COMMENT:

Simon Bridges is a work in progress.

That's his own assessment on the eve of his first National Party conference as leader, and an acknowledgment that he has some way to go to be the alternative Prime Minister.

He says he is "match fit" after holding 66 public meetings in a countrywide roadshow to introduce himself to voters.

Advertisement

"It has given me a real confidence, confidence in our policy positions, a sense of reassurance about where New Zealand is at relative to us, what people are looking for, but more than that, match fit, a sense that I know what I'm about."

So did the voters like him?

"Yeah I think they did. I'd often had the remark that 'you're pretty good, we like you, we like what you're doing'."

Likeability was important, said Bridges, but it was not the only factor. Work-rate mattered and giving people a sense that you are capable of doing the big job.

"I want to make sure I keep improving. I am a work in progress. I want to evolve. I want to make sure I am rounded in my policy bearings. I want to make sure I feel sharper today that I did even a month ago, that a month ago I was sharper than I was two months ago, that I'm sharp, that I'm giving direct clear answers to the media on behalf of New Zealanders."

Bridges, 41, has had 25 years in the party, 10 years as an MP, and five years as a minister including in senior roles such as Economic Development and Transport.

Bridges inherited a party that has undergone a massive transition in the past 18 months, losing popular leader John Key when he quit as Prime Minister, not being able to form a Government after the 2017 election despite remaining the biggest party under Bill English, then losing English and another pillar of the party, Steven Joyce.

Despite those significant losses, the party's polling average last month was 45.1 per cent, compared to Labour on 42.8 per cent, the Greens on 5.4 per cent and New Zealand First on 3.3 per cent (compiled by Curia on public polls including TV1's Colmar Brunton and Newshub's Reid Research).

Bridges himself has pretty dismal ratings as preferred Prime Minister against Jacinda Ardern (9 per cent vs 40 per cent in the latest Reid Research poll and 12 per cent vs 41 per cent in Colmar Brunton's).

Advertisement

"It's not unimportant," said Bridges. "But ultimately we are a parliamentary not a presidential system and so my colleagues and I feel pretty buoyed that we are in a historic situation. We are nearly a year in. The party that was in Government, now in Opposition, is still very popular, very relevant.

"What I seek isn't some big jump but a slow, sure rise in my preferred Prime Minister ratings.

"I don't want to be a flash in the pan. I want to earn the faith of New Zealanders over time as they see who I am, the kind of leader I am and the capabilities I have to do the job."

Bridges has had to contend with Winston Peters as Acting Prime Minister for the past five weeks and has one more week of him before Ardern returns from maternity leave.

Asked if he would have to be more mindful of his attacks on Ardern when she returns to politics as a new mother, he said: "I will be cognisant of someone who is a new mother, but she is Prime Minister. There will be straight questions we want answers to."

As for the sort of relationship he wants National to have with New Zealand First — which kept National out of power — he won't be drawn.

Several issues recently, such as support for West Coast mining or opposing repeal of Three Strikes legislation, had shown the common ground between the parties.

While Bridges said he would not rule out working with the party in the future he was not thinking about that. "I'm not thinking about the election. I'm thinking about the fact that Winston Peters, Shane Jones, Ron Mark, Tracey Martin are Government ministers and our most important role at the moment is holding them to account."

He insists that his strong positions on law and order and on sanctions on beneficiaries were based on genuine beliefs, not point scoring for the sake of it. "I firmly and fervently believe what I say on law and order and I believe what I say on welfare. I'm not doing these things for some kind of cheap political hit."

Bridges and the National caucus has been slammed this week for its lack of collegiality over medicinal cannabis, having ambushed the Government with its own bill which was much broader and detailed than the one before the House.

"My approach and the approach of the National Party is one where we are going to outwork this Government and we are going to really show them how to lead."

He credited Whangarei MP Shane Reti for doing the work of "about 100 Government officials" for that work.

Other MPs who have impressed him include Chris Bishop who he said had done "a remarkably good job in police". He loved working with deputy Paula Bennett and finance spokeswoman Amy Adams.

"They are my inner team. Judith Collins has done a fantastic job in housing as well. They are the names of a few stars but it has been a strong collective effort."