It seems to me that once an MP becomes a cabinet minister, he's adroitly balancing two full-time jobs. Plus attempting to give prime time to his home “constituency”, where wife and children no doubt keep him grounded as husband and dad.
In the current National-led Government, Hon Simon Bridges is Minister for Economic Development, Minister for Communications, Minister of Transport, Associate Minister of Finance and Deputy Leader of the House.
Some hefty roles as well as being Tauranga's MP. In my mind this is like juggling five tangerines, your hands a frantic blur. Where does Santa, playing lawn cricket with your sons and chilling out with the wife fit into all this?
How does he stay connected with community here and how does he apply those portfolios into Tauranga?
“It's been a massive year, a crazy year in many ways,” says Simon. “You've had Brexit, Trump, John Key going, and for me I've been hugely wrapped up in earthquakes and transport. I've had a lot less sleep.”
He pauses a moment as he reflects back on the last couple of months.
“For me personally, at one level it's a juggle,” he acknowledges. “But in terms of being a quality Member of Parliament for the people of Tauranga, I'm absolutely certain it's only a good thing as I have more ability to do things and Tauranga gets what it deserves.
“I ensure I have great people around me who work hard, a lot of supporters in the National Party who I stay close to and who feed through to me concerns and issues.”
Simon and Natalie's sons, Harry and Emlyn at the Mount seeing Santa.
A former Crown Prosecutor, Simon was voted in to Parliament in 2008 with a majority of more than 11,000 – the largest swing to National of any electorate seat in the country.
Growing up in West Auckland, Simon is the son of a Baptist Minister father and primary school teacher mother.
He met his wife Natalie while studying a postgraduate law degree from Oxford University in England, and they now both live in Tauranga, where Natalie also runs a public relations business.
She was recently appointed as a trustee of TECT.
“I live here, Natalie is deeply enmeshed in things, and we make sure we're out and about,” says Simon.
I knew he'd been at Greerton Village School, helping cook sausages before Christmas, and reminded him that he could think about flicking some pictures onto his Facebook page to show this local ‘out-and-about-ness' as well as the ‘flying-in-helicopter-over-Kaikoura' pics. It wouldn't hurt?
In 2010, there was the cruelty of animals issue that came up, and Simon led the charge on that.
"Yes that became law and the significant thing about that law is what it's done for the penalties for really serious animal cruelty," says Simon. "In the past no one ever went to jail but now you see that much more regularly and for heinous acts of cruelty to animals that's as it should be."
Aspiring to be Deputy Leader of National
Recently Simon aspired to be Deputy Leader of the National Party, after the resignation of Prime Minister John Key. Did tossing his hat in the ring hurt him politically?
“I don't regret for a moment that I went for Deputy Leader of the party, it was a great experience,” says Simon.
“I learned a lot and came out at the end of the week stronger than when I started. It's not necessarily something I would pursue again, you just don't know ultimately, but it was a particular opportunity in time that I felt was too significant to pass by. We had John Key retiring, and it was a chance to be a real part of the shaping of not just the National Party but of New Zealand and I'm glad I had a crack at it.”
He'd built a good rapport with the previous PM, the question is would he have a similar rapport with the new chief?
Auckland's Lightpath Cycleway is now one year old & had a successful first year, hosting more than 200,000 trips & winning a world infrastructure award.
“One of the exciting things about this is that change brings new opportunities and new relationships,” replies Simon. “John and I got on very well. There was a good chemistry there. That's also true with Prime Minister Bill English but it's just different as we're all different characters.
“Bill's got his own strengths that he draws on. I've had a lot to do with him, in a way, even more professionally than with John Key, as he was finance minister and I with economic development.”
Transferrable skill set
As a past Crown Prosecutor stepping into areas of economics and energy, he clearly has transferrable skills.
“What happens in politics is you get given roles,” Simon explains. “Some people see themselves as specialists, who will only ever be in one particular area, maybe they're a lawyer and all they want to be is the attorney general or the justice minister. I don't see myself like that.
“I considered quite hard whether I seek a social portfolio like education, but the truth is, over a period of time now as a minister I've been more in the economic structure and growth portfolios like energy, ministry of labour, consumer affairs, and transport.
