Judith Collins walks Ponsonby Road with Melissa Lee and Emma Mellow. Janet Wilson follows in the background. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Judith Collins walks Ponsonby Road with Melissa Lee and Emma Mellow. Janet Wilson follows in the background. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

PoliticsSeptember 15, 2021

‘Paranoid storms’: Judith Collins’ former press secretary on National, leadership and oblivion

Judith Collins walks Ponsonby Road with Melissa Lee and Emma Mellow. Janet Wilson follows in the background. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Judith Collins walks Ponsonby Road with Melissa Lee and Emma Mellow. Janet Wilson follows in the background. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

In an exclusive interview for a new episode of the Fold podcast, Janet Wilson, chief press secretary to Judith Collins during last year’s election, speaks about that campaign, the National leader’s latest outbursts, and where it leaves the party she has worked with since 2008. 

A few months ago, after a purge within the National party saw former leader Todd Muller banished, Janet Wilson wrote a withering column for Stuff about the party’s direction. It was noteworthy because Wilson is not just another political commentator, but a highly regarded media trainer and journalist who was press secretary to Judith Collins for National’s disastrous 2020 election campaign.

I do a weekly podcast interviewing different people in the media, and thought Wilson would make an interesting subject – to talk about the column, but more broadly to discuss the role of the press secretary, which even political tragics like me don’t fully understand. Wilson mulled it for a day or two, then graciously declined.

That is until Saturday morning. In the aftermath of yet another blunder from Collins, which led to an excoriating column from The Spinoff’s editor Toby Manhire, she texted me out of the blue: “This could be a good week to discuss Judith Collins’ leadership of the Nats.” Two days later, we spoke over Zoom for an episode of The Fold, and while we didn’t get too far into the role of the press secretary, we did get a quite extraordinary interview – a rare and full-throated assessment of the current party leadership from someone who worked closely with an enormously respected reputation in journalism, broadcasting and PR, who was John Key’s media trainer, and who worked literally side by side with Collins.

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The following transcript is abridged and edited for clarity.

Duncan Greive: Tell me why you took the role and what you found initially under Todd Muller, but then Judith Collins as well?

Janet Wilson: I have described it to friends and family as a suicide mission. I knew going in exactly what it was going to be and thus it proved.

I can remember at one stage reading the great war poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, because it seemed to me that their dystopian world reflected my own in some strange way. I got comfort out of that in the midst of all of that madness. So I knew what I was getting myself in for. I didn’t realise quite how much it was going to be a rollercoaster ride. 

What were your expectations of her as a leader, and then what were your impressions of her during that incredibly difficult campaign?

There was a sense within the party at that stage that she was going to be a very calming influence after what had been a time of great churn, shall we say. They described it as the nuclear option. And she was calming at first and really just took her time, agreed to keep everyone on. There was no time for her to start building her own teams. As she said, she was given the ultimate hospital pass in the run-up to that election and I think that’s a very fair comment to be making. 

It was about two or three weeks after that, that we started to get a taste of what her leadership really looked like.

There was one moment in the campaign that etched in my mind, which was that infamous walk down Ponsonby Road. Do you want to just describe that day and why it all went so wrong?

I was there that day. I shared duties with another of the press team, and it was one of those moments that you knew was going to go completely pear-shaped.

This was a set piece, but Ponsonby was an odd location, and it was staged in a way that everyone who saw it knew it was staged. Did you advocate against it or is that not really the role?

No, that wasn’t my role and I wasn’t aware, apart from the day before, of exactly what was going to happen. I knew that there were going to be people who would go and meet her, but not people who lined up like soldiers down Ponsonby Road. In the pantheon of bad, that wasn’t the pinnacle of bad. There were other moments that were equally as bad, if you know what I mean.

What we didn’t know was that we were going to change stream midstream. We were going to change our campaign, which was squarely Judith’s decision.

What was your perspective on that, and what was the extent to which you and the party could input on it? Versus it just being a captain’s call.

It was very much a captain’s call. That was about three weeks after Judith took over the leadership. She decided that she didn’t like the campaign, that she wanted to throw everything out. And over the course of a weekend, the team came up with new slogans and new ideas.

Then Judith decided to start doing things on her own, things like going into churches and praying, which was never on anyone’s schedule or scheme. I had media ring me and say, “Did you know?” And I had to be really honest and say, “No, I had no idea”.

Judith Collins prays at St Thomas Church in Tāmaki before casting her early vote for the election (Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher)

What was your relationship like with Judith at that time?

My relationship was fine. I helped her with debate training. I sat in the back of the crown car, et cetera, et cetera. But my contract was up and I was physically exhausted. I was pretty mentally exhausted. And I felt that my job had been done. So I left the day after the election, which was as per my contract.

Have you spoken since?

No. No.

That feels telling.

I’ll leave that there for you.

So at that point, you go from being a core part of the team to being an interested observer. It’s not an exaggeration to say that you are a National type of person.

Well, I’ve worked with the party since about 2008 off and on. So I worked with Key. I did a lot of debate training with Key. I did a lot of media training with Key. Yeah, I’m an urban, liberal creature within the National Party.

At what point did you think that things were going seriously awry?

The thing that gave me the greatest hope was Judith’s reaction. She was pretty dignified, really, on election night. She said, “We will change. We have listened. We are going to make huge changes within this party.”

Since October the 17th last year, we have seen no change. In fact, what we have seen is more and more and more of the same. The party could politely be termed as being moribund. It is not making any changes. It is far too top-down. The board has far too many powers and makes far too many bad decisions, particularly when it comes to candidates. 

