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On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd interviews Simon Bridges

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Simon Shepherd: The National Party is meeting this weekend for its first conference since losing last year’s election. Leader Simon Bridges has been in the job five months, landing perhaps his biggest blow this week by withdrawing the party’s support for the Government’s medicinal cannabis bill and producing its own one.

Three MPs, Shane Reti, Chris Bishop and Michael Woodhouse, have been working on it for a number of months, sparking accusations National had acted in bad faith.

I asked Simon Bridges exactly when the party decided to draw up its own bill.

Simon Bridges: Look, when they came to caucus, and I can’t tell you the exact date. And I say they, really, Shane Reti, Michael Woodhouse and Christopher Bishop - their position was, ‘Here’s the bill,’ they ran us through it. And my effective position to them was, ‘Well, look, how can we sign up to something that has nothing in it, has no framework that tells us what a medicinal cannabis regime would look like in New Zealand? So, you know, let’s reserve our position somewhat. But, you know, if you’re wanting to do something here, put up or shut up. Give me a regime that we understand and we can work with.

Simon Shepherd: Ok, but surely you can remember roughly when that was, when the Government’s bill was introduced in December?


Or was it in the first reading in January?

No, because as you’ll be aware, look, we voted for it first reading when it entered the select committee process in good faith. But let me-

So it was during the select committee process that you decided to go off on your own tangent?

We’re talking about the last couple of months. But let me be really clear to what I think you’re getting at, and that is, ‘Well, why have you done this when the Government’s got their position?’ For two reasons, firstly, they never had a framework on which we could pin off a regulatory regime, simply wasn’t good enough. And second, they made incredibly clear to the members on that select committee that they would not countenance widening things from where they were. And so we knew, straight up, we were in a position where they weren’t going to accept the suggestions that we were making, that the members were making, the kind of constructive feedback that we were clearly putting forward in terms of the questions on that select committee.

OK, so you didn’t engage in the select committee process and you went off and did your own thing, Shane Reti went off to the US.

No, that’s entirely incorrect. We engaged. You know, my members were there, they engaged fully and constructively. But the problem is you can’t turn a bill that’s a dog into a pony. You know? It just wasn’t there; it didn’t have the things to hang off it. And secondly, it was made quite clear by the Government members on that select committee that they would not play ball, they were not going to widen this bill. So we did, I think, what a constructive opposition should do. We went out and we did the work the Government should have done.

Is that a constructive opposition, when you’re doing your select committee process and you do have a chance to change things, and you’re working on something which the Government knows nothing about? Which came as a surprise?

But as I say, it’s because their framework simply wouldn’t countenance this and they’d said no, we’re not going there. But be really clear, we are where we are now, here’s the thing, we have the comprehensive framework, and I know that they will pick it up, one way, shape or form or another because, ultimately, they can’t go past it. We’ve done the work, all of the experts, it seems to be, are saying this is a really significant improvement-

So you don’t have any faith in that process. Is this how-for this particular bill. And is this how you’re going to approach everything being in opposition? A constructive opposition?

No, think about it. I mean, there’s different courses for courses, depending on what’s happening. On climate change, I’ve been incredibly constructive. We’ve been working quite hard with James Shaw. The other areas, in the economic sphere, we’re actually, we just don’t agree with what they’re doing, fundamentally. So there’ll be different ways of doing things. But we have been constructive here, we’ve done the work the Government should have, we’ve put the bill up. They can take it on board and have a better, comprehensive framework for medicinal cannabis in New Zealand. And I think that’d be a good thing to do.

All right, let’s talk about compassion here for the people that are suffering, that are terminally ill. Jonathan Coleman said during the first reading, ‘We have to be mindful of the needs of those people, and in the end, compassion has to win out over a very poorly designed piece of legislation.’ Compassion is not winning out here because your piece of legislation is just going to sit there in this biscuit tin waiting to be pulled out.

