Bryce Edwards: The case for Judith Collins, National’s “conviction politician”

Bryce Edwards: The case for Judith Collins, National’s “conviction politician”

Is it time for the National Party to elect a “true blue” rightwing leader? The party has been in the thrall of more cautious and centrist leaders for the last decade, but now in opposition and facing a popular new prime minister, it may consider changing tack.

The conviction candidate

Back in 2015 when Judith Collins was in the midst of rehabilitating herself after the damaging Dirty Politics scandal of 2014, she wrote an important newspaper column about modern politics and her own approach. Collins was candid and up-front about her frustration with the “business as usual” approach dominating politics across the spectrum. Her must-read column, Centre voters just the core, the action is on the fringes, complained about “hearing from pundits, commentators and ‘political strategists’ these days… that elections are won and lost in the centre”.

In contrast, Collins saluted the British Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn for revitalising politics there with his idealistic and authentic campaign for the leadership: “For them, Jeremy Corbyn is a breath of fresh air offering an alternative viewpoint, even if he is deluded. And that’s what politics should be about – a contest of ideas, policies and views – even crazy ones.”

She spoke of the demise of principles and ideology in New Zealand politics: “I remember when people used to passionately discuss politics over their BBQs and around work watercoolers. People had differing ideas and opinions, people cared. These days it is rare anyone really has an opinion on anything except MasterChef. Certainly politicians are too afraid to have opinions lest they ‘upset the centre voter’.”

Likewise, in an interview with Richard Harman around this time, Collins stated: “People actually want to hear what politicians stand for and that they will say what they think not what they think you want them to say to get you to vote for them” – see: Judith Collins says it’s time for politicians to stand for something.

Such views mark Collins as a very different type of politician than her more polished and moderate colleagues.

The 2018 case for a radical and tough woman leading National

Three years on, and one of the strongest cases for Collins comes from left-wing commentator Chris Trotter, who wrote on Friday that National’s choice of leader has “got to be Judith Collins”, because she is what National needs at the moment to deal with the new Labour-led government: “a demolition agent: someone who can smash to pieces the dangerous installations of left-wing radicalism; a living rebuke to socialism in all its forms: a crusher” – see: Princess Stardust versus The Crusher Queen.

Trotter says National’s new leader cannot hope to compete with Ardern by attempting to imitate her: “National’s caucus needs to consider is whether its leadership candidates are strong enough to truly test Jacinda? This is the question that the Labour caucus and party never answered honestly in relation to John Key. It would be astonishing if the National Opposition repeated the folly of sending one leaden amateur after another to do battle with such a consummate sprinkler of stardust. It is a huge mistake in politics to pit like against like. Judith is nothing like Jacinda.”

In Newshub’s Judith Collins heir to National Party throne, Trotter says “If I was in the National Party caucus she is the person I would be backing”. Fellow panellist Trish Sherson added that Collins’ gender would be an advantage for National: “It would be much harder for one of the male leadership candidates to go up against Jacinda Ardern”.

Certainly, the National Party might benefit from a dose of conviction at the moment, following on from two leaders who have been electorally successful but not necessarily very effective in changing New Zealand or fostering any type of intelligent prescriptions for the problems challenging society at the moment. This is the line taken by Matthew Hooton in Friday’s NBR. Hooton argues that “After nine years of achieving nothing in government, National MPs might want to consider a different approach” – see: What’s the National Party for? (paywalled).

Hooton doesn’t directly endorse any leadership candidate, but makes the case that National needs to find a leader that can properly differentiate the party from Labour, and achieve real change, as opposed to what he sees as the “careful political management” approach taken by John Key and Bill English over the last nine years.

He argues that the Key-English National Government largely administered the policies implemented by the previous Labour Government, and despairs of this approach: “MPs genuinely believe that merely keeping Labour out of office while administering their policies is enough. Better that a National minister signs off a further expansion of the welfare state than one with a red rosette. That’s fine if that’s all National MPs want from their time in politics. But most normal human beings seek a little more self-respect.”

For a similar argument about the ideological emptiness of National, see Damien Grant’s column from yesterday: National Party a relic that should be dismantled.

The Kamikaze option?

National really is in trouble in terms of working out a way in which to compete with Ardern’s popularity. One-term governments are also extremely rare, so National knows just how difficult it will be to shift the Labour-led Government out of power in 2020.

This makes a stronger case for National taking a risk in this leadership selection – for bringing in a bold new leader who will combatively pursue the new government with daring raids that most politicians would be wary of making. Whoever leads such a mission will only have one shot at winning, and will be out of job after 2020 if they fail.

Collins is that person, according to Duncan Garner: “National has only one option. Collins. If she wins [in 2020] – surprise. If she loses, she’s gone and the next leader might be PM” – see: National, want the nuclear option? Pick Judith ‘Crusher’ Collins.

