On Wednesday morning, the most vicious thing facing New Zealand’s opposition party was former leader Simon Bridges’ appearance on TV grinning like a Cheshire cat, declaring he had no intention of challenging Judith Collins for the leadership.
In the following 24 hours the National party became an omnishambles.
With poll after poll showing the party might move to depose Collins, I contacted some MPs on Wednesday morning to get a read on what they were thinking.
One of the replies confirmed that Simon Bridges was serious about a challenge, and added presciently that “Judith would fight it hardcore”. Just how hardcore became clear on Wednesday night when Collins, without consulting her caucus or Bridges, accused her rival of “serious misconduct” towards a fellow MP, now known to be Jacqui Dean. Collins said she was stripping Bridges of his portfolio responsibilities because of the comments at a caucus event five years ago, which she characterised as “harassment”.
We’ve since learnt the seemingly ribald comments were in a group discussion relating to “old wives’ tales” about how Bridges and his wife might conspire to have a girl after having two boys. Whether voters see such comments as beyond the pale, time will tell. But most of her caucus seem to have concluded that the tone and timing – and the fact Bridges had been reprimanded for them and apologised at the time – did not seem to warrant a late-night sacking. It was a flamethrower play sure to do as much damage to the party as it did to Bridges. Burn the village to save the village stuff. So Collins arrived at parliament on Thursday to face furious colleagues and promptly lost a vote of no confidence.
That Collins’ tenure should end in a ball of flames is one of the least surprising events in the tumultuous past 10 years of New Zealand politics. A decade when the two major parties – Labour and National – have run through 11 leaders.
Collins has always been combustible and polarising. As a minister she revelled in the nickname “Crusher”, based on her policy to crush the cars of speeding drivers and her famous commitment to “reward” her political opponents with “double” the pain they inflicted on her. She had said that if you can’t be loved, it was best to be feared. And whatever you think of Bridges’ sin, it was the politics of fear and “reward” that she couldn’t resist.
While Collins as leader has tried to rein in her more brutal tendencies, the misjudged press release reminded everyone what she’s capable of. And while National MPs are looking for something to counter the “kindness” brand attached to prime minister Jacinda Ardern, they sent the clear message on Thursday that these sorts of tactics aren’t what they’re looking for.
It’s fitting that Collins’ leadership exploded the same day Labour announced the end of New Zealand’s MIQ (managed isolation) system. It’s a big step away from the country’s lockdown era and National sent out press releases damning Labour as out of touch, “making it up as they go along” and rushing changes “under huge pressure”.
The government has been struggling to choose the right time to move. What’s too soon or too late? How much of this will the public take?
Replace “MIQ” with “Collins”, though, and the truth is you could say exactly the same thing about National. Crusher Collins, as leader, had become Lockdown Collins.
Just as Labour has long known it would one day have to ease border restrictions, National MPs have long known they’d have to confront the fact that Collins was never going to win them the next election. Just as many New Zealanders have grown frustrated by a sense of treading water, so National MPs have grown impatient at their failure to dent the government and improve the party’s polling. And like MIQ, Collins was only ever intended to serve a temporary purpose when elected leader in July 2020. Always ambitious and never a unifying figure, she was a necessity, a way to buy time until better options came along.
National faced a difficult few weeks trying to figure out whether Collins needed to go before or after Christmas. She has saved them that dilemma. But the party now faces the sort of introspection and infighting voters hate most, just when the government is at its most vulnerable and New Zealand other’s rightwing party, ACT, is at its strongest.
The caucus is divided and there’s nothing from the past few years that suggests the talent pool at its disposal is very deep. How telling is it that that until last night the front-runner was a retread candidate whose poll ratings as preferred prime minister just two years ago were even lower than Collins’ are now? We’ll soon see, as the caucus will elect a new leader next Tuesday.
Whoever wins will have the challenge of making their mark through the political wasteland that is summer, then returning to parliament in the new year just as borders are opening, New Zealanders begin coming home and – God willing – a sense of normality is starting to return.
The party’s interim leader, Shane Reti, said the party would “get up and lift our eyes to the horizon”. It was an encouraging line for his troops, but Bridges’ assessment was more honest. He said National was starting from a low base and “there is still a huge amount of work to do”.
The facts are that National has now rolled through four leaders since it lost power in 2017. That’s still one behind Labour’s tally when it was opposition 2008-2011. But National still has plenty of time before the 2023 election to catch up.