Simon Bridges' questioning of Dr Bloomfield 'not politically clever' - Mike Williams

Former Labour Party president Mike Williams says Simon Bridges made "very serious errors" as leader of the Opposition - including how he dealt with Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield during the COVID-19 crisis.

When discussing Todd Muller's ascent to Opposition leader with Magic Talk's Sunday host Roman Travers, Williams noted that Bridges' questioning of Dr Bloomfield - a leading health official who has surged in popularity amid the COVID-19 response - was not a "politically clever" move.

Williams, who served as Labour's president from 2000 to 2009, implied that Bridges - who was overthrown by Muller as Opposition leader on Friday - shot himself in the foot as chairman of the Epidemic Response Committee (ERC). The select committee was established in late March, coinciding with New Zealand's alert level 4 lockdown, to consider and report to the House on matters relating to the Government's management of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Williams says Bridges was "gifted an opportunity to shine" by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in his role as ERC chairman, but failed to deliver.

"I actually thought [Ardern] gifted Bridges an opportunity to shine, and that was the Epidemic Response Committee - she chose him as the chairman. But he really dropped the ball, I thought," he told Travers.

"He favoured his own side when he was giving the call and he treated [Dr] Ashley Bloomfield in an offhand and rude fashion, which struck me as not a politically-clever thing to do."

In one example, during a turbulent select committee meeting on May 6, Bridges accused the Director-General of Health of refusing to "answer simple health questions" - implying the leading physician was holding back important information from the public regarding the COVID-19 outbreak.

Bridges began by referencing the Government's suspension of the Official Information Act (OIA), saying the Ministry of Health has failed to answer written requests for information for over two weeks. 

"Why don't you answer simple health questions to the one parliamentary committee on this remarkably significant issue?" he asked Dr Bloomfield. 

"I'll be quite frank... I don't think it's a resourcing issue. I think it comes down to one simple thing: you don't want to answer because you want to control the information flow and do this in a time and way convenient to you and the Government."

Dr Bloomfield denied the accusations and reiterated his commitment as a public servant to providing information to the public.

What did Bridges do that was so wrong?

Despite some tense back-and-forth with former National Party president and fellow political commentator Michelle Boag, who was also present for the discussion, both found common ground when it came to the conclusion that Ardern outshined Bridges. 

"COVID-19 changed everything. Simon was doing quite well and that was reflected in the polls... but when you've got... the Prime Minister commanding all of the attention - all around the world Opposition leaders have just sunk without trace. [The result was] not that surprising," Boag said.

"He possibly would've survived if it hadn't been for COVID-19, but I thought the National Party in Parliament felt they had to do something to correct the situation."

Williams agreed the spotlight has been firmly fixed on Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson, to a lesser extent, with both performing "extremely well" in a time of crisis. 

He also alleged that between 14 and 20 "unemployable" National MPs were at risk of losing their jobs following Bridges' and National's low scores in the Newshub-Reid Research poll released this week - a claim Boag denied - implying that blunders happen when panic sets in.

"When MPs start to feel they're going to lose their job... you had between 14 and 20 National MPs losing their jobs - most of them would be unemployable anywhere else - the panic sets in. That's exactly what happened," he said, comparing the situation to the "dumping" of former Labour MP and Opposition leader David Shearer. 

"I think what will be very interesting is what the next poll starts to tell us, because National has been on this downward trajectory before in 2002, when Michelle [Boag] was president, and they bottomed out at 20 percent of the party vote. So it's not inevitable that changing your leader turns things around."

When asked what Bridges did that was so wrong - a question that has been debated since the leadership challenge was announced earlier this month - Williams also acknowledged Bridges' opposition to raising the benefit.

"One of Bridges' very serious errors, which National will have to wear for a while, was his opposition to putting benefits up - which strikes me as the right thing to do. 

"We are in totally uncharted waters... we simply do not know the severity of the depression that is going to hit. There's one entire industry that's being subtracted, and that's tourism," he explained.

Muller, who left an $800,000 salary at Fonterra in favour of a parliamentary career, according to Boag, was elected as National's new leader on Friday by the party's caucus. Nikki Kaye was also voted in as deputy, overthrowing Paula Bennett.