Judith Collins named New Zealand National party's new leader

Tough-talking conservative politician will take on Jacinda Ardern at polls in September

New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, widely known for her exhortations to kindness and compassion, will face Judith Collins – a combative, tough-talking conservative lawmaker who styled herself after Margaret Thatcher – in the country’s general election in September following a leadership vote in the centre-right National party.

Collins, who has long held leadership ambitions but whose party is floundering in the polls, will face an uphill battle to persuade voters away from Ardern, one of the most popular New Zealand prime ministers of all time. Her centre-left Labour party is riding high in the polls after Ardern’s government quashed the spread of Covid-19 in the country, with many regarding the prime minister as something of a saviour figure.

While Collins’s predecessor had said he would not oppose the government “for opposition’s sake,” her ascension sets the stage for a clash of ideologies on the campaign trail: the 61-year-old politician, who has decried the “woke left”, said in May that she was “sick of being demonised” for being white.

“I think it’s important that we give credit where it’s due,” she said of Ardern at a news conference after she won a late-night vote on Tuesday. But there was “no chance at all that I’m going to let Jacinda Ardern get away with any nonsense”.

“I will hold her to account,” Collins said.

The new party leader was staunch when she took the podium, surrounded by her MPs, after National held a late-night, closed-door vote at New Zealand’s parliament in Wellington, following the shock resignation on Tuesday morning of Todd Muller.

He quit abruptly after leading the party for a volatile 53 days – the shortest stint in its history – characterised by leaks, distractions, weak interview performances, and rogue MPs. He had ousted the previous leader, Simon Bridges in a coup in May after dismal polling showed a heavy loss for the party in September.

Judith Collins walks with the National party’s new deputy leader, Gerry Brownlee, after a vote at parliament in Wellington.
Judith Collins walks with the National party’s new deputy leader, Gerry Brownlee, after a vote at parliament in Wellington. Photograph: Robert kitchin/AP

A flamboyant figure with a penchant for a cutting turn of phrase and designer outfits, as well as a larger-than-life manner, Collins has proved polarising, even among her party. She favoured a policy, in her past as a tough-on-crime minister of police and corrections, of impounding and crushing the cars of so-called “boy racers”, earning her the nickname “Crusher Collins” – which is still widely used.

Other than Ardern she is one of the few New Zealand lawmakers whose first name alone would spark recognition with the public. Ben Thomas, a centre-right commentator, said that made her the party’s only choice.

“She’s the only person in National who is assured enough and polished enough to foot it with Jacinda Ardern,” he said. Thomas added that the “patricians” of the party had been unable to “go head to head” with the prime minister, who often answers the public’s questions in Facebook Live broadcasts from home and had a 54% preferred prime minister rating in a June poll (her then-rival, Muller, held 13% support).

Collins’s rise came at the end of a horror day for National; its lawmakers had been unaware of what was coming when their leader suddenly announced his resignation, “effective immediately” by email on Tuesday morning, saying in a statement that his leadership was “untenable from a health perspective” and had “taken a heavy toll” on him personally.

“It has become clear to me that I am not the best person to be leader of the opposition and leader of the New Zealand National party at this critical time for New Zealand,” said Muller. “It is more important than ever that the New Zealand National party has a leader who is comfortable in the role.”

He has made no further comment, has not appeared in public since his resignation, and did not attend Tuesday’s meeting to select his replacement. In June, shortly after Muller assumed the leadership after ousting his predecessor, National had risen in the polls to just 38% against Labour’s 50% – meaning Ardern’s party could govern alone.

Todd Muller
Todd Muller quit citing health reasons just over two months from a general election and 53 days after taking charge in a leadership coup. Photograph: Mark Baker/AP

Collins grew up on a dairy farm in the Waikato region of New Zealand’s North Island, the youngest child of six. She studied and practised law and business before entering parliament in 2002, and becoming a cabinet minister in 2008.

In 2014, she stood down under pressure from her role as justice minister after claims she had been involved in a bid to undermine the director of the Serious Fraud Office; she was cleared of any wrongdoing and returned to cabinet in 2015.

She also faced criticism for promoting a New Zealand export company, Oravida, in China when the firm was owned by a close friend and her husband sat on its board. She rejected any claims of wrongdoing.

A long-time admirer of Thatcher, Collins said in a recently-published autobiography, Pull No Punches, that she had held a “wake” for the former British prime minister in her office after her death in 2013, “for those conservatives who, like me, saw Thatcher as the person who more than anyone else was responsible for getting Britain back on its economic feet after decades of decline.”

On Tuesday night, she allowed herself a smile when she told reporters her leadership was “third time lucky” for the party, referring to her recent predecessors.

She favoured her own “experience, toughness, the ability to make decisions” over Ardern’s, she said. Ardern had been underestimated by her own party, Collins said, and deserved respect as a person.

“But our team is better than their team,” she added.

Collins began her autobiography by recounting the election when she first became involved in National party politics in 1999 – one she correctly predicted National would lose.

“There is nothing quite like a lost cause to get me interested in it,” she wrote.

Whether she can turn her party’s fortunes around may prove the ultimate test of that philosophy.

“We will be taking the fight to the government,” she said on Tuesday, in her typically pugnacious manner. “I can’t wait to do that.”


Charlotte Graham-McLay in Wellington

The GuardianTramp

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