In the end, Judith Collins’s tenure at the top of the National Party ended on the same notes that have sounded throughout her political career: fighting words, a refusal to back down, and one last attempt at crushing a foe.
The MP, nicknamed “Crusher” for a policy that physically crushed the cars of traffic-code-violating ‘boy racers’, was never one to walk away from a battle easily. As the dust settles from her latest, leadership-ending altercation, New Zealand’s opposition will be left scrambling for leadership for the fifth time in about as many years – and commentators say the party’s turmoil risks creating a vacuum at the right of the country’s political spectrum.
‘One last grenade’
Standing at the podium to formalise the latest implosion of opposition leadership on Thursday, National’s interim leader Shane Reti was quizzed about the scandal that had sent the party’s latest leader flaming out of the top job. He stolidly repeated to reporters the same lines: he wouldn’t be discussing private conversations with colleagues, or with caucus, or about the internal business of the party.
His words were more aspirational than descriptive: New Zealand’s opposition has spent much of the last year struggling to stop discussing its own business, distracted again and again from policy by internal machinations. This week, Collins continued the trend, self-destructing in spectacular fashion after a sudden decision to strip one of her political rivals, Simon Bridges, of his portfolios for a historic complaint. Collins’s unilateral move on Wednesday night blindsided many of the party’s MPs, and exploded in her face the following morning.
What the leader had characterised in a press release as “serious misconduct” and implied was “intimidation” and “harassment,” was revealed as a crude comment made at a function about five years earlier in a group discussing their wives and children. Bridges said on Thursday “I have two boys and I wanted a girl” and he had discussed “some old wives tales” about how he and his wife might have a girl.
Bridges had been censured and apologised at the time – and Collins’ handling of the historic complaint was a final straw for the party, which rolled her as leader in the hours that followed.
In the end, the traits seen as Collins’ possible leadership strengths – ruthlessness, hard-headed determination, a fondness for going on the offensive, fast and decisive action – reared up in her final incident as leader.
“It drew together and amplified a lot of the common themes of Collins’ leadership as a whole,” says former National government staffer Ben Thomas. “Her natural proclivities for attack, directed internally at her own caucus rather than the government. Her lack of discipline, distracting from very significant failures by the government this week – and her unpredictability.”
“Collins, who is a natural fighter and will never cede her ground voluntarily, threw one last grenade,” Thomas says.
As a leader, Collins always had significant strengths and weaknesses, says former press secretary and longtime National staffer Janet Wilson, who worked with her through the last election. “On the plus side, what we got was an ability to be decisive and make decisions,” she says. “And even in the darkest days … she kept going, she kept her head high – she knew she had been given a hospital pass [as leader] and she carried on.”
But those traits also infused the abrupt, catastrophic action that felled her. “Strengths become weaknesses,” Wilson says. Once employed to sell Collins as a prospective prime minister, the former press-secretary is now blunt about her frustrations, saying the leader’s actions “enraged caucus” and had damaged the party’s reputation.
Her frustration has been echoed elsewhere: former National speaker David Carter told Stuff the leader had “attempted to lead by fear” and it was “wonderful news” that her tenure had ended. Collins’ office was approached for comment, but did not reply. Her current press secretary announced his resignation on Thursday.
‘Like an abattoir’
But even under new leadership, there are concerns for the health of New Zealand’s opposition – and whether, after a year in the polling doldrums, a vacuum is forming at the centre right.
“Generally, I think it’s good for democracy when the opposition is a little bit more together than this,” says co-director of the Public Policy Institute and Auckland University lecturer Dr Lara Greaves.
“Right now they don’t look like a credible opposition, they look like an abattoir,” Thomas says.
The latest spill comes as Jacinda Ardern’s government is experiencing some of its worst polling since the pandemic began. While Labour is still well ahead of its competitors, its vote has slumped significantly in recent months – down to about 41%. But National has barely benefited from that drop, sitting in the low 20s, with votes instead redistributing to the libertarian Act and other small parties. National’s new leader, due to be chosen next Tuesday, will be its fifth in Ardern’s tenure as prime minister.
Amid the turmoil, the Act party’s David Seymour has been a clear winner, rising to 12% in the preferred prime minister stakes – compared to Collins’ 6%. Act’s party vote has risen to 16%. Seymour presents one of the biggest challenges for the party’s future, Greaves says. “There’s David Seymour and his party sitting there on the right, and growing in popularity,” she says. “[He] seems to be able to speak to the public and be likable in a way that none of the national leaders have been.”
“If national don’t arrest the decline? He [Seymour] could crest 20 points easily in the near future,” says Wilson. “I think there’s got to be wholesale governance change if this party is going to present a fresh face in the 21st century.”
Out of leadership, Collins will continue for now as a force within the party: she has said she will stay on in her seat, and is unapologetic about the events that saw her exit the top job. Asked by a Stuff reporter on Thursday if she regretted the press release that had ended it, she responded with one word: “Never.”