Even her supporters use the nick-name “Crusher”. The Opposition National Party’s fourth leader since Jacinda Ardern became Prime Minister in late 2017 aims to live up to her moniker.
Judith Collins became leader of the NZ National Party this month after a turbulent period for her party. Dirty tricks and an apparent effort to undermine the national effort to defeat the Corona Virus played a part in the chaos.
The relatively stable and successful leadership of Prime Minister John Key ended when he resigned unexpectedly in December 2016 less than a year out from an election.
His successor Bill English went on to lose control of the Treasury benches in the 2017 election and resigned.
His successor Simon Bridges served from February 2018 to May 2020. He was plagued by a long wrangle with a National Party Backbencher Jami-Lee Ross about alleged illegal election finances that led to an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.
After Ross had been expelled from the National Party for a variety of offences, the SFO charged him and three other people with offences involving illegal donations to the National Party. Current National MPs were not among those charged.
His discomfort intensified after he was made Chairman of a cross party Parliamentary Epidemic Response Committee. He drove long distance from his home in Tauranga to Parliament in Wellington during Level 4 lock-down when there should have been no unnecessary travel. He could have stayed at home where he had high speed internet because the Committee’s meetings were conducted by video conference.
After a series of desperately low polls against the high performing Jacinda Ardern he lost a leadership challenge in May when Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye became leader and deputy leader.
National’s hopes for strong and stable leadership were short lived. Muller lacked leadership skills and charisma. Back bencher dirty tricks, disloyalty, leaking and unethical behaviour that had tormented Simon Bridges continued under Muller.
He was leader of the party from 22 May to 14 July, the shortest term for a National Party leader in New Zealand Parliamentary history.
Within days of his election there were reports of National BackBencher leaks to the media against him and his deputy Nikki Kaye.
He couldn’t find the words to deal with criticism of a photograph showing him with a Make America Great Again cap. Commentators of all stripes said he performed badly.
There was ample evidence the Government’s response to the Covid-19 Pandemic was highly successful. On the day Muller resigned the country had been 43 days without a case of community transmission.
The chief weapon against the virus was 14 days’ supervised isolation in hotels for travellers returning from overseas. Testing was a back-up measure. However a number of errors and omissions in the testing regime were seized upon by the Opposition as evidence of a failed policy.
In a very odd attempt to puncture the high level of confidence in the Government’s approach, the Opposition National Party Health Spokesman Michael Woodhouse reported that a homeless man had for two weeks been fraudulently enjoying isolation in a five star hotel.
Woodhouse said the man had “joined the back of a queue and spent a fortnight getting three square meals a day and a hot bath on the government.” The story went viral around the world. Woodhouse and media commentators said the incident proved the Government’s handling of the Covid crisis was a “shambles.”
Strenuous efforts by Health Department officials failed to find the man and ultimately Woodhouse could not produce him nor any evidence that he existed. The story appeared to have been created to smear the Government’s efforts to control the virus. Woodhouse neither withdrew his story nor apologised. Muller appeared weak. Still worse was to come.
A National Party backbencher, Hamish Walker, leaked the private medical details of eighteen Covid-19 patients. He too was trying to smear the Government’s pandemic response and many media commentators again chorused “shambles.” The Government was embarrassed and swiftly set up an inquiry. The new Health Minister Chris Hipkins said criminal charges could follow.
It turned out it wasn’t the Government or the Health Department that leaked. It was later revealed that the details had been leaked to Walker and to Health Spokesman Woodhouse by a former President of the National Party, Michelle Boag. She had received the information in confidence as CEO of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust. Her leak appeared to be deliberate, malicious and possibly illegal.
Muller was a principled man who would not have been comfortable with transparently dirty tricks on his watch. He resigned without warning after 53 days as Party Leader. He said he was not a “good fit” in the job and his health was an issue. By the same evening the party caucus elected National’s fourth leader in three years.
“Crusher” Collins said she would live up to her nick-name.
Judith Collins was a lawyer who specialised in commercial and tax law. She entered Parliament in 2002.
She became a minister when National won the election and formed a government from 2008-2017. Her portfolios included Police, Corrections, Veteran’s Affairs and Justice.
Collins acquired the name “crusher” in 2009 when as Corrections Minister she introduced crushing persistent boy racers’ (hoon’s) cars. She said she had brought back “deterrence”. She was never far from controversy and allegations of dirty tricks.
In 2014 while visiting China as a Minister on public business she gave high level endorsement to the milk produced and exported to China by the company Oravida of which her husband was a director. She met a Chinese official who was never named but who may have been able to assist her husband’s business. The incident appeared to be a serious conflict of interest and the Prime Minister John Key said Collins was “on her final warning.”
Twice as a minister she was implicated in leaks against senior Public Servants, one of whom was the Director of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). After the first of these incidents Prime Minister John Key said she was on her “second final warning”. After the leak against the head of the SFO she resigned all her portfolios but was reinstated when an inquiry cleared her.
With the General Election less than two months away New Zealand politics are likely to take on a darker hue.
On the day Todd Muller was made Leader, leaks from the Caucus claimed the Party’s Campaign Manager, Gerry Brownlee, had set up an “intelligence unit to run espionage and black ops” to help win the election on September 19.
Brownlee, who is now Deputy Party Leader, and Collins both denied the intelligence unit would use dirty tricks but the denials are unconvincing in the light of recent events and Collins’ record.
The Government has stood by its policy that “The best support for the economy is a strong health response.”
Now on Level 1, life in New Zealand is mostly back to normal and the Government is following a five point plan to create thousands of jobs and to “build back better”.
With the latest polls showing the Government in a commanding lead the Opposition under new leadership may resort to the kind of unscrupulous hard right politics seen in some other countries.
Max Hayton is a former Foreign Editor and political correspondent in New Zealand.