Judith Collins, leader of New Zealand’s opposition National party, has been toppled after months of poor polling and a shock move to strip a political rival of his portfolios.
MPs voted to end Collins’ leadership at a crisis caucus meeting on Thursday. The meeting was prompted after Collins demoted Simon Bridges, a former party leader and one of her rivals. Late on Wednesday night, she stripped Bridges of all of his portfolios, citing an inappropriate comment made by Bridges in 2017 in front of a female colleague– where Bridges says he discussed “old wives tales” about how he and his wife might produce a female child. Collins described the comment as “serious misconduct”.
Collins confirmed her resignation via social media. “It’s been a privilege to take over the leadership of [the National party] during the worst of times and to do so for 16 months. It has taken huge stamina and resolve, & has been particularly difficult because of a variety of factors,” she said in a statement. MP Dr Shane Reti will take the helm of the party as interim leader, with a replacement to be chosen next week.
While the conflict with Bridges sparked Thursday’s vote, Collins’ leadership has been troubled for some time, and the last few months have brought a series of disastrous leadership polls. Known as the “Crusher” for both her tough style of politics and for her responsibility for a historic policy which saw the cars of boy racers physically crushed, Collins struggled to win over New Zealand voters.
Support for the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour party has been dropping over several months, as the country grapples with a Covid outbreak – but Collins failed to capitalise on that, with many votes instead redistributing to the libertarian Act party. While support for Labour has slipped in recent months to around 41-47%, support for National has languished at 21-28%. In a 1 News Colmar Brunton poll released in November, Judith Collins was sitting at just 5% in the preferred prime minister stakes, compared to Ardern’s 39%.
The difficulty for the party has been a lack of viable alternatives: no other National MPs surpassed Collins’ popularity, and Simon Bridges was sitting at just 1% in that poll. National’s stiffest competition has come from its right flank: David Seymour, leader of the right-wing libertarian party, typically a small player in New Zealand’s parliament, was at 11%. Chris Luxon, a former chief executive of Air New Zealand, will be in the mix as a possible Collins replacement, polling at 4%. But he has spent only one year as an MP and has not yet built a high public profile. Another possible candidate is Whangaparāoa MP Mark Mitchell.
On Thursday afternoon, Bridges expanded on the nature of his comments. He said they had occurred at a function where a group were discussing their wives and children. “I have two boys and I wanted a girl and I engaged in some old wives tales about that and how to have a girl,” he said. He would not expand further on the phrasing he used.
MP Jacqui Dean was present for the remark, and subsequently complained to leadership. Bridges apologised.
“I entirely accept and am regretful of that day because I acknowledge that some of what I said was clearly inappropriate,” Bridges said. He said he had reiterated the apology, and would not rule out a run for the leadership on Tuesday.
In a statement, Dean said, “About five years ago, Simon Bridges made remarks that upset me at the time. They were not about me, but they were inappropriate and not something I wanted to hear,” she said.
“At the time there was an apology, but subsequently it has continued to play on my mind and with the recent reviews that have occurred in parliament the feelings have been brought back up.
“What matters to me is that all of us have a clear understanding of what behaviour we should expect in a modern workplace environment.
“Simon and I have spoken a number of times over the past few hours and he has reiterated his apology.”
Collins said in her statement: “I knew when I was confided in by a female colleague regarding her allegation of serious misconduct against a senior colleague, that I would likely lose the leadership by taking the matter so seriously. If I hadn’t, then I felt that I wouldn’t deserve the role.”
The late night Wednesday drama has brought rumblings of discontent within the party to the fore. Collins’ announcement of his demotion blindsided many National MPs, with a number complaining about how the situation had been handled. It came at a moment when the government is under increasing pressure for its Covid response – and prominent National supporters expressed irritation at the party once again becoming embroiled in internal politics rather than focusing on its policy platform.