Comparing Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges this week has been even more asymmetrical than usual.

Bridges' support within his own caucus seems to be shrinking at the same rate as Ardern's reputation is growing internationally.

Ardern has had no fewer than four glowing tributes this week about her leadership after the Christchurch mosque attacks from international figures.


Editor and writer Tina Brown talking on CNN about how women do politics differently chose to highlight Ardern.

US presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg name-checked her in an interview with the New Yorker's David Remnick about new-generation leaders.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour in an interview on CNN spoke in glowing terms as a direct and articulate woman who had brought the country together in a remarkable way.

And Oprah Winfrey, in a speech to the Women in the World Summit in New York, lavished praise on Ardern with industrial-strength treacle.

"I've never seen such leadership," Winfrey said. "The Prime Minister is a woman who has such courage in her convictions and has set a global standard for leadership with her response…

"We have to make the choice every single day to channel our own inner Jacindas; to exemplify the truth, and the respect and the grace that we actually wish for the world," she gushed.

Few in New Zealand would disagree that Ardern has displayed outstanding leadership in the four weeks since the attacks, although it would be good to get back to the time when we could criticise Ardern without it feeling sacrilegious. It would help if she made more mistakes.

Ardern continued her good judgment and leadership in two other Christchurch-related matters this week.

Illustration / Guy Body
Illustration / Guy Body

She announced the respected judge Sir William Young to lead the Royal Commission of Inquiry – an excellent choice as he is second in seniority only to new Chief Justice Helen Winkelmann on the Supreme Court - and a decision which also gives Winkelmann more space to stamp her own authority on the court.

Ardern also took the highly unusual step of leading the third reading debate on the bill to rid New Zealand of the most dangerous of firearms. It was more material for her growing international audience.

And she made a big deal of the bipartisan support from National in her speech.

While National's young Chris Bishop did a valiant job in being first up to respond on behalf of his party, as parliamentary symbolism went it was highly asymmetrical.

Bridges was missing in action. He was not prepared for the debate because he did not know about it enough in advance.

It certainly would have been a more sincere bipartisan exercise by the Government if it had given National notice of Ardern's intention to lead the debate. It was petty not to do so.

Ardern's growing stature would hardly be dimmed, nor Bridges' inflated by giving him sufficient opportunity to prepare for it.

The only risk Ardern carries at the moment is seen to be caring too much about her international support base.

But the gun debate was the least of Bridges' problems this week.

While Ardern was being feted over her decisive leadership in the firearms ban, Bridges' main contribution to the public discourse was a repeated no-comment to questions about an employment dispute with a press secretary.

The contrast could not have been more stark.

Bridges also found himself the subject to a fresh of attacks from ex-colleague Jami-lee Ross.

The internal employment dispute is more problematic than Jami-lee Ross. Ross has done his worst and his allegations about donations are now in the hands of the Serious Fraud Office.

Simon Bridges was
Simon Bridges was "missing in action: this week. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The employment dispute with press secretary Brian Anderton, however, is seen by many National MPs as having been mismanaged by Bridges and his closest advisers.

The changing answers from National about why its petition against the UN Migration Pact was taken down after the mosque attacks have been widely construed as lies rather than misunderstandings.

There has been little attempt by those in the thick of it to set the record straight. The vacuum has been replaced by accusation and speculation likely to be much worse than the reality.

Bridges' description of Anderton as an emotional junior staffer has been seen as pejorative, even though it was strictly true that he did not have the seniority to take down the petition on the night of the killings – when the whole country was in a deeply emotional state.

Essentially, Bridges is getting a reputation as a leader who compounds problems when he steps in, rather than clearing them up, and of attracting people with similar traits.

The dispute with Anderton is similar to the Maureen Pugh issue. In the eyes of the caucus, the slagging off of a colleague (revealed in secretly recorded tapes by Jami-lee Ross) as useless was unforgivable disloyalty.

Many MPs believe Bridges has not shown Anderton the loyalty that should be accorded to long-serving staff members who make an error.

It is his dealing on smaller personal issues such as Pugh and Anderton that have given Bridges' colleagues reason to question his judgment.

The so-called inquiry into National's culture ordered in the aftermath of the Jami-lee Ross saga appears to lacked rigour. No one knows who did it, no one can find anyone who was spoken to for it, Bridges says it is a party matter, and the party says it will wait until the Debbie Francis review into bullying at Parliament before it issues any comment on its own review.

Bridges' leadership is not over yet. That may depend as much on what the Government does as it does on Bridges' own inadequacies.

Labour's boost in support because of Ardern's leadership through the mosque attacks may be short-term if it reveals a deluxe capital gains tax later this month rather than a pared-down version.

She attempted to use her popularity in the last election campaign to seek a mandate to impose any capital gains tax she liked in the current term, and was then forced to drop it when National made mince-meant of her tax plans.

She is not likely to make the same mistake twice.

She has learned a lot about leadership since then, even if Simon Bridges hasn't.