He climbed through the National Party ranks under John Key and Bill English, held various ministerial posts, and married Natalie. (They now have three children — Emlyn, Harry, and Jemima.)
Then, just two months ago, he became the leader of the Nats. And, as a result of the party’s defeat in the election last year, he also became the Leader of the Opposition.
He’s been chatting with Dale about what he was doing before landing this double-barrelled job — and about some of his views, particularly on issues of special interest to Māori.
Kia ora, Simon. Thank you for joining us on e-Tangata. Now, for a start, let’s touch on your whakapapa.
Well, my Māori side comes through my dad’s mum, Naku Joseph, who was Ngāti Maniapoto. She was from the Oparure marae near Te Kuiti.
My dad, Heath Bridges, doesn’t talk a lot about his background, but from time to time, since I went into politics, people have approached me and told me stories about him and his parents when he was growing up.
So I’ve heard that they lived in fairly straitened home circumstances. For instance, no wallpaper on the walls. And Heath’s father, Alf, never liked to entertain or have people in the home. He was well-regarded, though. He was a plasterer, liked a beer, and he was into horse racing.
Heath was, I think, a quiet, nerdy guy. And his sister, Lorna, was a beautiful young woman. Dad became an accountant, found the Lord, went to Baptist College in Auckland, and became a Baptist minister.
And, all my life, he’s never touched a drop of alcohol. He’s been a straight living, straight-up sort of a guy.
My mother, Ruth, has been a primary school teacher.
You’re the youngest of six. As we know, sometimes the teina are spoiled and sometimes they get a hard time. What was your experience? Good or bad?
Good. Probably a bit spoiled, but by the time I came along, my mum and dad were inclined towards hands-off parenting. Almost negligent, by today’s standards. I was kinda allowed to get out and do what I wanted to do. But they were always there for me. And Mum was very self-sacrificing and hardworking for us all.
You learn various lessons, though, as the youngest. The other night I was at a dinner and I ate my meal quickly because I knew I had to get up and speak while the rest were finishing their meals.
And some people were, I think, impressed by how quick I ate my meal. But you learn that, in a family of six, you gotta be in to win and you gotta move fast — or else the chocolate biscuits would be gone.
I imagine your siblings would’ve had a hand in your upbringing?
That’s true. Especially Rebekah and Rachel. Rebekah was like a second mother really. But, by the time I was 10 or 11, most of my brothers and sisters had moved on because they were significantly older than me. One or two of them came back a bit after sojourns overseas and the like. So basically, when they left, it was just me growing up with a slightly elderly mum and dad.
You went to Rutherford High and did well there. Head Boy, in fact. Did you mix with the Māori kids?
Yeah, of course. When I look back, it’s clear that we didn’t really think about race in the way perhaps that we do as adults. My best friend at primary school was Orlo, a young Samoan lad. And another best friend was Frank Nathan, a Māori boy.
At Rutherford, where June Mariu was teaching, there were the kids who just steered clear of all of that culture — and then there were those who were immersed in it.
I probably stood slightly in the middle. I dipped in at times but I didn’t think a lot about cultural issues, although I do remember being really taken, in our sixth form history class, by the James Belich book The New Zealand Wars. That really got me thinking about our history and Māori culture.
I get the impression that you were quite diligent.
I was a bit of a swot. I enjoyed schoolwork, did very well in class, and I enjoyed debating, too, although I think some of my teachers thought I was too cheeky.
Were you ever embarrassed because you were Māori?
No. Not embarrassed. In fact, when I read the James Belich book, I remember being very proud. We were fierce warriors — and very smart strategic warriors. Very clever people with their use of trench work in warfare. I loved history and that was part of what led me on to do history as well as law at university.
I’ve read that you’ve described yourself as a “compassionate conservative” — and also, perhaps more surprisingly, that you joined the National Party when you were only 16. How come?
Well, I could tell from the reading I did on political history and famous figures — American presidents, for instance, and British prime ministers and so on — that politics mattered. It was and is still what makes the world tick, for good or for ill.
Then I saw some people out canvassing for the National Party at Te Atatu North’s Foodtown, where I worked. And I thought: “Yeah. I want to be part of that.” I’d been thinking about it for a little while.
Being a politician had been among my career choices — along with being the conductor of an orchestra, a rock band musician, and a talkback host. I think that, early on, the National Party, in my mind, was the party for individuals wanting to work hard and do well. And that’s still basically my vision for New Zealand.
I want to ensure that a young guy like me can rise up and succeed through the power of education and hard work, whether you’re Māori, Pasifika, Asian, Pākehā or whatever.
It’s that same sort of story that you and I talked about before on Radio Waatea, in relation to Dan Bidois, who’s standing for National in the Northcote byelection — a guy who went to school, dropped out, did a butcher’s apprenticeship, but found his way back to university in Auckland and then to Harvard in the US.
