Editorial: The NZ electorate wants personality

National Party leader Simon Bridges
National Party leader Simon Bridges
The leaking of National Party leader Simon Bridges' travel expenses has made for multiple news reports this week.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has publicly guaranteed her MPs were not responsible, while pointing the finger at Mr Bridges' own colleagues. Mr Bridges has rejected that suggestion while demanding an investigation. House Speaker Trevor Mallard has been publicly scathing of the leak and is also demanding answers.

While it would be politically significant if elected members were found responsible, a bigger issue is at play for Mr Bridges - that despite an expensive nationwide road-trip and his party holding steady on its mid-forties percent election night return, he is still polling at roughly 10% as preferred prime minister.

Mr Bridges is clearly not loved by the public. Nor is he hated. In fact, it seems the public really aren't moved much at all by the former Crown prosecutor from Tauranga. And the concern, for him at least, is whether any amount of spending on nationwide road-trips will change that.

Mr Bridges is intelligent, speaks well on the hoof and forms coherent arguments under pressure. He is well presented and appears devoid of closet skeletons. But it seems the age of risk-free politicians has passed. Instead of picking politicians on their lack of proverbial warts, we appear to now be craving entertainers, out-and-out leaders, comedians and populists.

It is easy to overlook how quickly and completely politics has changed in the last two decades. Google only became synonymous with internet searching after the turn of the millennium. Facebook has only been widely available since 2006. Before the arrival of these online behemoths, politicians' messages were dispersed through the media.

Journalists, commentators and political experts were the filter through which politicians connected with the public, while television networks, newspapers and radio were the mediums.

The internet has changed all that. Now politicians are in our faces multiple times a day, talking, arguing, trying to lead and cajole us into seeing the world their way.

Such a saturation has brought a change in the qualities we demand of them. We want more than just substance, knowledge and a clean closet. We want entertainment, charisma, self-confidence and swagger. We want personality.

For nine years, Labour failed to offer that as it rolled out leader after leader who tried to convince the electorate to like them. Meanwhile, John Key was pulling ponytails, planking and humiliating himself with radio gags and awkward handshakes. But he remained unwaveringly popular.

He showed no self-doubt or fear of the job. He wasn't intimidated by opponents or other world leaders. He led - whether one believes his politics were correct or not - with calmness and charisma and the electorate responded.

Ms Ardern has shown a similar ability. She has brought empathy, positivity, easily-digested sound bites and self-confidence. Again, the electorate has responded - her preferred PM numbers are hovering around the 40% mark.

Mr Bridges, meanwhile, is some 30 points behind her as he struggles to identify what he stands for, how he intends to lead and why we should be interested in hearing from him several times a day. He has spent time, energy and, it appears, considerable taxpayer funds trying to convince the electorate it should like him.

His problem is the electorate appears quite capable of forming its own opinion on who it wants to see on its smartphone screens day in and day out. A leader who must convince the electorate to like them appears doomed to fail, no matter their qualities.

It may be that no amount of travel expenditure will convince New Zealand Simon Bridges is their man. And that is an issue which will still be relevant long after the travel expenses leak has disappeared from most people's memories.

 

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