New National Party leader has not built bridges to business, writes Tim McCready.
CEOs and directors of New Zealand's largest companies were asked to rate Simon Bridges' leadership of the National Party on a scale where 1=not impressive and 5=very impressive. They gave him a middling grade of 2.44/5. This is down on the rating of 3.16/5 Bridges received as a cabinet minister in last year's survey.
In an effort to boost his low preferred Prime Minister ratings, Bridges invested a lot of time into his 'getting to know Simon' roadshow around the country.
"I'm working incredibly hard as Opposition Leader to get out there and understand what's happening in New Zealand. I'm getting out and doing the hard mahi," said Bridges.
The tour caused controversy — and a subsequent investigation into the expenses leak — when it was revealed he spent nearly $113,973 on his charm offensive tour.
Worse still, CEOs don't think it has raised his profile in the way Bridges would have hoped for.
"He doesn't have the necessary gravitas and charisma to get cut through," said a professional director. He is a smart guy, but not a credible leader on camera, and therefore, he won't get public support," said the CEO of an agribusiness firm.
"National is going to need a more compelling leader if they are to be elected in the next election," surmised the boss of a large food and beverage business. Some pointed to his "prosecutor" style — criticising Ardern for anything her Government does, without offering a constructive alternative policy or action.
On the policy front, chief executives would like Bridges to share more of his vision for what National stands for, putting forward a clear direction for New Zealand and sharing his future aspirations for the country.
"It seems like opposition for opposition's sake," said Infrastructure NZ CEO Stephen Selwood. "Negativity is hard to like. National needs to take the moral high ground and invest in strong policy research that will take New Zealand forward. In an MMP world they need to build effective partnerships."
Added an energy boss: "We are all waiting for a real punch to land. Bridges' best day since Labour got in was the in-house haggle on the floor of Parliament when they were trying to sort votes for the Speaker on day one. He hasn't got close to that high-water mark since."
Former National opposition leader Don Brash was more forgiving, suggesting that "in due course he will need both to disown some of National's past mistakes (such as a complete failure to improve the RMA and the shambles created by the Marine and Coastal Area Act) and spell out where National will do better — both than the Government and the previous National Government".
Big shoes to fill
In his eight months as leader of the National Party, Bridges has discovered Bill English and John Key's shoes as party leaders are not easy to fill.
The contrast between Bridges and the highly popular National leaders who preceded him was noted by respondents.
"To be fair, it was a hospital pass taking over from John Key and Bill English… but he looks out of his depth to me," responded one chairperson.
"Bridges has a major communications issue.
"He may be trying to emulate Key's style, but he is failing woefully," said a professional director.
Others were more pragmatic, suggesting that — given time — Bridges will have a greater impact on the electorate. "It is hard to make an impact in opposition and he is new to the role," says independent director Dame Alison Paterson.
This sentiment was echoed by a telecommunications boss: "It feels like he is still finding his feet."
A real estate CEO added that Bridges is growing in stature.
"He is unknown by many but he is slowly getting out and meeting people. His ratings are low, but party vote confidence will build this.
"It has been a quiet start but he is now starting to ramp things up as he gets more confidence."
A residential construction firm boss advised: "I get a sense that National still feel 'we were robbed' as opposed to 'we failed to take our chances when we had them and missed the key penalty'," said a residential construction boss.
"National may be the largest party in Parliament, but unless you have more than 60 votes, that matters not. Ditch the 'John Key Lite' impersonation, ask where you can get a credible alternative for partners, and get the team focused on laying out credible alternative policies for the genuine social and infrastructural issues that New Zealanders have demonstrated they care about."
Interestingly, towards the end of the three-week survey period there were more stumbles by the Government for the opposition to grapple with — including the sacking of Ministers Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri, the botched CTO appointment, and Jacinda Ardern mis-speaking on GDP figures — yet the average rating given for this question didn't really change over time.