'Better to burn out than to fade away': Simon Bridges bows out

Former National leader Simon Bridges bade farewell to Parliament tonight after 14 years as an MP, delivering a valedictory speech that was an elegy for an older style of politics, a reflection on his Māori identity, and a lesson for new MPs.

He also squeezed in a request for a pay rise.

Bridges joked that many people had called time on his career, following "'trainwreck interviews with John Campbell and Susie Ferguson". Instead, he would be leaving Parliament on his terms.

"It's better to burn out than to fade away," Bridges said, quoting "the bad guy in the Highlander movie".

The speech shifted gears - and locations - from the Highlands to Westminster. Some of Bridges' last words in Parliament were a quote from former British prime minister Tony Blair, which he had also used in his maiden speech 14 years ago.

He said Parliament was "still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster".

"If it is, on occasions, the place of low skulduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes."

Bridges said that in his career, he had certainly seen "skulduggery", but more often than not, he had seen "noble causes".

He urged members from across the house to "stand tall".

"I know that what you do matters, I see you standing tall, I recognise your nobility," Bridges said.

"Keep firm hold of the baton I now let go from my grip. And run boldly and hard," he said.

Bridges structured his speech as 14 lessons, one for each of the 14 years he had spent in Parliament.

National MP Simon Bridges Herald
National MP Simon Bridges during his last media conference at Parliament. Photo: Mark Mitchell
He urged new MPs to have a perspective that looked beyond the day-to-day scandals that dominate contemporary political life.

"To new MPs, don't let anything ruin your sleep," Bridges advised.

"It's the most important thing and nothing is worth it. The worst you worry about happening rarely does and when it does occasionally who cares anyway, you'll be fine," he said.

Bridges said his wife reminded him that most MPs survive scandal.

"As Natalie likes to tell me, "Get a grip, get over yourself, your country is smaller than Sydney and no one knows where it is. Look at all the crazy shit Boris has gotten away with and he's still PM," Bridges said.

"Like I say, who cares, you'll be fine," he said.

A common thread to Bridges' points was a desire for a less rigidly whipped, more independent Parliament, which sometimes stood up to the Government of the day (while acknowledging that he did little to forward such an agenda when he was a minister in the Key-English government).

He also made a pitch for a less poll-driven, more instinctual politics. Bridges said poll-driven politics had led to the views expressed "in this House and the Press Gallery" becoming "narrower and narrower, beiger and beiger".

"Nice Beigeland rather than New Zealand," he said.

Polls "should only ever be an aid, helping you to decide how to get to where you think is right. Let's more often do what we think is right, and lead the polls and the people to where they should go for New Zealand".

Bridges challenged the increasing role of experts in politics and the media, and said that politics should act as a check on technocratic government.

"We did away with that religious certainty centuries ago. I think they called it the Enlightenment," Bridges said.

"Politicians' – and journalists' job I might add - isn't to slavishly follow experts. That is an abdication of our responsibility as elected officials, elected to weigh, and as I have said bring our values and principles to bear on the issue at play,

"Nothing in politics and government comes down to 'the science says this,'" Bridges said.

He said politics had become "small target" at the expense of longer term, more strategic contest.

"'Big bold battles of ideas' won't hurt us. And the alternative, as we are seeing in Australia right now, is contests fought just on personality and 'competence' and is truly depressing," Bridges said.

He joked that the "two perfect political jobs in the world" were those of a backbench British MP, or a US Senator. Both bodies had a far greater degree of freedom than in New Zealand where backbench MPs are tightly whipped and are often punished if they do not rigidly toe the party line.

He joked that 14 years ago, Parliament was still home to "bold" MPs like Helen Clark, Michael Cullen, Rodney Hide and Winston Peters. He said that he reckoned some of these MPs, perhaps even Speaker Trevor Mallard, would be "cancelled" today.

Bridges said that alongside Parliament's role as legislator, it also had a "primal" role which was to say "what needs to be said", which "lets off society's steam like a pressure valve at a difficult or delicate time".

"The jaw jaw, even if sometimes a bit hee-haw hee-haw in here, is better than war war out there – and we have sadly seen a little of that very recently," Bridges said.

"We overly sanitise this place at our, and more importantly society's, peril," Bridges said.

He also challenged the media to diversify its coverage.

"I do… despair how narrow the viewpoints are as opposed to in the UK, the United States, and even Australia. More viewpoints are tolerated, actually encouraged in their deeper media environments. Our press gallery can hunt as a pack," he said.

Bridges had some criticism of his treatment by the media. He said the press gallery should hold the powerful to account and that too often it was preoccupied with the National Party and not the government.

"[i]f the government of the time is giving you your best talking points every single day you come to this place, maybe you've got the balance wrong. And by the way if they are good enough they'll more than withstand the pressure," Bridges said.

He saved his final points for his own party, National. The remarks suggested he believed the party was in danger of a centrist drift.

Bridges warned that if National believed that "prevailing views in central Wellington and Auckland make up New Zealand" it would "cease to be the strongest, most representative political movement we have".

He said that while leader, he had been conscious of the need to balance liberal and conservative views.

"We must be scrupulous to allow all these views through without too much control, let alone censorship and seek to keep the balance, the peace, amongst all those values and interests without letting one dominate the other," Bridges said.

"Despite what is sometimes said, I took great pains to ensure this while I was leader and future leaders must continue to do so also," he said.

He finished saying that the job of an MP is "not actually that well remunerated for what it entails". The minimum pay of an MP is about $170,000.

He said Parliament needed to attract "the highest quality people," not just "the very wealthy for whom money doesn't matter or those naïve enough to enter and crazy enough to stay in the game no matter what".

Some of Bridges' final remarks were a reflection on being a Māori conservative.

"I am proud of my whakapapa and proud to be the first Māori New Zealander to lead one of the big two parties," Bridges said.

He said his opposition to things like Māori wards and the Māori Health Authority was because "while I deeply understand our country has a way to go on race, personally I don't want to be treated differently on the basis of it.

"I don't want special help because I am not a victim, I am good enough in any room, whether this big one, our Cabinet, or commercial boardrooms in the future. So are all Māori" he said.

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