Simon Bridges fends off leadership coup rumours, says focus is on COVID-19

National Party leader Simon Bridges is fending off rumours of a leadership coup, saying he is instead focused on New Zealand's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The AM Show understands that rumours are swirling about a leadership coup, with a potential challenge from MP Mark Mitchell and deputy National Party leader Paula Bennett. That follows a flood of negative comments aimed at Bridges' response to the Government's decision to leave lockdown next Monday.

A Facebook post from the leader has been overwhelmingly negatively received based on how people reacted to the statement and the nearly 30,000 comments. Newshub found some of those expressing praise for the Government in the comment section were National supporters. 

"My National vote is quickly turning because of your attitude Simon Bridges. You are acting like a child," a Christchurch man wrote in the comment section. "Your days are numbered as leader. Every time you open your mouth you are losing voters."

On Wednesday morning, Bridges was asked by The AM Show's Duncan Garner for his reaction to the rumours. 

"No, I think you and I know the blessing of being an Opposition leader is to have these sort of stories from time to time," Bridges replied.

He was then asked if it was possible he just wasn't aware of a potential leadership challenge.

"I certainly don't know and I don't think any of that is true. I think it started online and I can sorta see how that comes from a left-wing blogger and that is the way these things go," Bridges said.

Garner replied by saying that typically the leader is the last to know in a coup.

"Still the answer is no," Bridges added.

The Opposition leader said he speaks to Bennett and Mitchell regularly each day and he was sure he wasn't being rolled.

Bennett tweeted on Wednesday morning that speculation was based on people being bored.

"I get people are bored & looking for entertainment but false speculating on the leadership of the Nat party has no factual basis. Can’t believe a tweet from a known stirring leftie is getting any pick up! Move on, we back Simon. We have a health crises & an economy to fix," she said.

Mitchell also expressed his support for the current leader.

"My job is to support and look after my electorate. To get us through the lockdown in the best shape possible. That is where my focus is. Simon is working very hard as Leader of the opposition, it’s an important job, he has my full support. Stay Safe everyone," he tweeted.

Focus on COVID-19

Instead of being distracted by rumoured internal machinations in the National Party, Bridges said he was focused on responding to COVID-19. 

"I know where we are at and I know the feedback that I am getting and Members of Parliament are getting. You talked about that online thing where people will have their views, and look that is fair enough, but I can tell you, on the other side of it, it is more than matched by the tens of thousands who have come to me on quarantining and our petition," he said

Bridges is referring to a National Party petition set up two weeks ago calling for the mandatory quarantining of people entering New Zealand. He said at the time that the petition received an unprecedented response. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern previously signalled tighter border controls were on their way, but hadn't yet announced any details when the petition was set up.

The National Party leader said on Wednesday he was providing a voice to business owners who are under pressure due to the pandemic, facing rent, rates, taxes and other bills while having no income. He said they may no longer be in business by the time the Budget comes along, when more support is expected to be announced.

"Hundreds each day, small business owners who sit there, they understand the issue of COVID-19, and how serious it is, but they sit there and one of them said 'why are we the sacrificial lambs from a longer lockdown, from the uncertainty, from the costs we are facing?'"

A number of measures have been introduced by the Government to support business owners during the pandemic, including allowing greater flexibility for businesses to meet tax obligations and a wage subsidy scheme. About $10 billion has been paid out via the subsidy scheme, but there is no plan to extend it beyond 12 weeks.

For every negative Facebook comment, Bridges said he received private correspondence from people negatively affected by the lockdown being extended from Wednesday to Monday night, including one person who has had to delay a colonoscopy.

He said that since sharing his Facebook post, which criticised the Government for not using the lockdown period to "ensure best practise of testing and tracing and the availability of PPE", the Auditor-General has announced an investigation into PPE stock and a report has been released critical of the country's capacity to contact trace.

Bridges told The AM Show if he was Prime Minister he would have brought the country out of lockdown and moved quickly towards a level 2 scenario.

The Government's decision to move to alert level 3 next week came after officials spent weeks scrutinising the latest health data to understand the virus' infection rate in New Zealand the origin of cases.

While the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield is confident the country doesn't have any widespread undetected community transmission, Ardern said the lockdown was extended by five days to provide "additional certainty" that the gains made during lockdown wouldn't be put to waste. 

"Waiting to move alert levels next week post-Cabinet costs us just two more business days but gives us much greater long-term health and economic returns down the track. It means we are less likely to have to go backwards," Ardern said.

"Ultimately, we have taken a balanced approach and one that the Director-General of Health not only supported, but also recommended. This time we now have will be used to prepare, on all fronts."

Surveillance testing - where random samples of the community are tested to make sure there are no silent outbreaks of the illness - began last week and will continue into level 3, while contact tracing is being ramped up with an investment by the Government and the development of an application to track people's location.

While alert level 3 is still extremely restrictive, with people generally not allowed to leave their residences, more businesses will be able to open if they can operate without face-to-face customer interaction.