In every discussion about who could lead the National Party since John Key resigned in 2016, one name has always figured high in speculation: Judith Collins.
The controversial yet popular MP for Papakura has put her name forward twice – losing to Bill English and Simon Bridges. Since then, Collins has pledged loyalty to the leader, insisting she is happy being a local MP and portfolio holder.
With Todd Muller’s shock resignation opening a vacancy suddenly, however, could Collins’ day finally have come? She wasn’t ruling it out when asked by reporters as she made the trip from Auckland to Wellington today.
If she were to throw her hat in the ring again, what might Collins’ pitch to her colleagues be? Readers of her recent book, Pull No Punches: Memoir of a Political Survivor, would point you to the final chapter, headed “Moving Forward”. There, Collins lays out what today reads very much like a manifesto for a Collins-led National Party. Here’s some of what she says.
Collins kicks off the chapter with what reads like a repudiation of colleagues and party members who moaned and sulked about National missing out on government despite winning the most votes of any party.
“We in the National Party must understand what went wrong for us in 2017,” she writes. “There is no point blaming and being bitter about how we were pushed aside by Winton Peters’ NZ First Party. We could remember that the Green Party did not want a bar of us either. Only Act was willing to work with us.”
Which leads her to …
Make some friends
“We need to understand that [The National Party] are only in office if support parties are able to get there too,” Collins writes.
On current polling, that is an understatement. With the Act Party sitting around the 3% mark, leader David Seymour would bring another three or so friends in with him. But even then, that’s not enough.
“No party, after 24 years of MMP, has ever been able to govern alone. Friends are gold under MMP. And we need those possible friends to want to be our friends. It all sounds so easy.”
Fix the RMA, fix the housing problem
The very mention of the Resource Management Act is enough to put countless New Zealanders to sleep, yet it’s a major point of contention among politicians. In her book, Collins reckons renovating the 30-year-old act is the key to fixing our housing problem.
“Sort out the RMA, split it into an environment bill and a planning/development bill, take it by the scruff of the neck and we are halfway to solving the housing problems.”
Collins says the RMA needs replacing – not just amending – and says she’s spent 18 months considering what is wrong and what is right with the current system.
Given the failure of Labour’s marquee KiwiBuild programme, and Collins’ very effective opposition criticisms of Phil Twyford, it’s no wonder she’s keen to push this one.
Use social media
Collins is critical of her own party’s overuse of press releases, saying they are too long and take too much time to be constructed and sent. Social media is the answer, she says.
But you need to go back less than two years to see Collins involved in her own Twitter gaffe, tweeting out fake news from a website known for its Russian propaganda.
“I don’t believe in censorship on people’s ideas,” she said at the time.
Still, she could have a point about the use of social media in getting cut-through with the New Zealand public. Jacinda Ardern is an infrequent user of Twitter, but her Facebook and Instagram posts almost always go viral and generate their own headlines each time.
Don’t underestimate Jacinda Ardern
This should be obvious, but Todd Muller and the team that propelled him to the leadership could very well stand accused of failing to grasp the magnitude of the challenge.
Collins says the prime minister’s weakness is detail, and the National Party is better than that. “We are engaging on policy issues in a way that outstrips anything that has been seen from any other opposition.”
While both Bridges and Muller were both taken to task for doing “opposition for opposition’s sake”, Collins may be signalling that she wants to talk to real New Zealanders, about real issues.
Be authentic and show conviction
“We need to be authentic,” writes Collins. “People need to know what they are voting for and, with all the mistakes and triumphs of our MPs, that we mean what we say and say what we mean.”
Earlier in the book, Collins praises Margaret Thatcher, and even has a word of admiration for former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, which is a clue to her view of conviction politics. In a newspaper column during her stand-down from John Key’s cabinet, she writes, she had “pointed out that Jeremy Corbyn’s political views might be completely bonkers but at least he stood for something. That got a few tut-tuts from people who thought that being a good, quiet MP who said and did nothing would see me reinstated to Cabinet.”
If Collins is making her case to caucus this evening, her message is more than likely to be: this is no time for good, quiet MPs; this is time for strength.
Pull No Punches by Judith Collins (Allen & Unwin NZ, $37) is available at Unity Books.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.