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OPINIONPoliticsJuly 16, 2020

Judith Collins and the strong team


The new National Party leader enjoyed a very short political honeymoon, with two MP resignations landing this morning. Her challenge now is to pull off a superhuman repair job on the party’s core reputational strength, writes Toby Manhire.

It wasn’t quite a team of five million, but when Judith Collins took the stage in the old upper house at parliament just before 10 on Tuesday night, she had a 50-strong caucus jammed behind her. It was a scene that would scandalise much of the socially distanced world, but here it was a powerful symbolic tableau.

The National Party had its third leader-and-deputy pairing in the space of eight weeks. But it was standing together, united and upbeat. “As you can see here,” said Collins, gesturing at the crowd behind her, “this is our front bench”. A fresh breath. A twinkle in the eye. There would even be jokes. We knew this because Collins said “there would be jokes”.

There was unity and, with Michael Woodhouse jettisoned from the health spokesperson role, another clear message – a firm end to the agonising scandal around the leaking of private medical records relating to people in quarantine. A scandal which saw MP Hamish Walker’s political career come to an end, former National president Michelle Boag break her multifarious associations with the party and, now, Woodhouse lose a critical role. Under Collins, National would draw a line under the matter and move on. We know this because pretty much every National MP said “we have drawn a line under the matter and we’re moving on”.

But the moving on turned out to be a treadmill. For the second time this week, a National Party breakfast bombshell. Front-page splash-scoops are rare things in the digital age, but here it was from the Herald’s Audrey Young, in big, bold type: “Nikki Kaye quits”.

A highly impressive education minister, an incredibly conscientious and dedicated MP for Auckland Central, a breast cancer survivor, and someone liked and respected across party lines, Kaye had decided to go. She stressed she supported Collins and reckoned the party could yet win, but it was time. She had poured her energy into the Muller experiment. It didn’t work out. And now, still young at 40 years old, she’s taken a chance to live another life.

And that wasn’t the end of it. Swiftly on the heels of that high-profile departure, Amy Adams was un-un-resigning. She’d reversed her decision to stand down from parliament when Todd Muller rolled Simon Bridges, and after initially saying she’d be sticking around under Team Collins, she reverted this morning to her earlier decision as she, too – another very capable and admired former minister of the crown – announced she was done.

Nikki Kaye, Gerry Brownlee and Judith Collins, at the first press conference of Todd Muller’s leadership (Photo: Getty Images)

Rarely has a political honeymoon been so brief. Yesterday Collins undertook what seemed like several million broadcast interviews; you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone in New Zealand who didn’t catch a clipped laugh or an arched eyebrow at some point through the day. But if a line had been drawn it was a messy smudge by this morning. Put it this way, just three days ago the top three in the National caucus – and a freshly arrived top three at that – were 1. Todd Muller. 2. Nikki Kaye. 3. Amy Adams.

So you certainly can’t accuse National of failing to rejuvenate. Of the top 20 at the term’s outset, 11 have quit parliament.

The National top 20 at the start of 2018

  1. Bill English
  2. Paula Bennett
  3. Steven Joyce
  4. Gerry Brownlee
  5. Simon Bridges
  6. Amy Adams
  7. Jonathan Coleman
  8. Chris Finlayson
  9. Judith Collins
  10. Michael Woodhouse
  11. Nathan Guy
  12. Nikki Kaye
  13. Todd McClay
  14. Paul Goldsmith
  15. Louise Upston
  16.  Anne Tolley
  17. David Carter
  18. Nick Smith
  19. Maggie Barry
  20. Alfred Ngaro

In an attempt to draw another line, Collins brought forward her reshuffle announcement this morning. The most interesting part of that was not just a place on the front bench for Todd Muller, from whom nothing has been heard since last week, but the elevation of two critical engineers of the coup that saw Muller replace Bridges. Chris Bishop is now ranked seventh, while Nicola Willis takes the education role from Kaye.

The pair, both former National staffers, are very much at the progressive edge of the party. With fears of a right-wing religious conservative thinking faction growing in power within National, Collins has sought to signal that the party is still a broad – not fundamentalist – church. Asked today whether the departure of Kaye, who wore her liberal convictions proudly, meant defeat for the liberal wing, Collins said: “I’d like to find someone more liberal than Chris Bishop.”

But the core problem for Collins and National now is the damage to the party’s reputational cornerstones. Remember the definitely-not-Eminem-soundtracked boat ad, the “team that’s working” smoothly through the water? The National pitch of competence is predicated on unity, discipline, stability and predictability. The last 55 days have witnessed the utter antithesis of that. I jotted down a list of the people who have been propelled up and down the ranks of the National Party in that time. There are a lot of names. Many of them are in both columns.

The Labour Party had to deal with upheaval and change in the last furlong before the 2017 election, to tear up its advertising and start again. But that seems almost piffling compared to the National Party task now.

Twenty days ago, the party unveiled its hoardings for the 2020 election, with leader Todd Muller urging voters to back “a strong, competent National-led government”. This is the hoarding:

After such a calamitous few days, the anguish for National is not just that one of the figures photographed has quit the leadership and the other quit politics altogether. It’s those first two bold words, upon which everything else hangs.

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