Josh Van Veen: Don’t give me culture: The appeal of Judith Collins

Josh Van Veen: Don’t give me culture: The appeal of Judith Collins

When Parliament sits next Tuesday, the Prime Minister will finally meet her match. Judith Collins and Jacinda Ardern are opposites in just about every respect. Yet they have the same basic appeal. Ardern and Collins are as much cultural icons as they are political leaders. Each represents a different side of the New Zealand character, embodying certain values and traits that we see in ourselves. They evoke images and ideas that define what it means to be a New Zealander in the 21st century.

Understood another way, the perennial conflict between Labour and National is a permanent struggle to define the experiences of the “ordinary New Zealander”. Both parties claim to stand for fairness and decency. What this means will depend entirely on who you are. For Labour, fairness is free tertiary education and comprehensive welfare. For National, the ideal is self-reliance. Neither disagree that the lack of affordable housing is a problem. But whereas Labour’s solution is for the government to build more homes, National prefers to subsidise social housing projects and leave the rest to the market.

In practice, the two parties govern more or less the same. There has, until now, been a slavish adherence to fiscal conservatism and basic market principles. Labour and National ministers both fret about upsetting business confidence. Yet they maintain a fidelity to the welfare state and existing tax structure. But their narratives of life in New Zealand could not be more different. Ardern’s appeal during the 2017 election cannot be attributed to policy or even political strategy. There was nothing that Labour said, or did, that it would not have under Andrew Little. Rather, it was her authenticity, and ability to speak directly to the moral conscience of those New Zealanders who share her value judgements.

Those voters felt a deep sense of injustice or guilt every time they read a story about child poverty, worried about the latest reports on climate change, and asked why the government wasn’t doing more. They refused to accept that this was the best New Zealand could do. Ardern gave them cause for hope. While it is debatable whether problems such as poverty and climate change can be solved without a radical change to our way of life, people are willing to put their faith in Ardern to make things right. Her remarkable leadership in the wake of terrorism, natural disaster and a global pandemic have vindicated this belief.

Even if the nation united around Ardern to defeat Covid-19, however, New Zealanders still disagree on the kind of society they want. Labour may be poised for victory but it is unlikely Ardern can defy MMP and claim an absolute majority. The election could still turn on Winston Peters’ NZ First. But to stave off defeat, National must capture the public’s imagination with a powerful counter-narrative of what life means for those New Zealanders who believe in the virtues of self-reliance and personal responsibility. Those New Zealanders who don’t believe in collective guilt or that all of our problems can be solved by the government.

Collins’ tough, no-nonsense approach to crime has defined her in the media. But she is more than this. She is a cynosure of those who do not fit into Ardern’s educated, liberal middle-class milieu. In that regard, she channels the legacy of Sir Robert Muldoon. While Collins and Muldoon are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to economic management, they share the same philosophic outlook. Collins, like Muldoon, speaks to a New Zealand that sees itself above class and race. She imagines a country where the language of political correctness has no place and anyone who works hard can get ahead. Don’t underestimate how many New Zealanders share that vision.


Josh Van Veen is former member of NZ First and worked as a parliamentary researcher to Winton Peters from 2011 to 2013. He has a Masters in Politics from the University of Auckland. His thesis examined class voting in Britain and New Zealand

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  

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