Then also at a caucus level under Judith’s leadership. The article Matthew Hooton wrote for Metro recently talking about the fact that the party was on the brink of oblivion is entirely correct, entirely correct. I’m seeing a huge shift to Act. I’m seeing the rise of David Seymour. I’m seeing the rise of the Act Party, as well as the diminishment of the National Party at this present point in time. And unless things change radically, nothing will halt that unless they want to make the radical changes that they have to make.

That was generally the thesis of the column that you wrote for Stuff earlier this year, which was quite a strange thing to do for a National Party person.

Yeah, it was. It was out of total frustration. She demands complete loyalty and focus from her caucus, which is what any leader should do. And then she, herself personally, doesn’t display that same focus on what the real issues are.

That’s part of the problem of her leadership, I believe, that she is consumed. As I said in the piece, she prizes loyalty above all else. But then her ugly stepsister, paranoia, steps in, and she has these almost paranoid storms. 

I think Friday’s speech to the National Sāmoan Group on Siouxsie Wiles was completely unacceptable for a National party leader. Completely unacceptable. The fact that she is still working her bag of tricks with the likes of Cameron Slater shows us that she’s learnt nothing since 2014.

In the aftermath of that Stuff column in June, I actually approached you about coming on The Fold. And you thought about it and declined. Then over the weekend, you texted me to say that you were ready to talk. What prompted that shift? 

I think we’re at a moment now where the harm that’s being inflicted is pretty high. We haven’t had a poll result yet, but there is no doubt in my mind that the electorate will look at this and see it for what it is, which is a cheap shot. 

Whatever you think of Siouxsie Wiles is neither here nor there. Empathy will be always extended to Siouxsie because of this attack by a political leader. Why aren’t we talking about all the other things that New Zealanders are really, really worried about right now? Like out of control housing prices, homelessness, the level of poverty within this country, her ideas about how she intends to change that and holding the government to account when frankly, the government hasn’t actually had a very good track record at all in any of those areas.

Cameron Slater acknowledged in the aftermath of Collins’ extraordinary statements on Friday that he’s still in regular contact with her. To what extent are these problems a function of her just looking in the wrong places, or getting bad advice?

I wouldn’t dare claim that she was getting bad advice. I don’t know that, but what I do know is the only advice she takes is her own. So she is very much the master of her own destiny, and she will make decisions based solely on who she has spoken to and those that she feels the most loyal to. So I don’t know the nature of her relationship with those within that media team. And I wouldn’t hazard a guess. 

She very much follows her own star when it comes to advice. And is she getting advice from the likes of Slater? You’ve got to ask yourself that. Is Slater giving her the media advice that she believes is going to make her the next prime minister of New Zealand? Chances of that are very low.

Before she launched that attack on Siouxsie Wiles, there was the confrontation with Indira Stewart on TVNZ’s Breakfast that really seemed bizarre. What is your sense of both that particular confrontation and of the way that she is handling herself in media situations more generally?

There are several different faces to Judith that come out. But I have to say that when it comes to that interview with Indira, she’s been there before, she’s got past form. There was a time when she spoke very abruptly to Katie Bradford from 1 News as well. So clearly she doesn’t like females coming up against her. Whereas would she accept a male doing the same thing to her? Possibly. Because I’ve seen John Campbell give her equally as hard time, and she tends to keep her demeanour much calmer. 

I think in Judith’s world, there is a hierarchy. And if you are seen to break the hierarchy and be impertinent enough to be asking questions as a young woman, then that’s beyond the pale as far as she’s concerned. 

When you talk to other people within National circles in and out of caucus, what is the mood there, or what is the fear?

Fear is a very big operative word here. There is a real sense of fear within that caucus. Judith has demanded total loyalty, and that means she stopped the leaks. Well, she stopped the leaks to a certain degree, but then she decides that she’s got to go onto Twitter and start saying things about certain people – how can that be? I mean, that’s being a hypocrite at the highest order, is it not? 

The very thing that she accused Ms. Wiles of, she is herself. She should be taken off Twitter. If she had a press sec worth half his or her salt , taking her off Twitter would be the favour that he would do the party and Judith, but Judith wouldn’t listen to that anyway. She would see that as an act of disloyalty.

It’s said that Collins polls reasonably well among men, but terribly among women. She has spoken at times eloquently about how hard it is being a woman in senior positions. In fact, when I interviewed her last year, I thought she was quite compelling on that front. What do you think drives women from her?

She’s hanging on to the men in the old haunch of the party. But it’s a haunch which is fast disappearing because within that National board at the moment, there is not one farmer representative. Now we were the party of farmers and urban liberals back in the day. And now where are they? Nowhere to be seen. 

I think that was an interesting development in that last election where I believe a lot of the rural community started looking at Labour with very fresh eyes and started saying, “Well, maybe we will vote for them. Or if we’re not going to vote for Labour, maybe I’ll vote for Act.”

To what extent is Act the real threat here? 

It shouldn’t be at all, right? It shouldn’t be. Internal discipline is where it’s all at. The enemy is within the National Party. And without serious examination of who they are, what they stand for, and where they want New Zealand to be seen to be going, they are going to become irrelevant. 

It’s really simple stuff. The enemy is within, it’s not outside. Act is merely capitalising on what’s happening within the Nats at the moment and their complete lack of discipline on all levels.

It feels both like it can’t go on, but also that nothing will solve it. What’s your prognosis for the current situation?

It will all come down to the appetite that the caucus has for where they sit in the polls. And I think the poll numbers will be the thing that will drive the change. The caucus described it as the nuclear option. So to get rid of the nuclear option, it’s going to take an equal and opposite force in its own way. And that would have to be a vote within caucus.

Does the fact that caucus can’t physically assemble make that more difficult for them?

That and the optics of being endlessly consumed with yourself at a time when your largest city, a third of your country, is in level four lockdown. The optics of that are very, very bad indeed. So they’re going to have to choose the right time.

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