Simon Wilson: No kumbaya please, I’m Simon Bridges


There was a moment last week when I thought I might be falling in love with Simon Bridges. I know, this could be fatal for both of us.

I was 62 pages into his book National Identity and he was writing about teenage party life. “A couple of guys in my class, drunk, turned on me for no reason. In seeking to beat me up, as I tried to get away, they tried to rip my shirt off. I ran and walked home through the streets of West Auckland that night without a top on.”

It’s the “ran and walked”. That awful unhappiness and fear and impotent fury. And roiling through it all, humiliation.

Bridges calls himself an “outsider”, although he’s more like the rest of us than he wants to think. Who hasn’t been the kid who can’t make the awfulness go away?

Most of us don’t talk about it. Simon Bridges does.

His fickle friends turned on him again last year, pushing him off the party leader’s pedestal, punching him in the face and ripping off his shirt. Been here, done this, he must have been thinking.

He’d had National polling in the 40s. He was the only coherent choice for leader they had. But try telling them that. And then, all those smug bullies, some with their private school entitlements, others with their pampered executive lives, they turned out to be idiots.

Bridges doesn’t spend much time on it in the book, confining himself to the observation that “the bedwetters won”.

When it happened, though, he didn’t run and walk home through the lonely night. He picked himself up and decided to live a better life.

Apart from having more quality time with the family, it’s clear he doesn’t really know how he’s going to do it. But he’s more relaxed and he’s embracing the adventure.

This book is the story of how he became the kind of man who can do that.

He starts extremely well, with a chapter called Race. It’s Bridges setting out his whakapapa fully in accordance with tikanga Māori, without ever mentioning that’s what he’s doing.

He’s Māori mainly through his paternal grandmother, who deliberately steered her children away from their Māoriness. But he’s connected to his “home marae”, where the respect flows both ways even if they don’t all agree with his politics.

He makes the case that there are all sorts of Māori. He makes it clear he is sometimes hurt by the condescending sneers he gets from journalists – he names NewstalkZB’s Barry Soper – and political opponents and others, about his race, his politics, his faith, his background and especially his accent. But he is not deterred by them.

“I am Simon Bridges,” he says, ending the chapter, “and I am Māori.” This is writing shot through with plain-speaking brilliance.

After Race come Nationality, Class and Masculinity. All of them, finely written and provocative.

He confesses he’d rather read a history book than watch a game of rugby and he can’t back a boat trailer. In Tauranga, he says, many voters define their masculinity through owning a boat and a ute to tow it with.

He writes devastatingly about trying to get a summer law clerking job. His grades were good enough to get him interviews with all the top firms, but none made him a job offer because he didn’t know how to behave like a toff from Kings.

He also writes frankly about strained relationships with his father, his mother, his wife. He tells us so often his marriage is strong, you wonder who he’s trying to convince. He loves his kids desperately but keeps their noise as far away as possible.

He’s obsessed with his own desire for solitude and silence. “When I read something late at night while my household sleeps happily around me, sometimes it’s so beautiful I cry.” His faith is important, the beauties of nature all the proof he needs that God exists.

Oddly, in what may be a first, there’s no Acknowledgements section. Herald journalist Steve Braunias has written in the Guardian that he helped to shepherd the manuscript on its way, but even he doesn’t get a nod. What’s going on? Not thanking your editor or the other people who helped make the book feels like deceit is at work.

It’s “not a political memoir,” Bridges announces on the cover. True in a way: he doesn’t dish the dirt or relitigate his political life. You won’t discover why he allowed Jami-Lee Ross into his inner circle or what he thinks of Judith Collins.

In fact, apart from a bit of grumbling about Jacinda Ardern, the only politician about whom he has anything bad to say is Gerry Brownlee. When Bridges was leader he gave Brownlee the foreign affairs role, but then Brownlee supported the coup against him, so that was a “fat lot of use”.

You never quite know with this book how carefully the author has chosen his words.

Despite the disclaimer, this is a political work. Those early chapters read as a primer for the conservative movement about how to live in New Zealand today. This, Bridges plainly implies, is why your complacent views about race, class and what’s acceptable for male behaviour are wrong.

Indeed, “complacency” is his big enemy. It manifests as snobbery and as settling for “the bach, the boat and the Beamer”. It means not confronting the country’s problems, whether in crime or education or the risk of conflict between the US and China.

But what does he want us to do? That’s where the problems set in, because after the first four chapters something changes. Cliches, tangled language and a kind of studied hokeyness tumble in.

“Music can be a spiritual experience,” he tells us, as if it’s a new idea. And, “Books are diamonds, and diamonds are forever.” It’s like Dad jokes, applied to normal thinking.

Bold and innovative policy ideas? Not so much. Bridges can be hard to follow. He’s “tough on crime”, but says, “I accept… the causes of crime are incredibly complex. I actually accept that among the many contributing factors are colonialism and institutional racism.”

Also, when people are in prison, it’s important “to connect rangatahi with their hapū and iwi, provide skills and training to those who need it, and offer mental health services to the unwell.”

This language wouldn’t be out of place in Labour or the Greens. But is he challenging his party? Or is he saying that although he knows what the right thing to do is, that’s less important than the popular thing?

The answer comes when he moves on to electric vehicles, a cause Bridges proudly championed when in Government. But later, as Opposition leader, he led the attack on the new Government’s feebate scheme, even though members of his caucus wanted to support it.

Why? Because weekly polling showed it would be popular to oppose the scheme, so they opposed it. He derides the National MPs who disagreed, saying they wanted “kumbaya”.

Kumbaya is what Bridges calls being soft-headed enough to agree with the other side. Bridges is not a conviction politician and he doesn’t mind if you know it.

Ah well. He did not steal my heart. But he is longer haired and looser limbed now and, just like the Dude, he abides.

Is he happier, as he implies, or sadder? I don’t know that I’d want to say.

He still drums. On an electronic kit, in his “man cave out the back of my garage … I put on soulful tunes and feel alright as I play along”.

National Identity: Confessions of an outsider, by Simon Bridges, Harper Collins, $37.99, on sale as soon as bookshops open.

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