But putting up a dog is not compassionate, and that’s what the Government’s done. Actually, compassion needs works as well. And if David Clark had compassion on this, he would have set his health officials to the work, he’s got thousands of them, and they would have done the sort of work that, frankly, a very small number of my MPs would do. But here’s the thing, the bill is there now. Your point’s right, actually, it won’t be, I hope, just languishing there in the members’ bill ballot, a bit like a lottery ball waiting to be picked out. I hope the Government seriously and honestly engage with it. And I don’t care, frankly, about the credit. They should take the parts that work, which I think is the regime we’ve put in place, fundamentally, and they should go with it. It would be better for New Zealanders. It would be compassionate.

Ok, well, first of all, it was such a surprise and you didn’t even consult with the Government. You didn’t consult with The Drug Foundation, one of the leading, sort of, organizations. Who in New Zealand did you actually consult with?

Hey, be really clear about that, now I don’t go through, can’t go through and name the names because I’m the leader of the National Party, I’m not my health team.

You should be able to name one major-

But no, but be clear about this, in terms of those peak organizations, my understanding is The Drug Foundation, it is others like Mr Le Brun and so on who really know a lot about this - and I know Newshub have been talking to - we did consult with them, we did talk with them. And their criticism, frankly, of the Government is that David Clark, despite repeated requests, has never met with them. So I come back to it, we’re doing the work and leading the way a Government should.

I know that criticism. Those people have told us that they weren’t consulted, like The Drug Foundation.

Certainly, I know, Shane Reti has talked with a number of folk and peak bodies. But, as I say, as leader, I don’t know the detail.

All right. You’ve had nine years as government; why did you not introduce medicinal cannabis legislation then? Why now?

I think there’s a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’m a new leader; I wasn’t leader then. I was never in the health area; that’s not something that I’ve actively considered. So I think, you know, you can’t say, you know, ‘We are just going to stay the same, we are never going to change.’ Actually, opposition is about thinking through and changing. And here’s another really important point, when the evidence is there, we go with it. And what we saw here, I’ve been out listening, I’ve heard from sufferers, I’ve heard from a range of New Zealanders about the importance of this. And we’ve also taken an evidence based approach from Shane Reti and others.

OK, and the previous government didn’t listen, that’s what you’re saying, and you’re listening as the new leader.

No, I think, here’s the deal, sometimes issues come up in their importance. They’re not things that at a different time we were thinking about. We had other issues, GFC, earthquakes.

That was a long while ago.

Look, I think whether it’s mental health, whether it’s medicinal cannabis, potentially whether it’s something like plastic bags - these are issues that people are thinking more about today-

Medicinal cannabis has been in the spotlight for a long time - Helen Kelly, for example, you know? This kind of thing has been in the spotlight for a long time. Are you just jumping on the political bandwagon now and bringing up your own legislation?

Well, on that point, we know we’re going to have a medicinal cannabis regime in New Zealand. I’ve always actually - you can go back and look at my comments whenever I’ve made them - supported in principle a medicinal cannabis regime, but it’s also incumbent on us as a responsible, constructive opposition to make sure it’s a regime that works. When the government wouldn’t do that, we did. I hope they pick it up.

You just mentioned that you’re the new leader. Is this an indication that you’re a new liberal kind of National leader?

Well, funnily enough, I get a lot of flak for all sorts of views, but the reality is we have put forward, I think, quite an exciting, comprehensive medicinal cannabis regime that includes manufacture of cannabis; it includes dispensing from the pharmacy. I think it will be a world-leading regime.

Right, so, are you going to hold Jacinda’s hand and let them take your ideas and say, ‘Yeah, there you go. Let’s get this through. Let’s get it done now. Let’s change the current legislation.’

Yeah, I want to reach out. I’ve instructed my health team to be there talking with the party spokespeople in the other parties. I hope they pick it up. We can move past the politics that they are trying to play, and they do the right thing on this issue.

But the select committee process is in place to do exactly that.

Yeah, but here’s the deal - you know, as I keep saying, it’s pretty simple, those government members on that select committee made quite clear they would not countenance widening the bill, putting in the improvements that we were asking questions about at the select committee.

One last question on this - is your objection to including loose-leaf cannabis a way of placating your conservative base? Because you seem to be going towards being a more liberal-leaning National leader.