Garner’s column is a must-read example of a forthright endorsement of Collins’ skills. Garner asks: “Who can intimidate Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, get up in her grill, patronise, giggle, and mock her and possibly win the next election?” He adds: “I reckon she’s the only option if you want to lock in your base support and niggle the living stuffing out of your opponent. This Government was created for a mouthy and cocky opposition home-run hitter like Collins. Risk could bring reward and a return to the treasury benches.”

In terms of Collins’ leadership opponents, Garner says “The public don’t want cute evasion, they want authentic honesty.” He believes Amy Adams and Simon Bridges would simply look like inferior versions of Ardern: “Collins also offers a contrast to Ardern. The others offer the same without being as good. Ardern looks and is young. The others are young fogies trying to sound cool.”

Part of the appeal of choosing Collins is that she would be expendable, if National lost in 2020. Therefore, Gordon Campbell says it’s definitely an option: “National may be better off appointing one of its equally ambitious old timers – Judith Collins? Steven Joyce? – as interim leader, and sending them off on a kamikaze run in 2020, while either Bridges or Amy Adams play a deputy role, and bide their time for the real contest in 2023” – see: On National’s leadership rumbles.

The case for this kamikaze option is also made by Heather du Plessis-Allan, who says: “whoever takes over in the next fortnight shouldn’t really be judged on whether they’ll make a good Prime Minister, because chances are they won’t be a Prime Minister. They should instead be judged on whether they’ll make a good Opposition leader. National should pick the person most likely to take chunks out of Ardern” – see: Judith Collins is the right person for the job, for now at least.

Du Plessis-Allan is in no doubt that Collins is the best person for this job: “Collins is possibly the only National MP with the skills to bloody the PM’s political nose. She has the aptitude and the attitude for the job. She can get dirty. She can be mean. She can do low blows and cutting comments while smiling like it didn’t just happen.” However, it’s a role that is likely to lead to Collins own self-destruction, too: “if she does knock the PM around, she’ll never be forgiven for it. Mean girls earn respect, but never love. Collins may make enough crucial dents in the public’s regard for the PM, but she’ll suffer for it. So, electing Collins must come with the understanding that this is a fixed-term contract. Once Collins has done her work, she’ll need to stand aside. She’ll need to be a martyr for her party.”

Last month, Matthew Hooton made a similar case for Collins being up for this role: “It’s odds-on that whoever replaces Mr English this term will end up more a Phil Goff or David Cunliffe in the history books than a Jacinda Ardern. Those most commonly spoken about as future leaders – Mr Bridges, Amy Adams, Nikki Kaye and Todd Muller – may calculate it is best to hold back, seeing 2023 or 2026 as their best shot to succeed not Mr English but Ms Ardern. If so, they may have the calculation but not the bravery necessary to succeed in the very top job. In contrast, there is another who fancies herself as having both qualities of leadership” – see: English wins first round.

Hooton draws parallels between Collins and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, saying “Collins dreams of a similar story for herself”.

Collins could win through being a “true blue” Nat

The problem with all of these scenarios is that Collins reportedly has very little support from her caucus colleagues. According to Lloyd Burr, as far as he can figure out she only has five MPs in her camp (whereas Adams is said to currently have 20, and Bridges 18) – see: Dissecting National’s leadership camps.

Tracy Watkins has come up with a similar numbers: “The Nats are being typically tightlipped about the race, but on Collins they are all remarkably in agreement. ‘No show’, is about the politest assessment of her chances” – see: Judith Collins, Simon Bridges or Amy Adams? Why this could get messy.

Watkins explains that this is precisely why Collins’ strategy is to target National’s membership: “Collins is talking over the top of the caucus and reaching out to the wider grassroots activists and members. Her strategy is to force a groundswell of support from the grassroots, and local electorate committees, and stir up a barrage of texts and emails asking MPs to back her. Her colleagues will have to think twice before writing her off. Or that’s the plan. It’s also Collins’ only hope of winning the leadership.”

Ultimately Watkins concludes that Collins isn’t the right choice for a party that is still polling at around 45 per cent: “A Collins candidacy is about rocking the boat, shaking the party out of its complacency, overturning the status quo. Except the status quo still seems to be working for National.”

Collins is working hard to paint herself as an outsider, who is in sync with the grassroots of the party, and is encouraging them to think that National is in trouble for becoming too moderate. In an interview with Audrey Young, Collins says: “a lot of people feel that we as a party have gone a long way to the left and we need to straighten up again” – see: Leadership hopeful says it is time for National to ‘straighten up’. Collins adds: “I am not the conventional or the status quo candidate and so I have to work differently from those who would continue pretty much the same old policies and same old ways of doing things”. She also gives examples of policies – such as on the RMA – which have been compromised in recent years.

Collins is tapping into concerns deep in the party about the ideological direction. According to Tim Watkin: “her politics would drag the party away from its Key-English centrism. If she stands we could finally see the depth of the Key legacy and a fight for the soul of the party. Those on the right of the party who have bided their time under Key and English, see an opportunity. It could define their party for another decade” – see: Predictable polls and bye-bye Bill.

