Family

Simon Bridges on how politics is affecting his family life

'I say 'we' entered politics because it takes over our lives so much – we are just positive for each other.'

By Kelly Bertrand

As you'd imagine, Simon Bridges' diary is bursting at the seams with events, meetings and appearances.

But as the Weekly chats to the Leader of the Opposition on the six-month anniversary of his time as head of the National Party, there's an entry in the calendar that's different from all the rest – bold, red and circled. Come hell or high water, Simon (41) will attend the most important event of the year – the Father's Day breakfast at his four-year-old son's kindy.

"Harry's been on and on at me about it," laughs Simon. "I've had so much pressure on the diary from him. For some reason, he's fixated on it – it's in his head, it has to happen."

"There's no way that's moving!" chimes in Simon's wife Natalie (35). "The invitation says you have to take your 'Mr Incredible' to breakfast… so there you go."

It's been a whirlwind few months for the Bridges family – Simon, Natalie, Emlyn (6), Harry (4) and eight-month old Jemima − since Simon took over the Nat's leadership from former Prime Minister Sir Bill English in February. And in this relatively short amount of time, so much has changed for all of them.

Currently facing his biggest political hurdle since taking the reins, as he tries to find out who leaked information of his expenses to the media, Simon agrees his work life has intensified in recent weeks.

But does he view the current political sparring over the supposed leak from his party, and the ensuing battle over parliamentary enquiries, the biggest challenge he's faced?

"In all honesty, the biggest challenge, and I'm not just saying this because we've been sitting here and talking about it, but the biggest challenge is juggling family and politics," he tells. "It's about making sure you're doing both and not just one well because that would be an epic fail in either direction.

"It's about making sure that in addition to getting around the country and doing politics of New Zealand, there's also time for my family and my three precious children. I don't want to get out of politics one day and feel like I won the battle but lost the war."

In fact, his family are so important to him, Simon says he wants to make sure that he's around for the kids in the future – and that means staying in politics for a good time, not a long time.

"I'm not in this as a time server," he admits. "I'll be surprised if I'm still in politics in my mid fifties – I'm 41 now.

"Some people go into it for life and they're there 30 years on − that won't be me. It's about making a contribution, significant service and hopefully before it's too late, spending a lot of time with my family and maybe having another career again."

The opposition leader is having a rare day off, and we're fitting in our interview just before he has to rush off to pick up his eldest, Emlyn, from school. It's not something he gets to do very often, Simon admits. Today, he's also in charge of the afternoon schedule and getting Emlyn to his science programme, then Harry off to swimming.

"I don't know how Natalie does it!" he exclaims. "I'm basically dead by the time 7pm comes around, and she manages to do it day in and day out. I do Leader of the Opposition and go to Parliament for a rest!

"The reality is, there's no scenario where I could do this without Natalie. She is a superwoman. She's got her business, she runs our home and our children's lives... I'm okay when I'm here, but
I'm not here a lot."

Indeed, Natalie's got a lot on her plate in between running her PR firm and juggling the three kids. But she's supportive of her husband's career, even if it's tough sometimes.

"Some days are easier than others, but there are some days where I feel like I'm in a Laurel and Hardy movie or something!" she tells.

"I'd be lying if I said there weren't nights where I wished we were together. In the weekends he's away, it can be tough," she confides.

"But I really feel like there's a purpose to all of this, it's not in vain. I think we – I say 'we' entered politics because it takes over our lives so much – we are just positive for each other."

The added scrutiny that has come with Simon's promotion has taken a while to get used to, Natalie admits, and as a former journalist, there are aspects of it she has found tougher to get her head around.

"Suddenly, I'm not married to a person who's looking after his portfolios; I'm married to someone who's leading a party..."

"The biggest one," interjects Simon.

"Yes and it's quite funny," continues Natalie.

"I'm a news junkie and I've always been one of those weirdos who is a mad Newstalk listener. I used to hear Simon's name on there sometimes, but now I hear it all the time. Sometimes it's really nice to listen to, sometimes it's not! It invades in a way it hasn't before.

