Others find Bridges difficult man to cross

It is a rare day in Parliament that someone gets the better of Winston Peters.

But National's Simon Bridges silenced the New Zealand First leader with seeming ease during the House's free-ranging general debate a week or so before the Budget in May.

Mr Bridges, who has been a cabinet minister for all of six months, had been trusted with the task of making National's all-important first contribution to the debate.

Labour's Trevor Mallard tried to distract Mr Bridges with cries of ''cougar bait''- a reference to the junior minister's good looks. Then Mr Peters well and truly interrupted proceedings with a totally frivolous point of order.

He claimed he was doing his best to follow Mr Bridges' speech, but there must have been something wrong with the sound system.

''I cannot understand a word he is saying.''

Quick as a flash, Mr Bridges replied: ''For the respected elder gentleman, I will talk more slowly.''

There was no answer to that and Mr Peters sat down, accepting he had been well and truly trumped.

Other ministers might have ignored Mr Peters' taunt. But Mr Bridges shows no hesitation in giving as good as he gets when circumstances demand. He puts this down to his legal background and the rigours of being a senior crown prosecutor. He does not take any nonsense from anyone.

There is a touch of the Judith Collins about him. She combines sheer gall with unrelenting sarcasm, leaving enemies - and at times supposed allies - quivering in her wake.

Mr Bridges is not yet in that league.

However, John Key's willingness to hand the two relatively complex portfolios of Energy and Labour to a new cabinet minister was seen as a sign of the Prime Minister's confidence in Mr Bridges' ability to cut it.

Those portfolios, especially the work of the old Department of Labour, offer few opportunities for winning public kudos for a job well done.

Mr Bridges has picked up the work programmes of his predecessors in the two portfolios - Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson. It will not have escaped Mr Bridges' notice that both were sacked from the Cabinet for performance reasons.

Beehive insiders say that so far Mr Bridges has exceeded expectations. That he was tasked with leading off the general debate is a sign of someone on the way up. So far, he has not put a foot wrong.

Greenpeace would beg to differ. A week or so ago, the environmental lobby group hung a 300sq m banner from a central Wellington building proclaiming ''Simon Bridges ... pants on fire.''

Greenpeace insists Bridges has not been upfront about a meeting he had with representatives from the oil giant Shell before the Crown Minerals Amendment Bill was passed into law.

That measure empowers authorities to gazette ''specified non-interference zones'' around offshore oil drilling or pumping installations, thereby preventing protest vessels disrupting operations.

Mr Bridges has been totally unapologetic about the law, arguing developers, too, have rights. He has judged that he is on the right side of public opinion.

The Greenpeace billboard may not quite equate with having your effigy burned in the street but Mr Bridges treated it as a badge of honour, adding provocatively ''good photo, too''.

As Labour minister, he has further antagonised the Left by bringing a Bill before Parliament whose seemingly piecemeal changes to collective bargaining arrangements - according to trade unions - add up to a barely-disguised, ideologically-based agenda to destroy that form of negotiation of wages and conditions while killing off the union movement with it.

Some on the Left have sought to characterise the measure's likely impact as being more detrimental to unions than National's landmark Employment Contracts Act two decades ago.

The suspicion lingers on the Left that the National leopard has not really changed its radical right spots of the early 1990s. It has simply altered the means of tackling major reform.

Gone is the crash-through, big-bang style of restructuring which so terrified voters. That has been replaced by a slower, more staggered approach. But the ends are the same.

The advice of officials to Ms Wilkinson when she was preparing the legislation last year was that it was ''likely to increase choice and reduce compliance costs for some employers'' and ''reduce choice for unions and employees''.

That assessment flows from two features of the Bill in particular. The first is that the parties to negotiation will no longer have to conclude an agreement, meaning employers can walk away from talks.

Mr Bridges will be marked in the Beehive on his success in finessing public debate on the Bill so there is the minimum fuss and noise.

It is, thus, the first real test for someone clearly marking themselves out as one of National's next generation of leaders.

- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.

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