A word with... Simon Bridges

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On a sunny morning in the Bay of Plenty with ocean waves rolling slowly in and Mt Maunganui languidly booming, you wonder why anyone would want to go to Parliament.

"Service," says Simon Bridges, crown prosecutor at Tauranga since the tender age of 24. "I've always felt I wanted to work for the community rather than make a lot of money."

Now 31, he still looks and talks like a freshly scrubbed graduate.

Earnest, focused, he resigned his job as soon as he was selected by National for the Tauranga seat and is now intent on doing everything he thinks a candidate needs to do, which incidentally does not include commenting on a rival's undoing.

At Parliament that morning Winston Peters' lawyer was changing his story for the privileges committee. Bridges was not monitoring the drama. It seemed a long way away.

He has been out since sun-up, holding placards of himself on busy traffic islands. He and his helpers call themselves human hoardings. He is still fizzing from a joint candidates meeting the previous evening and, after me, has an appointment with the executive team at Zespri.

He knows the kiwifruit company is the last single-desk survivor from the era of primary producer boards and that its managers will tell him why they should keep their export monopoly.

They do.

Talking to them he sounds like a boy on a man's errand; a modest, capable boy who will not go wrong. He has learned the gentle patter of politics: "I hear what you say ... I take it on board ... the reality is."

At 31, he reminds me, he is no younger than politicians like Helen Clark when they started. But I can't shake the arithmetic. He was just seven in 1984.

He says he has no memory of events before that year and only a vague recall of seeing Muldoon and Lange on television at the election. His father, he remembers, was mildly National but voted against Muldoon.

Growing up in Te Atatu, youngest of six children, father a Baptist minister, mother a primary school teacher, he heard politics talked at the dinner table and dates his interest from a book of government read at age 12.

He joined the National Party in his teens and worked on campaigns in West Auckland through the 1990s. He stood by Brian Neeson when the MP was challenged for the Helensville seat by an upstart named John Key.

The year he joined the party Ruth Richardson was Finance Minister and forcing the pace of change. Where does he stand on that now?

"I would see a lot of what happened economically as reasonably necessary but I think when you are talking about the 1990s and what happened, I am not excited.

"Look, when you get out on the hustings you sense that people don't want to see a reversion to that - it's just reality of the situation."

Won't National be obliged to tackle public spending again, particularly to balance its tax cuts?

"I really don't think so. We have gone from 26,000 bureaucrats to 36,000 under Labour. When I go and talk to health professionals, or in education, in the public sector, they are fed up with the bureaucracy, the levels of management dreaming up ideas on a whiteboard.

"It's not the early 90s. A middle course can get us back to a good position. More disciplined spending, but not cuts. National's policy is not a penny less spent but spent better."

In education, could that mean changing the way that schools are organised?

"I know what you're getting at. But look, the message I do get at schools like Otumoetai College, Tauranga Primary, is that the imposition of management, form filling and so on, is getting in the way of teaching."

What I was getting at is the kind of reform once envisaged: state-funded schools constituted like independents, free to enrol students from anywhere, set their own character, maybe with incentives to expand and take over those that lose pupils.

"I just think they are not things I know enough about. But I like what John Key's saying - that he wants to do what works. I don't think we can be ideological about these things."

He moves the topic to one he knows, and that gives him a party view. "We have to be practical. In youth justice for example, we have some detailed policy about intervening early in young people's lives and the programmes we are advocating are backed up by evidence."

Like what?

"I've spent the last few years doing jury trials and what I see is that when the adult courts get a guy at 19 and he has stabbed someone, he is looking at five years' imprisonment and probably deserves it, but the system has let him down because the youth justice system was not teaching him.

"I've made a real effort to find out what's going on, talked to police. We need drug and alcohol programmes, anger management courses, and at the other end you need boot camps that John Key has been attacked about but actually is very reasonable.

"In all these things you can simplify too much; there's no point turning young crims into fit young crims. You've got to be changing something upstairs as well."

What, I ask him, could be done even earlier to help the solo parent in a poor neighbourhood prevent her pre-teen son being pulled into a gang doing drugs and burglary and the like?

"You've touched on the most difficult issue we face. There are two big issues we face. One is the economy and turning that around so our kids and grandkids can have a prosperous future, get the jobs and earn at a level comparable to what they earn in the Australias, Englands, Americas ... To me that's number one issue.

"The other issue, as John Key said, is dealing with an underclass. I think in many ways that [is] more difficult than the economy. You talk about the mum in South Auckland - I have trouble with the notion of going into her home and telling her what to do.

"To some extent the anti-smacking law is symptomatic of interfering in people's lives ... In Tauranga schools I've seen the course Graham Dingle has set up, Kiwis Can. They go into classrooms and promote values, like personal responsibility."

If Bridges makes it into Parliament the National caucus will be not only a bit younger and smarter but more Maori.

He is Ngati Maniopoto on his father's side, counts former Labour Cabinet minister Koro Wetere as a cousin and knows his marae is at Oparure near Te Kuiti.

He would like sometime to return there. "I don't want to overplay it," he says, admitting he is not fluent in te reo, "but it does add something. It's a part of me, but, look, just in the same way that I have grandparents from Yorkshire and I like to get back there."

If National needs the support of another party to govern he nominates the Maori Party.

"There are many areas where there could be common ground, in welfare for example. In many areas they are quite socially conservative."

Fresh-faced and boyish, he is also self-aware, conspicuously sensible and certainly more politically mature than the retiring one-termer he hopes to succeed. He clearly enjoyed being Bob the Builder's electorate chairman but Simon Bridges, I suspect, is going to be around much longer.

- NZ Herald

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