"I don't really mind when people have opinions, or when they take pot shots or whatever. The only time I get frustrated is if things are factually incorrect. And it happens. You just have to suck it up. And I'd be lying if I didn't say that sometimes it's hard."

The couple, who have been married for 12 years after first meeting at the University of Oxford in England, are also aware of how their children are exposed to the topsy-turvy world of politics.
Despite their young ages, both Emlyn and Harry know what their dad does for a living, though sometimes things get a little lost in translation.

"We had a hilarious moment at Harry's kindy," laughs Natalie.

"They were talking about significant buildings around New Zealand and they showed a picture of the Beehive. Harry put his hand up really eagerly, and he said, 'Oh, yes, this is the place where I went to taste honey on a stick.' He thought it was the honey place up the road! So they're not too hyper-aware!"

"They're deeply aware that Daddy's a politician," Simon adds. "They understand that. I think the only politician that's deeper in their consciousnesses is Donald Trump!"

So does he reckon any of the kids might follow in his political footsteps?

"It's funny you ask, we went to a political event last night and someone asked Emlyn that," says Simon. "He said he may do or he might be on MasterChef! I could see it – I certainly see leadership in
both of them, but maybe that's just a father's pride.

"Personally, I'd really like to see one of them go in. I think politics is a noble cause that really matters. But ultimately, whatever makes them happy, of course. For Emlyn, that's cheffing, not politicking, and Harry, going by his current interests, it could be fashion design!"

So far, the three Bridges children are wildly different, their parents attest, with distinct interests and personalities.

"The older one, he's slightly more serious and diligent," nods Simon.

"The middle one, Harry, he's possibly more quirky and cheeky, and Jemima, so far, is an absolute perfect angel. But as Paula Bennett says to me, wait until she can talk!"

With Simon away from their Tauranga home so much – especially recently when he undertook a tour of the country to "get in front of as many New Zealanders as possible and gauge the temperature of the country", as Natalie puts it – whatever time the couple have together is precious, with both firm believers in "quality over quantity".

"We'll have date night, as corny as that sounds," says Simon, with Natalie adding, "We bond over food far too much! We usually like to go somewhere low-key, like a nice little Thai [place], where we can have a little beer or something and chill."

"Or even a big beer!" chimes in Simon.

And though their time together is precious, it still often revolves around politics, with Natalie acting as Simon's "talkback voice of the people".

"We've always done things really closely together. We talk a lot every day. Not on the really nitty gritty matters of politics, but good advice and counsel from Natalie," Simon tells.

And she's seen a definite change in her husband in the last six months.

"He's very energised," says Natalie. "To put it bluntly, it's a very exciting job for him. I definitely don't think it's for everybody. You know, it can be intense, but that's what I fell in love with him about. When we met at Oxford, that's one of the things I loved about him – he was very intense about his study, very intense about having a good time and all of those things."

And as for Simon, he reckons he's transformed too – and he doesn't think the job is as hard as some previous opposition leaders have made it out to be.

"It's gone better than I thought it would, in a funny sort of way," he muses.

"I just thought it would be... looking at past opposition leaders, they made it look hard. I've basically only been in government. Actually, it's been more uplifting than I thought it would be."

He continues, "I think I've grown as a person over the past six months. I've had to become a better listener and more inclusive, and in doing that better, I suppose a decision maker."

And, of course, it's been about developing his own style of leadership after following in the footsteps of the likes of Bill English and Sir John Key. For Simon, it's a combination of taking advice and listening to his gut.

"I totally take advice," he nods.

"We've worked through the issue, for example, with the expenses and the leak – it is about senior MPs around you, that I've consistently bounced things off. It's also understanding, whether it's [the expenses saga] or how we approach education policy or any such thing, it's about taking it seriously but not being overly serious about it. If you carry this stuff too heavily, you'll never get anywhere."

It's an approach he's chosen to adopt for our photoshoot too – happily posing for pictures behind his sons' toy drum kit, much to their delight.

"He lives life to the full," Natalie says with a smile.

"Again, it's a bit cheesy. I think both of us do. There's a sense that we've got a lot to fit in!"

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