National had prepared for the worst. But it hadn’t prepared for that. Stewart Sowman-Lund watched the ship crash and burn.
The invitation sent out ahead of National’s election night event said to arrive at 7pm. Of course, only media would arrive on time – the guests would be fashionably late.
But as time ticked on, the 400-seater Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron never felt packed. The first National candidate, Melissa Lee, arrived about 8pm. Paul Goldsmith an hour later. Chris Penk and Simeon Brown snuck in moments before the leader herself, Judith Collins, was due to arrive. Nobody seemed that keen to talk to media.
There may have been more Auckland-based National candidates in the room, but they didn’t make it known. By my count, you could place the number of National MPs in the room on one hand.
Melissa Lee, the party’s Mount Albert candidate, insisted she hadn’t seen the results when she arrived. I politely informed her that her party was going to lose the election, but she said that with just 20% of the vote counted, it was still “too early to tell”. It wasn’t.
The writing was on the wall for a bleak evening long before Collins made her tearful address. There was no bar tab for attendees and the food was limited. Maybe I’m being cynical: I hadn’t eaten dinner.
I have more toes than the number of balloon bunches that were on display around the venue.
The main decorations were glass bowls filled with uncurled streamers. Why would you not uncurl a streamer? TVNZ’s Maiki Sherman joked about bringing them home for her kid.
Judith Collins arrived at 10pm. Party faithful formed a guard of honour, chanting “Judith!” Someone yelled “two ticks blue!” It was too late.
A severely inebriated white girl next to me yelled “Talofa, bitches”. She was told to shut up by an equally inebriated white woman. National staffers tried to amp up the crowd.
Then Collins spoke, and the room went silent. The emotion in the room was palpable. Collins was teary-eyed, as she congratulated Jacinda Ardern and gave no indication she’d be stepping down. As far as Collins is concerned, she’ll be fighting Ardern again in three years’ time.
Acknowledging the welcome she received tonight, Collins said “anyone would have thought we’d won”. It kinda felt like that in the room.
“We will take time to reflect and we will review and we will change,” Collins said, as someone in the back of the crowd shouted out: “Good”.
“National will emerge from this loss a stronger, disciplined and more connected party.” It was a concession speech, but I honestly believed her.
Then she was gone. Collins left the stage and headed back stage. She spent no time mingling with those gathered to support her.
One attendee spoken to by The Spinoff described the night as a “fucking funeral”.
“You’ve got people in seats that have lost their 2,000-seat majority… we’re fucked,” they said.
The party was continuing, but anyone of note had shuffled out of sight.
A senior National Party aide had a tear in their eye as they spoke to The Spinoff. They spoke of Collins’ determination, saying she never wavered throughout the past three months.
The National leader would be enjoying her first red wine of the campaign, they said. Surely she’d have a gin, I asked. She wouldn’t, they said. Red wine was Collins’ drink.
While Collins wouldn’t be giving a full media stand-up, a large contingent of political reporters had gathered outside the rear exit of the venue to capture the moment she left. A crown car had its engine going. Mike McRoberts was there, microphone at the ready, as the minutes ticked by.
Over an hour later, Collins was ready to emerge. The car was still revving. National supporters pushed their way in front of the waiting reporters, ready to cheer on Collins yet again. They weren’t going to let her face journalists alone, not tonight. Collins refused to speak, as expected, walking to her waiting car with that glued on smile we’ve come to know over the past few weeks. She sat in the backseat with her son.
For Collins, the campaign was over. I hope she had a shiraz or five at home.
Then the journalists dispersed, the clock ticked toward midnight, and Hamish Price emerged. The notorious Twitter personality had been working on the (failed) campaign for Emma Mellow, National’s Auckland Central candidate. He was also one of the planted supporters during Judith Collins devastating Ponsonby Road walk.
“It is what it is,” he told The Spinoff when asked about the election result. “A lot of people are going to lose their jobs.”
Price, who became a viral figure on Twitter recently for his massive green shoes, said he was angry people focused on his footwear and that people thought they were purchased from The Warehouse. “I walked halfway across Spain in those shoes… they cost $500.” He wasn’t wearing them tonight, but he wished he was, he said.
There’d be a lot more time to spend in “woke cafes” over the next three years, Price joked, forlornly.
Emma Mellow herself wandered out next. By this time, it was clear she wouldn’t be an MP. She knew she’d come third, placing behind both Chloe Swarbrick of the Greens and Labour’s Helen White. Melissa Lee told Price to “look after her”, with a finger point.
It was a bleak end to the night. I went in search of a beer.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.