The ‘segregationist’ rhetoric was a desperate tactic by the National leader and last night’s Newshub poll issued a thundering fail grade. Before, MPs were inclined to hold off on any change. Now, the risk calculus has changed.
The enduring image of the National Party campaign in the general election of 2020 sees Judith Collins kneeling in the pews of St Thomas church in Tāmaki, alone but for a few stacks of bibles and a bottle of hand sanitiser. She was on her way to cast her vote, and the prayer, which began a brief period of sudden piety that puzzled even some on her campaign team, epitomised the election effort. Collins was herself a kind of Hail Mary, promoted at last to the job she had so long coveted after the catastrophic 53-day failure of the Todd Muller experiment, and with just a couple of months to polling day.
Given all those circumstances, and the Covid context, it’s unfair to lay the blame for National’s dismal result in October last year entirely at her feet. She mixed it up, tried a bunch of tactics. Yes, it was a bit of a mess. But what she didn’t do, to her credit, is reach deep into the political Rolodex for the cursed race card. She wasn’t that desperate.
She is that desperate now. Three consecutive weekends have seen speeches to regional party conferences declaring the proposed Māori Health Authority as “segregationist”, decrying a report called He Puapua, which had hardly been read, let alone endorsed by cabinet, as a shadowy and secret agenda for separationism by stealth. Collins fired up the defibrillator with “Orewa” written all over it. With her leadership hanging by a thread, she seanced up the rhetoric of Don Brash, who in 2004 delivered the “one rule for all” speech at Orewa that saw a polling surge, albeit insufficient to win him the election the following year.
Collins needed a surge, too. By god, she did. If she could just win back some of the National base that has bled to David Seymour and Act and deliver a polling bump, a line pointing upwards to beam onto the caucus whiteboard. Last night, a Reid Research poll for Newshub brought shattering news: the desperate measure had desperately flopped. National was on 27%, a smidgen higher than its election result, but still deep in the doldrums. The eye-popping figure, however, was Collins’ support in the preferred prime minister stakes: 5.6%. She was beaten by John Key, on 6.7%. John Key last stood for election seven years ago.
Another thing about John Key: attuned always to the mood of the median voter, he was having none of the tilting at Orewa windmills. Over the years, whenever Brash would return to bang the Orewa drum, Key would repudiate and disavow. The New Zealand of 2004 was “quite a different place”, he said. The divisive rhetoric was a “broken record”. He avoided the demons of that speech to the extent that the first results when you Google “John Key” and “Orewa” today deliver details on forthcoming performances by jazz and blues pianist John Key at the Downbeat bar on the Hibiscus Coast Highway.
Even before Collins’ handbrake turn towards attacking “segregationism”, senior National Party figures, current and former, have been at their wits’ end, less in open revolt than in deep dismay, the most crestfallen opposition group since Labour’s bleakest days under David Cunliffe.
The question that no one has had a confident answer to, though, is who? Christopher Luxon, who registered 2.4% as preferred PM in the Newshub poll despite rarely appearing in headlines, is fancied as the closest thing to Key 2.0, but that’s still at best an open question: Key’s secret weapon was not having run a big company (he didn’t) but a gregarious and genial nature, an ability to swiftly synthesise information and antennae that grasped the popular mood as no one else could.
And the Muller cataclysm is recent and raw: a painful reminder of the perils of catapulting a largely untested politician. So in the absence of an obvious successor, there had been talk of sticking with Collins until the second half of 2022, by which time Luxon might have had time to reveal his political chops (and perfect his social media game), or another decent option might have sprung up, a Reti-mania, say, or a Bridges redux.
But that calculus has now changed. Collins’ prayer to the gods of last resort has failed. The descent to a desperate, divisive and, it turns out, unpopular politics – not so much a dog-whistle as a foghorn – leaves National facing a stark dilemma. Which risk do you have the stomach for? Which presents the greater peril: an unknown leader out of their depth, or a known leader pursuing a contemptible politics, laying waste so much of the Key-English project?