I think the reality is this, we have coming up a referendum on cannabis for personal use - you know, decriminalisation, if you want to put it like that. I don’t want to change this medicinal cannabis debate into that by the back door; that’s another debate, a legitimate one for New Zealanders to have. But loose-leaf, I think, normalises and effectively decriminalises, and that’s not what we’re trying to do here.

Right. You talk about working constructively with the government as a constructive opposition leader. Let’s talk about climate change now. James Shaw told us last week that New Zealand can be a leader in reducing greenhouse gases; and John Key stated he wanted New Zealand to be a ‘fast follower’. So what is your position on this?

Yeah, I think I’m much more on the John Key side of this. But be really clear, in one of my first speeches, I gave a significant one on climate change. And I know James Shaw agrees with me when I say it is fundamentally important that the opposition - the biggest party in parliament, National - is being constructive on this. We are signing up for an enduring framework - an advisory climate commission - and without that, I would argue James Shaw and the government literally have nothing. Business, NGOs - they have nothing. They have no certainty about what the framework will be in future parliaments. I’m showing leadership on that. I’ve put that up because this is an important issue. But I think, you know, the problem with what James Shaw is saying - where you know, leading from the front, being out the front of others - is that could be incredibly disruptive to our economy, to New Zealanders in terms of cost along the way. I favour a more deliberative, planned, thorough approach.

Economic advice is that if we act sooner, it will cost us less.

Well, let me-

So you’re going to cost us more in the long run with that kind of attitude.

Let me give you a really clear example of why I disagree with that - oil and gas and the ban there. Now, people can have all sorts of views, but what should have happened with that is it should have gone to a newly comprised climate commission to work through the detail and the phasing and how transition might have looked like. Instead, the government just rushed head-on. And so if that is what James Shaw is talking about, I can’t go along with it. James Shaw himself said - I’ll just make this point - he said, ‘You know, you look back at Rogernomics and the dislocative, disruptive effect of probably right reforms there, but done too quickly, too radically.’ I don’t want to see that with climate change.

With climate change, our economy is unique in that it 40% of our income comes from agriculture, okay?


So that needs to be addressed. Don’t we have to lead there, because we’re in a unique position?

Yeah, we do have to lead, and I think we can-

Okay, then, we want to be a fast follower?

No, no. And I think here’s how we lead - and National did a good job on this, but I reckon we need to double down, and the government I lead would - in terms of investment, and science and innovation. But be really clear, I don’t think we say to our farmers, to our agriculturalists, ‘You’re in. You’re going to face all these costs. No one else in the world is doing that. We’re not giving you any technological solutions to do that.’ I think that’s cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Should farmers be brought into the Emissions Trading Scheme?

At the current time? No. For the reasons I’ve just given and a few others as well. Over time, can it happen if we meet certain criteria? Absolutely. And I come back to it - that’s around technology; that’s around what the rest of the world is doing; it’s also around treating the science properly and being evidence based. And at the moment, methane’s effectively treated the same as CO2 when the scientific consensus is becoming very clear - actually, methane is much less of a long-term problem.

How are we going to meet the climate change obligations that your government, when it was in power, signed up to if we don’t bring agriculture and farmers into the ETS?

Well, I suppose, ultimately, that comes down to what a carbon zero looks like. Because even James Shaw doesn’t know that-

But the even more concrete targets - the ones under the Paris Accord, which are 30% less than 2005 emissions that you signed up to - how are we going to meet those if we don’t bring agriculture into the ETS?

Hey, and be clear, I did sign up to them - literally. I was there as minister.

So the question is how are we going to meet them?

I get all this. Here’s how - by, firstly, getting an enduring framework in place. We’re doing that. By then making sure we’re getting good and proper advice from that climate commission. And then over time, methodically, sensibly moving through what we need to do. I’ve made clear to you on farming - at the moment, I think it’s cutting off our nose to spite our face. But over time, as the technology gets better, as we see the world do things as well, I’m sure New Zealand will.

Simon Bridges, National Party leader, thank you very much for your time.

Thank you.

Transcript provided by Able.

Transcript provided by Able.

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