After months in the political wilderness looking for a sledgehammer to hit the government, National spied a chance to return to its road-loving roots.
Move over, He Puapua. The government’s announcement this morning that a car-free second Auckland harbour crossing would be built for cyclists and pedestrians, together with the abandonment of the large-scale plan for Mill Road in south Auckland, offered Judith Collins a potential rallying cry, and a chance to move on from the distractions of a difficult week for the National Party.
Standing in front of the harbour bridge this afternoon, Collins told Aucklanders confronting long weekend gridlock that the government has given them a “kick in the teeth” with a new bridge they can’t drive over. Labour “hates cars” and the “modern New Zealand” that drives them, she declared.
For the past month Collins has been calling the government “segregationist” for a wide-ranging report it commissioned called He Puapua. The report recommended ways the country could better reflect and serve Māori, including the eventual establishment of a Māori parliament. While many of the suggestions in the report have already been ruled out by Labour, Collins’ continued focus has led to allegations of racism from her critics, including the two MPs in Te Pāti Māori.
On a Friday afternoon in Auckland, she left He Puapua and returned to the reliable National Party terrain of defending drivers and championing big roads. A $700 million bridge for cyclists and pedestrians would do nothing for the economy or hard-working middle New Zealand, who drive cars to get groceries and bring their kids to soccer practice, Collins said.
Any attempts to shift the opposition narrative soon stumbled, however. Not because of He Puapua, but because of the controversies that have swirled this week around two National figures: one a veteran MP, the other a candidate who flunked his chance to win one of the safer National seats and never made it to parliament.
This afternoon’s press conference lasted only a few minutes before the questions turned back to a week for Collins that started badly and got worse.
Nick Smith, a 30-year member of parliament, suddenly announced his retirement on Monday afternoon, while also revealing that he is the subject of a Parliamentary Services inquiry into a verbal altercation with a staffer last year. Collins had told the MP that an embarrassing story about the inquiry would be coming out Tuesday. He stepped down. No such story emerged.
While questions swirled about Collins’ advice to Smith and the details of the altercation he revealed, a second damaging story emerged about another high-profile National party member.
Jake Bezzant, a former tech executive, was the party’s failed candidate in Upper Harbour in the last election. A story emerged mid-week from a former partner of Bezzant that he’d impersonated her online and shared explicit images of her without her consent.
While he failed to win an electorate that was a deep National blue under Paula Bennett, Bezzant had been considered a possible future star for the party as recently as a few weeks ago when he appeared at events with sitting MPs. He’s now no longer a National member and the prime minister has indicated that the law might be reviewed to ensure someone who engages in his alleged behaviour could be punished.
Collins was not mincing her words. “That was the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen in politics and I’m happy he’s not a member of the party,” she said today, calling him a “fantasist sociopath”. She denied responsibility for insufficient screening of the would-be MP and said the party was not to blame for missing his behaviour either. “I don’t think people from the party were on Snapchat looking for Jake Bezzant and his perversions.”
Bezzant has denied the allegations made against him, blaming them on a messy breakup and adding that there are “two sides to every story”.
With Smith leaving parliament next week, Collins said she hopes the departing MP will get to deliver a valedictory address after his three decades of service.
Over the past week, the details of Smith’s argument last year have emerged, including that he engaged in angry words with a staffer, while a third person recorded the exchange and made a complaint. Speaking this week, Collins said it wasn’t a fireable offence. However, her advice to Smith and whether she helped in persuading him to leave is still unclear. Especially in light of her warning about the story that didn’t emerge.
“I’m not discussing the private details of conversations I’ve had with our MPs, that would be quite wrong,” said Collins today.
Expect her to continue to talk about the nearly $700 million bridge the government wants to build across Auckland harbour over the next five years, to continue to make the case for a second crossing for cars, and for the needs of motorists more broadly. The final advice for the independent Climate Change Commission will be released on Wednesday and is expected to call for urgent efforts to reduce emissions, including an immediate plan to curb driving and the construction of new housing in the suburbs that depends on cars. Collins will be looking to park herself squarely in the middle of the road.