“My current portfolios are quite a logical progression from that, they're in the same kind of space. I'm looking forward to that. They're going to be big challenges, exciting. In everything, what we learn over time adds to what we bring to a new area.
As well as law, his experience does appear to be quite diverse. Raised in a large family that includes business people, community and church experiences, and his university background, it all shapes who he is and what he feels he can bring to the job.
Simon believes what runs through his portfolios is infrastructure, ensuring we have the right number of roads, and growing New Zealand. And a real sense of regional New Zealand.
“This isn't just all about Auckland or other big cities like Christchurch or Wellington, but all of New Zealand. Making sure we're growing and prospering.
“My experiences mean overall I get it, and can do a good job for economic development and infrastructure in our regions.”
“I'm very grounded here in Tauranga,” says Simon. “And I'm in no doubt that the roles I have allow me to really make sure Tauranga gets what it deserves, but equally allow me in those roles to bring a Tauranga perspective.”
This perspective now is that Tauranga is part of the economic powerhouse of NZ.
“That makes it exciting,” Simon maintains. “Being here allows me to bring it to my jobs. And bring that regional flavour.”
Recently KiwiRail decided to scrap its electric trains on the main trunk line between Auckland and Wellington and move to an all-diesel fleet. Some didn't agree with this decision.
“Government and running the country is like life,” says Simon. “There are tricky issues that are hard to make perfect. In some areas like energy efficiency and sustainability, you've got to do what's good and that's not always what's perfect.
“The perfect system is probably full electrification. But the problem with that is that it's a very complex time-consuming thing to do. It takes a long time to transition and there's a massive cost involved.”
The line through from Te Rapa to Hamilton is not electric. Then it's electric down to Palmerston North. And you have to change trains to get there. The cost to electrify the feeder lines and the lines up to Auckland, down to Tauranga and to Palmerston North is apparently about $1.5 billion.
“Those diesel trains are still about 70% less emissions-intensive than trucks on the road,” asserts Simon. “So it's still better but not as good in a climate sense.”
As a minister, he's relying on his staff and experts to bring him correct information and to consider all aspects of any issue.
“It's important that I ask good questions,” he says. “In this case it wasn't my decision or the government's decision per se, it was KiwiRail and their board. But what I do know is, they went through all the issues including environmental factors. My reading over that satisfied me that they had made the right choice. It's not easy or perfect but you have to weigh up the costs, the time, the risks involved and seeing the freight go back on the road or rail.”
Homelessness and opportunities
The National Party website states “The National Party seeks a safe, prosperous, and successful New Zealand that creates opportunities for all New Zealanders to reach their personal goals and dreams.”
My own opinion, which may differ from others, is that this value statement doesn't appear to resonate with some. To explain, while the National Party may provide opportunities for people to take hold of and go for, many appear to lack the self-efficacy or resilience to do life as well as others. Starting out from a broken home, surrounded by abuse, alcoholism and addictions, it seems to me they may grow up without a richness of healthy relationships and connections that normally boost people to believe in their own ability to succeed. Reaching up to try and grab hold of that opportunity means first reaching up to get to the start line.
What is the point of difference with these issues between National and any other party in Simon's view?
“All political parties agree on the need for a social safety net where everyone is looked after,” says Simon. “We all agree that some people have had a start in life that makes it almost impossible to get ahead on their own and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We have a comprehensive variety of social welfare that funds and arrangements in place.
“What National also thinks, is we don't have all the answers. And where possible we come from a standpoint that says it's better if it is the community driving a response rather than paternalistic government “knows best” driving it. I would rather see Rosalie Crawford and a home grown grass roots entity spring up and take care of some of the need even if it requires assistance from the state to do that.”
The managing of infrastructure for social and economic growth seem to go hand in hand.
“Tauranga – it's true that it's growing massively,” says Simon. It's at a real growth spurt. This is not only positive but exciting as it means more things happening, more vibrancy, increasing opportunities. But with it comes more pressure on roads, housing and social services.
“I take it very seriously as MP, my role with Todd Muller, in ensuring we get what we need to keep up with that growth. At the moment, that has led to some real issues around homelessness and deprivation. By and large there are programmes that deal with those but sometimes somehow people fall through the cracks and we do what we can to deal with that.
