Heather du Plessis-Allan: an attack on the Police Commissioner is an attack on the PM

Simon Bridges’ attack on the “wokester” Police Commissioner Andy Coster is a 5-star political play. Not only is the police boss fair game but he’s opening up a reasonable point of attack on the Government.

It’s antiquated nonsense to say that Bridges is out of line attacking a public servant. Public servants as senior as the Police Commissioner are not neutral. They don’t get to the top of their departments without being able to play highly political games. The entire public service is highly politicised. They know which side their bread is buttered on from election to election and they adapt accordingly. Much of the dirt that politicians – especially those in government – get on their opponents is directly from their underlings in the public service. The idea that they are neutral is as quaint as it is naive.

Of all of them, Coster has a perception of being one of the most political. He appeared to go out of his way in the Epidemic Select Committee in April last year to defend the Labour-led Government. He was repeatedly asked whether the lockdown was legal and repeatedly dodged the question. He could’ve answered it honestly. It wasn’t his mistake that the lockdown wasn’t legal. It was Attorney-General David Parker’s mistake. But Coster – through his refusal to answer the question – appeared to shield one of his political masters. That makes him, in turn, anything but neutral.

What’s more, his appointment screamed politics. Coster was not the obvious choice for police boss. Mike Clement was. The frontline expected that. The media expected that. Clement expected that. But then Coster got the job. That leapfrogging raises suspicion that he was chosen for his ideological alignment to the Prime Minister, who personally plucked him from relative public obscurity and promoted him to the role.

So, Coster is fair game. And quite frankly, so is any other senior public servant who shields their political masters. By protecting political players, they turn themselves into political players as well.

Bridges’ criticism of Coster is clever politically. It strikes all the right notes for core National Party voters. Coster’s been in the job only 11 months but has likely already riled plenty of those blue voters. He’s tolerated unlawful iwi-led checkpoints. He’s tolerated bikies tormenting Auckland motorists on Waitangi Day because he’d removed the ability of his front-line officers to pursue in that situation. He’s abandoned the Armed Response Team trial. And he’s now advocating “policing by consent”, which is broadly a concept that means whatever you want it to and, to many, it will simply sound like asking criminals if it’s okay to arrest them.

Coster may have already realised he’s perceived as soft on crime. That could explain his announcement of his gang crackdown – Operation Tauwhiro – last week. It’s a nothing announcement. It sounds tough but has no extra resources or funding attached to it. Unless he completely abandons his commitment to progressive policing (publicly at least), he will continue to be perceived as soft on crime and will continue to give National attack lines.

Finally, Bridges’ attack works because it’s indirectly an attack on the Prime Minister. Because Coster is Ardern’s personal appointment and mirrors so much of her own ideology, he is the uniformed, male version of the Prime Minister. National can’t attack Ardern directly because of her popularity but they can attack those who represent her, and Coster is a perfect target. Because he is perceived to be soft on crime and because he is perceived to share Ardern’s values, she may find herself slightly splattered by attacks aimed at him.

It seems Bridges doesn’t have the total backing of his leader in calling the PC a “wokester”. Judith Collins intimated that she had told Bridges off privately.

She ought to do the opposite and thank him. He’s just run the best political play Nationals’ had in a long time.

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