Controversy Creates Cash: Simon Bridges and the Monday Night Wars

The Leader of the Opposition forced a No Contest and inflicted a Dusty finish on the Wellbeing Budget... a story of politics through the lens of professional wrestling

When Simon Bridges leaked details of last week’s budget, it was a bit of a gamble. If the gambit worked, the payoff was taking away the government’s ability to frame the debate over its spending plans. The downside risk was that, depending on what was in the Budget, he could have ended up helping Labour. 

Millennials of a certain vintage will remember the turmoil of wrestling’s Monday Night Wars, fought between 1996 and 2001. The first combatant was the established WWF, which had come to dominate the “sport” after Vince McMahon had, in a very Jacinda Ardern like move, united and absorbed the disparate regional promotions scattered throughout the United States. The other was the insurgent WCW, formed from the remnants of those who had been swept aside by McMahon’s revolution and cashed up by the support of Billionaire Ted.  

As the (then) WWF and the WCW fought a drawn out battle for pre-eminence, it was very much no holds barred. The in-ring theatrics and associated drama of professional wrestling may be contrived, but the intense competition was real and intense. 

Running things at the insurgent WCW was Eric Bischoff, a talented booker who quickly gained the upper hand over the more institutional WWF. You could think of him as a kind of leader of the opposition in the world of wrestling. A very effective one. 

For a period of about two years, the Bischoff's Monday Nitro held a ratings lead over McMahon's Monday Night Raw. Some of the best-known talent in the business defected to the disruptive new promotion which assembled one of the most astonishing rosters in wrestling history. For an incredible 84 consecutive weeks, the WCW bested its rival in the Monday night ratings. 

Things were looking grim indeed for the WWF. 

Most smarks agree that before the Monday Night Wars, the WWF was already at something of a low creative ebb. In fact, it was a little bit like the Labour-led government – unable to effect change due to coalition-induced paralysis and an overreliance of the prime minister’s brand dominance. Old hands in the promotion played a NZ First-like role in stifling innovation and preventing transformation. 

As it faced the first serious challenge since it essentially took wrestling over in the 1980s, the WWF upped its game. New talent was introduced, along with a grittier style dominated by anti-heroes rather than the simpler 'babyface versus heel' dynamic of the decades gone by. 

The result was something that now looks like a bit like an Arcadian age in terms of characters and storytelling (well, by wrestling standards). In the same way that a strong opposition should produce a more creative government, the challenge of the WCW stirred the WWF out of its creative complacency. Competition tends to strengthen everyone. 

Of course, winners and losers are also an inherent element of competition. In the Monday Night Wars, the turning point came at a pinpoint moment on January 4, 1999. Bischoff learned what would be happening on Raw’s taped broadcast for that night. The much loved Mick Foley, wrestling as Mankind, was going to win the world title. 

Bischoff decided to play spoiler and had the result announced on that night’s edition of Nitro. The play backfired spectacularly, as hundreds of thousands of wrestling fans changed the channel then and there to see Mankind defeat The Rock (with an assist from Stone Cold Steve Austin). The leak backfired and the WWF was handed a ratings win on a plate.  

It became something of an El Alamein moment. The WWF had the initiative and it never really surrendered it. Eric Bischoff was replaced as the ratings continued to slide. The war was over and McMahon had seen off the challenger. 

And that's the risk Bridges took when he decided to spoil the budget. Had there been something in it that had the quality of excitement fulfilment or satisfaction to any great degree, then the stunt would have seriously backfired and he would now be staring down the very real possibility of being relieved of his leadership.

But that danger would only be a real deterrent if the coalition government had the internal means and resources to produce a change-making event. 

This was not the case. The result was a folding chair of the government’s messaging about its own agenda.