Current National leader Judith Collins and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern appear together on the AM Show, April 2017.

What Judith Collins can learn from the Jacinda Ardern miracle – from someone who was there

The new National leader has only a few weeks to turn the party’s fortunes around. But that’s what Labour’s new leader did in 2017. While there are obvious differences, there’s plenty Collins can draw from, writes Clint Smith, who was senior communications strategist under Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern.

It was 56 days from the 2017 election, and I was lying on my living room floor looking at the ceiling.

Labour’s polling was in free-fall. Andrew Little had told Corin Dann on Q+A that he had considered resigning.

Labour’s communications and strategy were in tatters, and I was Labour’s senior communications strategist (a rather grand title for the job of planning, coordinating and writing policy docs, speeches, and related media work).

Was I part of the problem? As I reflected, I realised we actually had a high functioning organisation – caucus wasn’t leaking, staff were working well together, we had won the arguments on housing and health, we had a campaign plan and a big policy programme. What we didn’t have was a leader voters wanted as PM.

I realised what would happen: Andrew is a decent man who puts the movement first. He would resign. Jacinda would become leader unopposed, and she would pull us back up to a decent result. Maybe even win.

Now, National is in a similar position. Like Little, Muller has realised he is not the right person to lead and resigned. Unlike Little, Muller has not softened the ground for a change, and hasn’t helped organise a replacement.

What lessons can National learn from Labour in 2017?

A ready-made leader

The problems with Todd Muller were manifest and manifold. He had no political leadership experience, no public persona, no vision, was visually indistinctive, had nothing interesting to excite media and public attention. It left him to fall into dirty politics and increasingly extreme public statements to try to get attention.

Ardern was already well-known and popular – she was actually ahead of Little in the preferred prime minister polls. She was positive, distinctive, and promoted a vision of a new, kinder politics.

Collins is the ready-made leader National needs. A very well-known politician with a distinct brand. Divisive, yes, but that at least makes her interesting: divisive opposition leaders can win, boring ones can’t. People care about what Collins says. And she has done a good job of moving on from her previous disgraces.

Collins is the only sensible option left for National.

Keep the team and the policy

Ardern inherited from Little a large catalogue of announced policies and a detailed plan of announcements to come (coincidentally Little’s last announcement, like Muller’s, was a road -–the difference being the Manawatu Gorge replacement makes sense).

Ardern kept most of the platform and the notable addition, the Tax Working Group with the prospect of capital gains tax, was a major mistake.

We’re told National has a massive investment plan up its sleeve. If it exists, Collins should keep it and begin rapidly announcing it as her own, as Ardern did. There is no time to create a new platform from whole cloth.

Nor, it appears, is there the capacity in National. People who have worked in parliament have been stunned by the lack of staff in the background of images of National’s caucus run. When Kaye went off to see Goldsmith to check whether he was, in fact, Māori, there was no monitoring press secretary to quietly have a word in her ear as she walked, to stop the madness.

Staffers don’t move politicians like puppeteers, but they are there to advise, help, organise, and try to control or avoid problems. The fact a National MP could send a racist press release without anyone in the leader’s office approving it suggests National’s internal processes have broken down. There aren’t the staff to do the job.

When Ardern became leader, she left all the caucus rankings unchanged, other than necessary changes to bring Kelvin Davis to deputy, and he kept every one of Little’s leader’s office staff. That ensured the machine could keep running.

Unfortunately, Muller purged Bridges’ staff, made appointments loyal to him, not the party, and promoted the MPs who drove his coup. National’s caucus is so divided that both Muller and Collins’ elections as leader were leaked from inside the caucus room, denying the leader their chance to announce it.

Collins will, no doubt, have to replace the Muller staffers. Caucus may also demand some MPs, such as Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis, are demoted. There is a compelling case to sack Woodhouse and put Reti in Health. Other than those changes, she should keep absolutely everyone else possible, regardless of personal feelings – another purge will just create more problems. There is no time to rebuild the machine, and it’s already going to lose some big cogs.

Something to vote for

Ardern took the policy platform and organisation that had been built under Little and placed on top of it her vision for a kinder politics. And it worked.

Muller had no vision. His answer was just that National would do everything better. He seemed to genuinely believe it, but it meant he was asking voters to buy a pig in a poke. His inability to say what he would do reminded me of the 18th century stockmarket scam where investors were duped into putting their money into a company “for carrying-on an undertaking of great advantage but no-one to know what it is”.

Collins will need to present a vision. It needn’t be a positive vision in the Ardern sense. But it has to be a picture of New Zealand people can get behind. Donald Trump didn’t run a “positive” campaign but he presented a vision, of an America made great again, which Hillary Clinton did not. Leaders with vision can win elections. Visionless leaders can’t.

Every election boils down to “stick with us, we’re doing well, they would stuff it up” versus “change to us and you’ll get something better, they’re stuffing it up”. Collins will have to make that latter case with less of the carping that the government is stuffing things up and more of how National would make things better.

To that end, she will need to stop the attacks on the world-leading Covid response, which brought down both Bridges and Muller. That negativity felt like an attack on the whole team of 5 million, not just the government, and it became increasingly shrill and out of step with the public’s view that we have done well and that the response, while not perfect, has (with the exception of David Clark) been about all the government could do.

Collins will need to move beyond nitpicking over every minor issue and, instead, detail how she would make New Zealand better in the recovery. “Trust us, we’re National” won’t cut it.

National does not have a Jacinda Ardern waiting in the wings or a united, functioning organisation, or a detailed policy platform. They are essentially starting from scratch with less than 10 weeks to go.

But, until she became leader, nobody knew just what an extraordinary leader Ardern would be, and National does have a proven, canny politician with a strong public persona. There is less for Collins to build on, but if she can at least get the vision right, she can save National from disaster and make a strong case to stay on as leader for another crack in 2023.

Clint Smith is a former adviser to Jacinda Ardern and Director of Victor Strategy and Communications



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