Do you think that, as Māori, we’re burdened by the hara and the damage done in the past — and that maybe we’re putting more effort into dealing with our grievances than in fulfilling our potential? Perhaps we’re bogged down by our history rather than being inspired by our future. And perhaps our social welfare system has done a disservice to us.
It’s a very complex issue. Do we need a social welfare net that protects the most vulnerable? Of course we do. It’s also true that, as Māori have moved from rural communities into the cities, an underclass has developed.
But I think a settlement process is absolutely the right course to take. So I back Andrew Little, the Labour minister now in charge of Treaty settlements, to be thoughtful and fair and to go as hard and expeditiously as he can to settle those Treaty claims. And National will be fully behind him.
But we want to get through those settlements so that, as a people, Māoridom aren’t just focused on the past and the wrongs they’ve suffered, even though they’re very real, and justice needs to be done.
Many of us regard the Treaty — and hopefully you do, too — as our foundation document. But then we see a Treaty settlement regime in which Māori have been accepting “two cents in the dollar” deals. That’s the view of many Māori anyway. Do you think that, overall, New Zealanders have a clear enough understanding of the Treaty and what it hoped to achieve?
Probably not. But, all of that said, there’s more of an acceptance of the relationship than in many other countries. In Australia, for example, they don’t have anything like the Treaty. The closest example is perhaps the American Declaration of Independence, where Americans, by and large, would be very proud of that.
I think of the Treaty where there were two opposing sort of forces. The first is the very best of Victorian Christian and humanitarian impulses to act in what, for the time, was an enlightened way.
But there’s also credit due to Māoridom, because what you had there was really a force of nature. They were people who weren’t prepared to just lie down, take anything, and be subjugated. They were smart. They were savvy. They were business people who were able to get the deal that they got.
So now we’ve got a contract and it’s a contract that has historic ramifications. And it’s led to the Treaty settlement process. But, more than that, it will be a living document as well. Exactly what that means in 2018 or, more to the point, in 2028 is, I suppose, still being determined.
But I hope it’ll not only be a strength for Māoridom, but also something that doesn’t bog us down. I agree with what you say about the Treaty settlements not compensating Māori at a level that is exactly what it should be, because what we know is that Māori had it all. And that’s not what they’re getting today.
Nevertheless, real compensation is being provided. And that compensation does allow iwi, down through to hapū, if it’s done well, to be a real force in the cultural and economic fabric of our country.
As you’ve developed your thoughts on the Treaty and its place in New Zealand today, who, apart from James Belich, have influenced your thinking?
I wouldn’t claim in any way to be a historian. But I try to keep pace with the current “historiography” on the Treaty and the New Zealand Wars. And, naturally, I’ve been very influenced by James Belich, by Michael King, and before him, Keith Sinclair. Claudia Orange, too.
And, among my National colleagues, there’s Paul Goldsmith who’s worked at the Waitangi Tribunal and who has a very good sense of New Zealand history.
And how do you feel about the contribution made by the National Party?
I’d argue that it has contributed a great deal, especially in the 1990s which was a critical time. Doug Graham has to be acknowledged, because he led the Treaty settlement work, and so does Jim Bolger, because he had the courage to take the National Party there at that time. I think he’d say to this day that’s one of the biggest parts of his legacy as prime minister.
Then you come forward to recent years and the relentless, indefatigable work of Chris Finlayson as our Waitangi minister. I hope that, in due course, he’s knighted, as Doug Graham was, for his work.
I’m assuming that, through your days at Auckland University, you would’ve been exposed to a radical element calling for the Māori rangatiratanga agreed to in the Treaty. But I’m also assuming that you would’ve been unfazed by the radicals — and by some of the behaviour at Waitangi.
You’re right that I am unfazed by that. I’m familiar with the debate over Māori sovereignty. In fact, now that you mention that topic, I recall writing about Māori sovereignty as a student at the University of Auckland. I remember doing well on that essay and being proud of it.
And since then I’ve had experience in these matters as a lawyer in many a case in the Bay of Plenty where Māori on criminal charges would claim sovereignty. There’d be appeals to the High Court from the District Court and I’d appear for the Crown. Of course, the Māori appellants were universally unsuccessful.
So I’ve been around these arguments for some time. I’ve thought about them and tested them. And I suppose, Dale, that the truth is that I take the conservative line — that the Crown has the kāwanatanga, the governance, but that we want to make sure that Māori, individually and as hapū, and iwi, are able to have self-determination in their lives.
As for visiting Waitangi, there’s no doubt that I have to make a significant decision about whether I go or don’t go as leader of the National Party. There’s been the recent history of John Key going and of Bill English going and then deciding not to go again. So I’m working that through, thinking a bit about it. It’s a discussion I want to have with the front bench of the National Party.
Of course, whatever I do, I’ll want to be celebrating Waitangi Day and recognising that, for New Zealanders, along with ANZAC Day, it’s a significant national day.
