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Rebuilding Bridges: New Zealand wasn’t ready for a Māori Prime Minister – Simon Bridges

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Former National Party leader Simon Bridges is enjoying life out of the political cauldron. Photo / Dean Purcell

Former National Party leader Simon Bridges – the first Māori to lead a major New Zealand political party – has no regrets about walking away from the red hot cauldron of politics.

But the 47-year-old Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO wonders if the country was prepared or even ready for a Māori Prime Minister, when he had his shot at the top job.

Two years away from the media spotlight, Bridges likes the life he, his wife Natalie and children Harry, Emlyn and Jemima have carved out in Auckland.

His Auckland Chamber gig, along with his role as chair of NZ Transport Agency Waka Kotahi (NZTA), chair of a separate company and a few business ventures with “a couple of mates” keeps the political junkie satisfied.

Bridges says he can look back at his career in politics, from 2008-2022 – he became the 12th leader of the National Party in 2018 – with pride and satisfaction.

National MP for Tauranga Simon Bridges announcing his retirement from politics during a press conference at Parliament, Wellington. 15 March. Photo / Mark Mitchell
National MP for Tauranga Simon Bridges announcing his retirement from politics during a press conference at Parliament, Wellington. 15 March. Photo / Mark Mitchell

“If I reflect on my time as leader of the National Party, I would wear the kōrowai [cloak] a bit more lightly,” Bridges told the Herald.

“I didn’t think enough about race relations prior to becoming leader of National, but came to realise through my own story of being a white Māori… Only on becoming leader did I see that people saw me in a bunch of ways. A lot of people didn’t see me as a Māori and had views whether I was too Māori, not enough Māori, and me not being entirely comfortable with that got me to a position where I still think race is very fraught in New Zealand, more than we like to pretend.”

“It’s easy for some to say we need to be more colour blind – that’s not the real reality.”

Bridges entered Parliament as a fresh faced 31-year-old, having worked as a Crown prosecutor in Tauranga.

He remembers he had locked up a few bad guys.

“If I was still living in the Bay of Plenty, I’m sure I would run into people I had sent to jail,” Bridges said.

“There were a couple of cases where you knew guys would come out of prison and you worry, but I’m not as cynical as I once was, where I used to look around and see criminals everywhere.”

But it was the political court where Bridges wanted to make his biggest victories and he quickly worked his way up the party ladder.

“By the time I became leader of the National Party, I had been lucky and John Key saw something in me and I kept getting promoted,” Bridges said.

“I was No 4 in the Government, so at one level I was ready for the leadership and I knew at one level it was always going to be a heroic task to become prime minister.

“I was not sure if New Zealand was ready for a Māori Prime Minister.

“When I accepted the leadership, I looked at others who didn’t take their shots and it passed them by and I thought, I’m going for it. It was worth a crack and I knew it would be an uphill battle but we polled well – then Covid got us.

“Was I ready? Maybe not, but I was as prepared as anyone.”

It wasn’t only Covid that got National – the Jacinda Ardern effect had just swept the country. After losing the leadership, Bridges ultimately decided to leave national politics in 2022. He had been considering that move for a while.

“I ultimately left politics because of family and life. I knew I could stay in politics for another decade and get older, fatter and grumpier and my kids wouldn’t know me,” Bridges said.

“The honest answer was the chance to become prime minister had probably passed me by at some level. I could have stayed high in the Government ranks, but I had done that and I thought get out now, and get to know the kids.”

An accident to son Harry also helped make his decision for him.

Simon Bridges, wife Natalie and children, Emlyn, left, Harry and Jemima, on Parliament Steps before his valedictory speech in Parliament in 2022. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Simon Bridges, wife Natalie and children, Emlyn, left, Harry and Jemima, on Parliament Steps before his valedictory speech in Parliament in 2022. Photo / Mark Mitchell

“Harry had a bad accident with a swing at school and [it] was serious and [that] crystallised my decision to leave politics,” Bridges said.

“I was too busy at the time to see how important is was and realised, in my mid 40s I still had time to get out there and do some really cool stuff, away from the 100 hour political working weeks.

“It was family, life, and what happened with Harry, and I was toying with the idea of staying in politics and move to Auckland. I think Christoper Luxon would have allowed me to do that but when I really started to think about it, it was a good time to get out.

“I sometimes miss the adrenaline but don’t regret getting out.

“Right now I have three text messages – two from Natalie. If I was still on the frontline of politics, I would have 40. That constant sense of being needed by other people also helped ny decision.

“Life is objectively awesome. We have managed to craft a great life in Auckland and [are] really enjoying what we are doing.

“I have the Chamber work, am chair of NZTA, I chair a company board and have a couple little commercial ventures with a couple of mates.

“I wasn’t previously but I can say I am an Auckland businessperson.

“I enjoy the portfolio I have and the work I am doing with the Chamber of Commerce is wide and keeps me extremely busy.”

“We are a happier ‘normal’ family and have made the decision to get a dog – a Sidney Silky terrier

“I miss the adrenaline some days but I don’t miss the 100-hour working weeks.”

The Auckland City skyline with potential mayoral hopefuls Richard Hills (from left), Desley Simpson, Paula Bennett, Simon Bridges, Wayne Brown and Michael Wood. Photos / NZME, Fiona Goodall
The Auckland City skyline with potential mayoral hopefuls Richard Hills (from left), Desley Simpson, Paula Bennett, Simon Bridges, Wayne Brown and Michael Wood. Photos / NZME, Fiona Goodall

But would he consider a run at the Auckland mayoralty?

“I would say it’s unlikely. To be honest, I can’t rule it out, but can’t see it,” Bridges said.

“But life is a long time and I do have a character flaw and like to keep things interesting and mix things up. I absolutely can’t see it, but I’m not going to rule it out because that’s disingenuous and dishonest.

“What I want for my life is fun,stimulation and significance – by that I mean doing things that help and impact others.”

Joseph Los’e is an award winning journalist and joined NZME in 2022 as Kaupapa Māori Editor. Los’e was a chief reporter, news director at the Sunday News newspaper covering crime, justice and sport. He was also editor of the NZ Truth and prior to joining NZME, worked for Urban Māori organisation Whānau Waipareira.



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