Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Young, bright and aiming for the top

Tauranga MP Simon Bridges says he is a real Kiwi, a part-Maori who grew up in West Auckland.  Photo / Mark Mitchell
Tauranga MP Simon Bridges says he is a real Kiwi, a part-Maori who grew up in West Auckland. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Tauranga MP Simon Bridges is both blessed and cursed.

He is blessed with attributes that could take him all the way to the top of politics.

He is cursed with the predictions that he could make it all the way to the top of politics. This week marked a milestone in his political journey, wherever it ends.

He was elevated to a ministerial post following the ill wind that ended Nick Smith's journey. He acquired the portfolios of Consumer Affairs, Associate Climate Change and Associate Transport, outside the Cabinet.

It's been a big few weeks: the work promotion followed the arrival three weeks ago of his first baby, a boy with the Welsh name Emlyn after his mother's Welsh heritage.

Simon Bridges met his wife, Natalie, in the common room at St Catherine's College, Oxford University. He was studying law and she was studying the Romantic poets.

He is ambitious and very self-aware. By his own account he was more lippy than a rebel at Rutherford College in Te Atatu. At Auckland University, he joined the Young Nationals. He has never smoked cannabis.

Now a 35-year-old MP, Bridges describes himself as a hard worker and a professional, a diligent person - "I wouldn't use the word earnest because that doesn't sound good," he quips. "I hope that I'm not going to be someone who is blustering or all heat and no light. I hope that I can in reality and perception be someone who is a substantial politician who brings a real thoughtfulness to the portfolios that I've got."

He had a cruisy first term, gaining a soft TV profile as the handsome young National MP pitted regularly against the lovely young Labour MP Jacinda Ardern, then as a volunteer at the RSPCA on a heart-wrenching episode of the television show Make the Politician Work, a role chosen after his success in getting penalties for cruelty to animals increased.

Bridges had a relatively easy entrance to politics. The young Crown prosecutor beat Winston Peters in his last stand in Tauranga in 2008, though Bob Clarkson had done the hard job of ousting Peters in 2005.

Bridges faces tests as a minister that should demonstrate if he has what it takes to go further, such as coming to grips with the eye-watering complexity of climate change policy.

No one doubts his intelligence. But intelligence does not always guarantee political ability.

Asked which ministers he admires, he nominates without hesitation John Key, whom he calls "a complete article".

"When you think about him as politician and his both intellect and EQ [emotional intelligence], he is a complete package so it is hard to go past him in terms of his style and the way he does things."

"He is not an academic but he is intellectual," says Bridges.

He also makes special mention of Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, Trade Minister Tim Groser, and former Justice Minister Simon Power.

Power is mentioned not so much for his liberalising crusade in the justice system - Bridges put away too many murderers, rapists and kidnappers to be in that camp - but for the way he went about his job.

"He set an agenda and was exceptionally clear in following through his agenda. He had real strength of purpose. He was working to a programme systematically. I admire that."

Bridges describes himself as part-Maori and was raised in Te Atatu by his teacher mother, a Pakeha, and Baptist minister father, of Maniapoto descent.

He talked in his maiden speech about how his father's mother, Naku Joseph, had stayed in an unhappy relationship with her hard-living husband "because in those days last century she thought that marriage to a Pakeha man was bettering herself and her children's prospects".

He doesn't have close links to his tribal area but he and his family were invited to his marae last term for what was a special and memorable day.

Bridge's ethnicity was evidently missed by Labour's David Cunliffe, who recently referred to him as the "perma-tanned member". Bridges wasn't offended but in apologising, Cunliffe said he hadn't realised he was Maori.

Bridges sustained a more hurtful attack last term from Labour MP Shane Jones, a fluent speaker of te reo, who called Bridges a "cultural truant" for his attempts at speaking Maori and said he "runs from mirror to mirror".

The accusation was commonly made against Peters, who always said with a wry smile he was "just happy to be the member for Tauranga" when prime ministerial ambitions were raised.

Bridges is irked by questions of leadership. He works hard to project a semblance of modesty - not always successfully.

"I'm not going to be cute with you and say that I'm just happy being the MP for Tauranga. I am ambitious and ... I absolutely want to be a minister and let's face facts right now but being blunt right now, I am auditioning to be a Cabinet minister.

"But I am walking before I can run. I just think issues about leadership and so on are hypothetical, they are speculative, and actually at my level of experience, they are ridiculous."

One of the most defining features of Simon Bridges is his exaggerated Kiwi accent, an accent which has drawn plenty of comment. Sir Robert Jones told him he needed elocution lessons.

"I wanted to tell him to get stuffed but I didn't."

He puts it down to two factors: being the son of a preacher and doing court work every day for eight years.

"You get very methodical and deliberate in your speaking style. And I have a lot of constituents who are new immigrants who love how I speak because it's slow and they can follow every word I say.

"I think what is true about me is I'm a real Kiwi product, part Maori, grew up in West Auckland. I would resist any change now to my accent. It is what it is."

Now that he is a family man with a new ministerial career beginning, perhaps it could be said he has "arrived".

Bridges thinks that is over-stating it.

"I'm on my way," he says before understating it even further. "I'm on the start of being on my way."

- NZ Herald

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