Shall we turn now to the prison muster where, as we’re often reminded, more than 50 percent are Māori? Some would say that this is largely the historical trauma manifesting itself in modern times. Is that how you see it?
When you talk about Māori and prisons and criminality, the thing that sticks out to me is that Māori criminal offending disproportionately means Māori victims. Whether it’s violence or drugs or whatever. But the whole issue is incredibly complex — and I don’t mean to be glib about it, but it’s above my pay grade.
I certainly accept that it needs resource. It needs the social investment approach that we were edging our way to and that Bill English was very keen on. It’s a matter of putting in the investment where it’s required. It’s not going soft on crime. I don’t agree with that. But it’s ensuring that, first and foremost, you’re stopping the offending before it happens — and also rehabilitating.
So, if it means rangatahi courts, or, if it means a particular approach within the prisons, or helping offenders identify with their whakapapa … well, we should resource that.
And possibly the most important thing is recognising the power of education. We know that, with the right opportunities, Māori are as smart as any other people on this earth and, if we can ensure that we get the opportunities, the sky can be the limit. It can be universities. It can be merchant banking. It can be chemistry labs. It doesn’t have to be the inside of prison cells.
Thanks, Simon. I’m sure that there’ll be readers pleased to see that you’re giving quite a lot of consideration to the cultural dimensions of this country — although I get the feeling that not all of your colleagues have given the same consideration to Treaty issues and the place of Māori in our modern economy. And that raises in my mind whether we should have some introductory cultural competency training for our MPs.
It’s incredibly important that the leaders of New Zealand do have the “cultural competency” you refer to. If our leaders are to make wise choices for the country, they need to have an understanding of our history and the various perspectives of our people. Fortunately, on that issue, there’s been some moving with the times and some progress over the last 20 or 30 years.
But we have to be careful. I know that many people won’t agree with me but, when it comes to te reo and to tikanga, I don’t believe the answer is compulsion. That’s not an effective way to do things. What we want, instead, is to have universal availability.
That said, if you’re an MP — and certainly if you’re a leader of a party — you should be thinking these things through, and upskilling yourself to make sure you have the maximum cultural competence and a sense of the full breadth of the issues we’re dealing with as a country.
Now, I don’t mind admitting to you that I’m a bit of a softie when it comes to Māori events. Particularly on the marae, sometimes I feel like time has stood still. It can be a very emotional time for me at a pōwhiri. And I wonder about the vibes you may have felt the other day at Oparure marae, when your old people gestured to you to come and sit with them, especially when commentators were questioning your taha Māori, questioning your commitment to that part of yourself.
Yeah. I’m like you. It is emotional. It’s very humbling, although I suspect my emotions come from a slightly different place than yours do. When I’m on the marae, I often reflect on my inadequacy there.
A number of times, I’ve said there are some things I don’t admire about Shane Jones, but I do admire his fluency both within parliament but also on the marae. And I look at myself, and I see someone who is fluent and, I hope, more than capable in a Western parliamentary setting. But not on the marae.
I’d love to become more proficient there, so that I could do justice to the occasions when I’m at Oparure or other marae. So I have mixed emotions at pōwhiri. A feeling of some inadequacy, but also a sense of belonging — because my grandmother, Naku Joseph, not even 100 years ago, was a little girl running around our marae and in the hills up behind it.
I’m sure you’ll encourage your tamariki to celebrate their taha Māori and be aware that they carry this lovely genetic whakapapa line that is part of them.
Yeah. Absolutely. We have a son, Emlyn, who’s six years old, who, although he’s not proficient in te reo and can’t string sentences together, is pretty good in terms of vocabulary and numbers. Incidentally, he can also do a little bit in Mandarin. And it’s a very exciting prospect that he’ll be a cultural polyglot and someone who feels a sense of that whakapapa in him.
You once had ambitions to be a musical performer. So I’m assuming that you’re a muso. What do you play? And how well do you play it?
Yeah. I’m definitely a muso. And my first love was to become a conductor of an orchestra. I remember playing some old classical records and “conducting” with my mother’s knitting needles.
My mother had taken me to a children’s performance of, I think, the Auckland Symphony Orchestra, and the conductor was William Southgate. That really captured my imagination. They played popular music like The Muppets theme and Star Wars. And I developed a love for classical music.
But I then went on to learn the drums, and played a lot of rock and pop and all manner of styles. I played with a band or two through university — at 21st parties and balls and a variety of occasions.
Then I let go of that because, as one song says, it was time to “get a haircut and get a real job”. And to do the law firm stuff, I cut off what I thought was a pretty cool bob haircut. It was probably more like a mullet — and I let go of that.
But I still tap. There’s still a drummer, a struggling muso, in me, and I’ve often looked at buying another drum set and setting it up at home. It’s just that, when push comes to shove, I’ve never quite decided to make the investment.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
© E-Tangata, 2018