7 Jun 2018

Warkworth voters suss out Simon Bridges

From Checkpoint, 5:51 pm on 7 June 2018

National leader Simon Bridges has been touring NZ so the public can have a chance to get to know him. Sarah Murphy followed him to Warkworth and asked locals what they thought.

National leader Simon Bridges speaks to a packed house at the Warkworth RSA.

National leader Simon Bridges speaks to a packed house at the Warkworth RSA. Photo: RNZ / Sarah Murphy

A steady stream of people made their way through the doors of the Warkworth RSA yesterday, taking shelter from a cold and wet day outside.

Before they had a chance to ask, the man behind the bar pointed the incoming groups to his right, as far away as possible from the bar he said, and away from the locals playing snooker out the back.

The crowd had all come for the same thing, to suss out National Party leader Simon Bridges, who was in town for the afternoon.

They weren't a bunch that were easily impressed.

An older man with a walking stick made his way to the restaurant area of the venue to make sure he got a seat.

"Well, I'm here interested to see what he talks about and how he comes across because when I first heard him I wasn't all that impressed," he said.

"He's got to become stronger and more assertive I believe, but not too assertive, keep it down a bit."

His thoughts were shared by a number of others in the room.

"I think Simon's alright, he's just inexperienced in my opinion," said another.

Mr Bridges is currently touring the country as part of his Connecting with Communities roadshow.

By the time he arrived, about 120 people had packed out the resturant section of the RSA - so many that it was overflowing.

Most of these people had shown up half and hour before start time, they were eager to get to know the leader of the party they support.

Slightly more than 4500 people live in the riverside town of Warkworth, the northernmost part of Auckland's Supercity.

The crowd that showed up to meet Mr Bridges was not unlike the usual one you'd find in an RSA, only a handful of people under 65 were dotted throughout the room. The largest group of eligible voters in this area are over the age of 70.

And it mostly reflected the population - more than 90 percent Pākehā - and there were only a handful of people of colour.

The crowd at the Warkworth RSA to hear  National leader Simon Bridges speak went right out the door.

The crowd at the Warkworth RSA to hear National leader Simon Bridges speak went right out the door. Photo: RNZ / Sarah Murphy

Most voters at the meet and greet were staunch National supporters, but National seems to be losing votes to Labour, who jumped from 12.33 percent of the vote in the 2011 election, to 23.35 percent last year.

Warkworth is just one of a number of stops on Bridges' country-wide tour, aiming to connect to the people.

And whether he's in the deep-South, or here in the North, he has a few tried and true lines up his sleeve.

Like this one about meeting his now-wife, that he is said to have tried out a number of times prior. "She told me not that long after, she went home that evening and she called her mother and said she'd met a handsome japanese man, I like the handsome. I'm not Japanese by the way, little bit of Māori in there."

One crowd member suggested he could be a bit more charasmatic.

"We are in the age of personality politics, just look at Donald Trump, Kim Kardasian, you know, that's the sort of world we live in, but substance does matter," said Mr Bridges.

Over the other side of the RSA, and away from the crowded meeting sat a group of locals, both National and Labour supporters.

While they could still hear Mr Bridges speak, thanks to the speaker system throughout the RSA, they had decided to listen with a beer in hand - turning up a little late, they realised there would be nowhere for them to sit and see the speaker anyway.

"Nah, there's nothing to say about him..." said one Labour supporter.

Her National supporting friend piped back with, "Well he's got two years to learn what he's doing, doesn't he."

Bridges may have been the headline act, but it was clear the political rockstar at this meeting was local MP, Mark Mitchell.

He's held the Rodney seat for the past seven years and clearly a favourite among the people.

The group in the backroom said he's the type of guy who will sit down and have a drink with you, he's into the same kind of sports the locals are, and he's even shown up to a rodeo event to ride a steer.

If the latest preferred prime minister poll is anything to go by -  Bridges sits at nine percent - it may take a fair few of these roadshows to turn those numbers around.

"The truth is for me, I've got a way to go, I mean it's very early days, I've got to get out and do these things and to work at both meeting people and getting known, but also givng them have a sense of me," said Mr Bridges.

He may have warmed up the crowd in Warkworth,  but these tough national voters may take a bit more convincing that any of the current leaders, let alone Bridges, are fit for the job.

According to one local, "That's one thing to say, he came in through the back door... no-one comes in through the back door unless they're dodgy."