Tauranga braces for political change

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One of the most remarkable political developments seen in the Bay of Plenty in a while has been the recently announced retirement of long-serving Tauranga MP Simon Bridges.

In addition, the announcement followed soon after Western Bay MP Todd Muller’s decision late last year to change his mind about his planned retirement and return to contest the next election.

As is well known, Muller made a successful bid for the leadership at the time, spilling Bridges, but served only for a short time as leader before resigning, citing mental stress. Both MPs have long managed what by all accounts has been a successful parliamentary relationship as MPs for the region.

Since the defeat of Act leader Winston Peters, Tauranga and Western Bay of Plenty have long been hotbeds of contention for the National Party, along with Rotorua for National MP Todd McClay.

Speaking to Bay of Plenty Business News, Bridges described the impact of his retirement as being “a real whirlwind”. As he notes, on current polling he was likely to have become finance minister in a new National government at the next election.

Time for alternative life choices

“And you can achieve a lot in finance,” he said. But in the end, both for political reasons and given his 14 years already in the job, he opted to leave for alternative life choices and career reasons. As he noted, his youngest two of three children turn 10 and eight respectively in March and family was a major consideration.

“I’ve got a good 20 years of making some money and working less hard ahead of me,” he said.

“If I stayed on, I’m signing on for at least two terms and then [the kids] are in their teens and haven’t seen much of me and they don’t know me or maybe don’t like me. I made the decision for all of these family reasons. People think you’re making them up, but family is very important.”

Bridges has already verbally informed Parliamentary Services of his decision and spoken to the speaker of the house about his plans. He will follow that up with formal notification of his intentions. He also has to give a valedictory speech in parliament, so the exact date of his departure and the following by-election remained unclear when we went to press.

Essentially the prime minister sets the date for a new election, but it is apparently a relatively casual process and the by-election will be simply about voting for the person rather than a party, as in full elections.

“Because I’m retiring the people of Tauranga are simply replacing me,” he said.

Bridges said he had no sense of who might replace him, but that he expected the by-election to be hotly contested by former councillors, other interested parties and the National Party.

“It’s somewhat sad but also exciting,” he said. Although various commentators have suggested that

Bridges already has a new job lined up, at the time we went to press he refused to comment specifically on his plans, other than to say that it would be good to have a “day job” and sleep in his own bed at night.

He is keen to pursue his experience and interest in infrastructure and possibly take on some board positions and is also exploring contributing some media comment. He has lived in Tauranga for over 20 years but is expected to move to Auckland while maintaining family ties here. His wife Natalie runs a PR company in the town and is expected to continue to maintain that role.

“There’s a lot of speculation but it’s too early for me to say,” he said, while insisting that Tauranga would remain a significant family base for him.

“It’s good to leave rather than be kicked out,” he said. “I won’t regret it.”

Muller praises Bridges’ contribution

Fellow Bay MP Todd Muller paid tribute to Bridges’ contribution to the city over the years.
“I was really surprised when Simon told us in caucus,” he said. “But if you follow his rationale you can understand it. He has given 14 years to serving Tauranga and the electorate.”

Muller famously toppled Bridges for the leadership, but only held the top role for a short period before giving it up when he was afflicted with unexpected nervous problems and at the time was planning to retire from parliament himself. However, new National leader Christopher Luxon, who replaced Muller, approached him late last year to ask if he would continue in parliament, and he decided to do so.

“I think people could see what happened and how it unfolded and that it was unfortunate,” he said.

Overall, Muller said, he was in a better space than he had been for a while and the response since he had decided to stay on had been very positive.

“I actually think that Simon’s decision has caused us to reflect and pause and think about the contribution he’s made. He’s been a huge contributor to Tauranga and the wider community and he’s been a massive advocate and voice for our city and at the cabinet table. He’s going to leave a hole.

“It might surprise people, but as local MPs we always got on well and worked well together professionally because we could see the relevance of National having a strong [regional] reputation down in Wellington. I will miss his humour – he’s got a classic sense of humour.”
Muller said it would be interesting to see what Bridges finishes up doing.

“I think Simon needs generous acknowledgement of what he’s achieved.”

Muller reflected on what he said was expected to be a rising level of animus in the population by the time of the next nationwide elections and that he was expecting “a brutal campaign” by then.

The elections could likely repeat the population splits and vitriol seen back in the early 1980s, he said.

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