Collins is positioning herself as a “true blue” National MP who will be outspoken and tough. Hence, she promises there will be much more of a review of the party’s policies under her leadership. And she will be more accountable if the party’s support slumps, by giving a tangible target to be measured by – see Claire Trevett’s Judith Collins sets her own sacking point: 35 per cent in the polls.

Her toughness is especially extended to how Collins would deal with Jacinda Ardern – see the Newshub report on her tweeting about how she operates: ‘I stab from the front’ – Judith Collins. She is also quoted suggesting that National needs a special weapon to take on the prime minister: “This are extraordinary times and we need to take quite different steps than what everybody’s going to be comfortable with. We’re never going to out-Jacinda Jacinda”.

In Jane Patterson’s article, Lining up the contenders, Collins shows her willingness to take on Ardern on the topics of motherhood and gender: “If anyone wants to talk to mothers, and working mums – boy can I do that”, with the article noting that the MP had experience “raising a child while running a law firm and studying.”

In the same article, another Collins leadership-campaign strategy is discussed: “She is unashamedly wooing the large number of backbenchers with her promise to bring new people up through the ranks. Her tough talk may appeal to the new, hungry members of the caucus, and there is no love lost between Ms Collins and some of the more senior MPs.”

Collins is also campaigning on the basis of her Auckland location and her ethnic support. According to Richard Harman, “She is said to have the support of the party’s ethnic MPs, and a big part of her pitch is her argument that National cannot win power without Auckland and that Auckland is a diverse and complex city” – see: National’s divisions open up. Harman notes, “While she may not get enough support to win, she may place herself in a powerful position to broker the outcome and to eventually become the deputy.”

Collins also believes that she could take some of the vote won at the last election by Jacinda Ardern. Yesterday on RadioLive, she had this to say: “I’d go after some of her vote. Not the soft fluffy vote, the red meat. The working people, working in the panel beaters, who don’t read Vogue, who go to work, pay their taxes, grind out their life, trying to buy a house” – see Ryan Bridge’s Judith Collins says she’s the ‘fun’ National Party leadership candidate.

In the same interview, Collins continued to push the colourful nature of her campaign, saying “With me there’s a real sense of fun. It will be a hell of a ride and so much fun, and you’ll enjoy every minute… My style of fun is slightly more gladiatorial”.

Collins is becoming the most endorsed candidate

So far, Collins is attracting more public endorsements than her rivals – certainly from mainstream media. Of course it’s only National MPs who get to vote, but Collins’ widespread support amongst opinion leaders might still play a part in her chances.

On the political right, the most important support is from Mike Hosking. He has admonished Bridges and Adams as simply being “talking CVs”, while Collins has shown the ability to lead: “when you’re coming from behind, when you have a Jacinda to outshine, polish counts. Polish and policy. Polish, policy and confidence. And of the three, Collins has the lot in spades. If this is the race, from what we’ve seen, the race should be over” – see: Judith Collins already crushing Simon Bridges, Amy Adams for National leadership.

Former National and Act leader, Don Brash, strongly believes that the party needs a more ideological and rightwing MP, saying “I would think that for National to move further to the left would be a mistake” and that “Judith would be more inclined to be a centre-right politician, rather than a centre politician” – see Interest’s article, Don Brash, Michelle Boag and David Farrar on National’s leadership. Brash adds: “Judith is a conviction politician. She knows what she stands for and what she doesn’t stand for. She’s highly intelligent, she’s analytical”.

The National Business Review is also backing Collins, with editor Nevil Gibson arguing that National needs “a champion for private enterprise and market-based solutions. In our view, Judith Collins is such a person, as she mixes both liberal and conservative elements” – see: What National needs in a new leader (paywalled).

More surprisingly, Collins has some on the political left either backing her leadership bid – for varied reasons – or at least predicting her victory. For example, former Labour Party president Mike Williams is a fan: “If I had a vote I’d support Judith Collins who I’ve met on several occasions and who I believe is the best Corrections Minister we’ve had in a long time. In her late 50s, Judith Collins knows that, unlike her rivals, she’ll only get one shot at the big job so for that reason alone, she’s hungrier for success than the other two and more likely to go after Jacinda” – see: Gongoozling and the race to be Nats’ leader.

She was compared to Thatcher on Friday by a Labour Cabinet minister, who “complained” of the lack of ideological principles in the National Party, and endorsed her: “I’m backing Judith. I think a hard, right-wing, red meat National Party, we need a right-wing party that’s got the courage of its convictions – that would be Judith” – see Dan Satherley’s Phil Twyford backs ‘right-wing, red meat’ Judith Collins.

Less enthusiastic is blogger Martyn Bradbury, who sees her victory as “likely” because “only she can truly manipulate the spite, hate and anger deep inside National voters who believe they were cheated” – see: Inside the moves against Bill English.

Finally, if for no other reason, at least the election of Judith Collins would make cartoonists happy, because she is one the best politicians around for inspiring good satire – see, for example Toby & Toby’s The rival pitches for the National leadership, digested, and my own blog post, Cartoons about Judith Collins.