There was a time when Leader of the Opposition used to be called the worst job in politics.

That was before Simon Bridges got it.

There hasn't been a happier Opposition Leader.

The Government has had three miserable weeks out of the past four, mired in misfortune of its own making, including ministerial mishaps involving Clare Curran and Shane Jones, positioning on Russia, and hasty transport announcements.


The Government regained its equilibrium only this week, as it needed to, before Jacinda Ardern could comfortably head off to the Commonwealth Games, Europe and Commonwealth summit during the parliamentary recess.

Its announcement on the inquiry into the Hit and Run allegations of war crimes and the momentous decision to ban any new offshore gas and oil exploration permits has put it back in control.

Whether or not you agree with their decisions, they were measured and reasoned.

Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson also began in earnest their attempts to lower expectations for their first Budget next month, although with more mixed success.

While most of the coalition's misfortunes have been self-inflicted, the past four weeks have created an unexpected sense of vulnerability in a Government so new .

It is too soon to tell yet whether the weaknesses will remain or if it just got the wobbles because its 100-days trainer wheels came off.

But the lesson of the past few weeks is clear: the Opposition is capable of capitalising on its weaknesses and that constitutes a very successful start for Bridges.

It was one thing for Bill English to say there has never been a stronger Opposition- numerically he was right.

It is quite another to actually function strongly or competently. But it has, and from the top.

It has been a fairly seamless transition for Bridges who has been in job only 47 days after a five-way contest for the job.

Bridges has benefited from low expectations. Most observers are surprised that he has taken to the job so confidently.

It doesn't mean he will be able to compete with Ardern for popularity. He is a more polarising figure.

She has it over him in the House on most days but he hasn't disgraced himself yet.

The lesson of the past few weeks is clear: the Opposition is capable of capitalising on its weaknesses and that constitutes a very successful start for Bridges.

His biggest challenge is not to be liked but to be noticed by voters, and then to present himself as a strong alternative.

Fortuitously, two of the Government's biggest issues of the day, roads and oil and gas, Bridges knows backwards as a former Transport Minister and former Energy Minister.

And agree or disagree with him, they have given him a platform to speak with some knowledge and authority.

Both issues will have a long running life in the term of this Government and both are defining issues.

Not least they will both be crucial to National's bid to undermine New Zealand First as self-proclaimed champions of the regions.

The Government mishandled its transport announcements - a hike in fuel excise across the country and ditching the next set of significant state highway projects (such as four-laning Wellsford to Whangarei) in favour of greater public transport funding in Auckland including rail.

The lasting impression is that regional New Zealand will be subsidising the transport demands of Auckland.

New Zealand First's recent claim to victory has been running an offset compensation scheme for regional damage done by others' cuts to irrigation schemes, roading projects, or exploration.

Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson

The effects of the decision to ban future oil and gas exploration at sea may not be as tangible as the roading ones.

But the effects of the ban may be more difficult for the Government to handle than the parochial roading one.

It affects not just how it handles Taranaki, historically the most enterprising region of the country, but also the Government's reputation as the steward of the wider economy.

Bridges compares its approach to a "wrecking ball" which may seem like hyperbole but the investment climate, Government as well as foreign, may be about to take a turn for the worse.

Infometrics yesterday forecast a 2.9 per cent contraction in Government investment spending over the next 18 months in part due to large roading contracts coming to a halt, with few new ones to replace them.

It also forecasts a slump in net migration to 17,000 by 2021 and economic growth slipping to below 2 per cent next year before it picks up in 2020 – none of which can readily be blamed on the last Government.

Ardern and Robertson began in earnest on Monday to blame the previous Government for anticipated limitations of the Budget on May 17.

In the days leading up to Monday's press conference, both had variously suggested former Health Minister Jonathan Coleman had been responsible for leaky buildings at Middlemore and that desperate health boards had been using their capital expenditure on operational expenditure (pretty much a sackable offence).

In the absence of any supporting facts, Ardern decided to call the situation at Middlemore "emblematic," a label which seems to mean it can still be used for political purposes even if it is not true.

Simon Bridges did the only thing he could do and insisted if the previous Government had known about it, it would have fixed it – and kept his fingers crossed that no one in National had been told.

The contradictory messaging will no doubt continue up to the Budget: Bridges is saying National left a sound economy and the books in excellent shape with plenty of options for the next Government; and Ardern is saying Labour is having to make up for so much under-spending in health and education that things will be tight.

At some point they will be switching – he will be lamenting the state of the economy and she will be taking credit for revitalising the health and education sectors.

Bridges has cause to be happy with his start as Opposition Leader but it is not a role he will be happy having for too long.