“On the housing front Paula Bennett and now Amy Adams are working very hard on some solutions, whether it's modular homes, motels or emergency housing. We'll have a lot to say about that in 2017.”
Road, traffic and public transport
More population growth often translates to more road congestion. Today a traffic jam was bubbling north of Bethlehem on SH2, and Cameron Road had snarled up into a long snake of cars.
“It's all relative but in comparison with a lot of places, Tauranga isn't as bad as some of them,” says Simon. “The road investment in Tauranga has been more per capita than anywhere in New Zealand since National has been in government. It's really made a difference. Over a billion dollars with effectively a ring road around Tauranga from the TEL, Hairini, the harbour bridge, through Takitumu Drive, and Route K. And in 2017 from Bayfair to Baypark. It's a very significant investment.”
The local roads provide issues that local council not Government has responsibility for, however Simon believes that Council and Government need to work together, better, to find solutions.
“Public transport is always a tricky one in a place of a certain size where you sometimes don't have the critical mass,” says Simon, “but I think we're getting there."
“Public transport can have a really important role to play in reducing congestion. My focus is on some of the inter-regional transport networks, ensuring we're connected up well into the Waikato and also up through to Auckland. So I get a lot of feedback about those."
Simon riding the newly finished Dive Crescent Cycle Path delivered by Tauranga City Council & NZTA as part of the Govt's Urban Cycleways Programme.
The Kaimai Ranges and the gorges seem to have put Tauranga off the map for tour buses that scoot down country from Auckland to Wellington. We get the cruise ships stopping here because Rotorua doesn't have a port. What about fast rail between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga?
“I'd never say never,” says Simon. “We do have a huge amount of investment in Auckland, like the city rail link. It's the biggest public transport investment ever, $3.4 billion.
“We're going to continue electrifying the railway further south outside of Auckland, and over time, it will make its way I think to Hamilton and then to the Bay of Plenty. The truth though is, it's very expensive and at the moment the business case for it wouldn't stack up. But over time I'd say never say never.”
What can Tauranga expect from our MP?
“There's been a remarkable growth in school rolls throughout Tauranga and that's why we're ensuring there's a new school out at The Lakes,” says Simon. “Many primary schools in the area are seeing new classrooms added on and improvements made to deal with the growth.
“In healthcare we're ensuring that the hospital is one of the best if not the best regional hospital in New Zealand with amazing facilities in cancer, pathology and a variety of other areas. We've just got to continue to improve it.
“I think that one of the other areas is social infrastructure which is why I've banged on for some time about a museum. I want to work with council, the private sector and charities to ensure that we get something like that, because as more people move here we need to ensure we are culturally rich as well as having all of the other infrastructure.
“I'm hugely geed up and excited about 2017,” says Simon about his 2017 aspirations. “I've got new portfolios and a workload that will go with that. It's a great opportunity for NZ to build infrastructure that we require to really add to our capacity to do things and our resilience as a country in light of earthquakes and other events.
“I'm really focussed on regional development and making sure that regional NZ feels the benefits of the growth and the prosperity that we've got.
“And in Tauranga I have several projects that are somewhat similar to that, but on a smaller scale that I want to push along. They include museum, cycle ways, some public transport projects possibly. And other things beside."
2017 is election year
During the 2015 Northland by-election, the Government announced it would replace ten single-lane bridges on Northland's Twin Coast Highway over the next six years. This was seen by opposition parties as an election campaign strategy to woo voters and National was widely condemned for pork barrel politics.
“There's a huge amount happening north of Auckland in transportation,” says Simon. “The bridges are a part of that and there's four of them that are being progressed very strongly. It was always going to happen over six years and these four are at a phase of getting ready for construction. They are the bridges at Matakohe, Kaeo and Taipa.
“What's much more important than those are other big things we're doing in transport. The biggest is Puhoi to Warkworth. It's a $700 million road. When it's finished and goes up to Whangarei, it will be a game changer for that region. I'm very excited about what that will mean for the north economically, socially and culturally.
“I came here today in my electric car. I'm hugely excited by that as it's the future of NZ. It allows us to have home grown, clean green electricity fuelling us rather than imported petroleum.
“Tauranga has got a real opportunity to hit the big time I think. It's a very exciting time in its trajectory and I want to make sure that that's a real success.”