marijuana, pandering to what is essentially an emotional issue and not one that actually has any relevance to the direction of the country. Smaller classes and medical dope are easy things to say and sound good but one requires a major investment in our educational infrastructure and the other is simply addressing a long standing reality that many Kiwis smoke dope. Neither of these will win an election.
Thus if truly wanting to be seen as credible in the policy stakes National will have to come up with workable solutions to Housing, Health and Wages rather than some quick and easy feel good side shows (like marijuana) while the main issues keep on messing up the country and as National helped to create those messes Bridges, if still leader, is going to have to front for his party’s part in making those messes.
Imagine if this were to occur in a time when Labour still can’t say sorry for the Great Betrayal. Bridges could tap into the national mea culpa, swallow his pride and that of his party and reinvent National to align with the zeitgeist rather than stand in stark isolation to it. National has stolen Labours political thunder before and the best way to out Jacinda Jacinda is by acknowledging that National lost the last election (instead of a continually petulant atmosphere of a sore looser) and going forward rather than holding onto the John Key stained past.
Coming out of the Conservative closet
Also Simon Bridges could retain much of his conservative base by realizing that conservative voters care about things like the environment too. It’s a cross party issue and it’s not the only cross party issue out there where National could steal a march on Labour by changing tack on all and any broad based issues such as wages, the environment, land sales, water and health and in doing so show the public that everything will not be viewed through the lens of the market place.
So instead of having to desperately try and make eyes across the house at the Greens in the hope of a political one night stand in order to temporarily boost his and the parties credibility (which is what this medical marijuana things appears to be about) he can just be real about why it’s important not to piss away the environment because we know that after a torrid night between the political sheets the horror and shame of the morning after would probably see nothing more than a few more evenings of angry sex between the two parties before the whole thing would fizzle out and neither would be able to speak to the other or make eye contact again.
And as much as Simon Bridges would like a savage night of passionate man on man action with James Shaw (perhaps as some sort of delayed hysterical reaction to his strict religious upbringing) to get the party fortunes kick started it is unlikely to work as Nationals previous flings with the Maori and United Future showed that National is only interested in getting its own rocks off and not willing to get down on its knees or even give a reach around to the party that it is currently bare backing into oblivion. So Shaw would be a fool to let a couple of wines in the hot tub one evening destroy him and his political party*4.
National is not going to save the day by sticking to an ideological platform that runs counter to the majority of Kiwis so while I can see why medical marijuana has now come on the agenda for the party the scope of conservative kiwi views and opinions is broader than that and open to be redefined if a new generation of conservative politicians leading the party.
Stop picking on Simon!
By getting rid of the dead wood National could potentially revitalize its principles and the natural flow on from that is an energized policy perspective as the Neo Liberal ideology that National stubbornly clings to has been so thoroughly discredited (thank you FukYoo politix) and hollowed out the party that there are no fresh seeds in which to plant into voters minds.
A fresh approach would inject more capital into what is currently a politically bankrupt party that is going to meander in the wilderness for more than a single term if it can’t embrace change.
And none of this has anything to do with Simon Bridges because he is a fresh face in the party, so to speak. He was not very prominent under John Key and has not been around long enough to give off the evil vibes that the Gang of Five does.
In fact I would go so far to say the problem with National is anything but Simon Bridges (as I said at the start) or at worst Bridges is the least of the party’s worries. I think National has the common sense not to try and roll Bridges before the next election but for Simon to be “match fit” for the next election he needs to use the next two years to get his team into shape and up to speed and that requires some new players in the front row and some new plays in the playbook.
So let’s get the hell away from this endless fascination with The Leader (or in Jacindas case her baby) and focus on Politics and specifically the Policy and Principles aspects, you know the things that actually matter.
*-To recreate this smell take one part used baby diaper, one part fridge full of rotting food and one part sewage farm.
**-And if you guys don’t like that you can start by writing a better standard of article
*3-The same electorate where I currently reside
*4-actually I take that back, Shaw is just the kind of political mercenary to sell his party down the river given how he behaved prior to the election