A few election cycles ago Judith Collins would have been a formidable political contender, writes the Dirty Politics author. Now she’s the wrong person, at the wrong time.
Judith Collins, who starred in the book Dirty Politics two elections ago, is an intelligent and politically capable person. However, as many of her National Party colleagues also know, she is very, very unlikely to win this year’s election.
There was a time when attack politics seemed like the only game in town in New Zealand politics. That time has passed. Judith Collins could possibly have been a successful National Party leader but the time for that has also passed. She was chosen now by colleagues many of whom do not respect her or expect her to win. The country needs different sorts of leaders. The 2020 election is not Judith Collins’ time. Here’s why.
1. Personal ambition is not enough
Judith Collins’ political career has not been propelled by inspired leadership or great support from the public, or even support among National MPs, but by her driving personal ambition. Former National Party leader Bill English wrote a private letter about Collins after she had been in Parliament for only two years. She had, he wrote, “an unfortunately high estimation of her own competence” and “spent too much time cultivating the media herself and believing the resulting publicity.” Her “crusher” self promotion comes to mind.
English continued: “She will find it hard to recover credibility in caucus where she has been a tough critic of her colleagues behind the scenes and they know it.” Fifteen years later, it’s still the same. (These quotes come from my book The Hollow Men, page 146.)
2. Attack politics are unpopular
Judith Collins has, more than any of her colleagues, built her political career on attack politics. For many years she was Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater’s main ally in parliament, feeding him leaks and gossip for his blog, plotting and scheming together about who they despised and would like to bring down. She gave Slater details of a public servant they (incorrectly) believed had leaked information, who was then viciously attacked on the Whale Oil site and received death threats from blog followers. When she was minister of police she joked about Slater being leaked police evidence (“Oh gosh,” she wrote to him, “what a shock”.) She specialised in insulting nicknames for her political opponents and colleagues (Carmel Sepuloni was “Septic Tank”). The picture from her communications with Slater in Dirty Politics is not of an impressive leader, but of someone petty and vindictive.
Now Collins, long-time practitioner of dirty politics, has become leader of the National Party exactly when there has just been a strong public backlash against dirty politics (the use of Covid patient data as ammunition against the government). It is what ended Todd Muller’s leadership, Hamish Walker’s political career and (at least for now) Michael Woodhouse’s credibility. Her speciality is not what’s needed or wanted. We can expect people will be vigilant about any scent of dirty tricks.
3. Collins wasn’t ‘cleared’ of Dirty Politics
Collins says she was cleared of everything written about her in Dirty Politics. This is not even slightly true. In fact there was just some interestingly tricky politics. After Dirty Politics was published in 2014 (read the relevant chapter here), National was concerned about falling support and decided to stem the losses by removing Judith Collins from her ministerial post. But the party did not want to give credibility to the book by saying it was the reason for her demotion. Instead the prime minister’s staff managed to obtain a new email, which had nothing to do with the book, about Collins, Slater and a campaign to smear the Serious Fraud Office head. It was on the basis of this separate email that Collins had to step down. After the election an inquiry cleared her of involvement in the SFO smear and she returned to cabinet – but the inquiry had not cleared her of anything in the book. Meanwhile Collins continued to refuse to answer questions about her long-term collaboration with Slater.
When she was elected National Party leader last week, Slater tweeted “At last. So pleased for my good friend @JudithCollinsMP. She has long deserved to be leader of National.”
4. Many of her own colleagues don’t like her
As Bill English wrote, Collins has spent years directing much of her nastiness against her own colleagues: the other MPs in the National Party caucus. “Personally I would be out for total destruction,” she wrote to Slater (in Dirty Politics) about some National Party infighting, “but then I’ve learned to give is better than to receive.” She likes the word “utu”. This is part of why the party she now leads is unhappy and divided. As Tova O’Brien wrote last week, National MPs started leaking against her the day after Collins’ election. One said: “It was a bit rich getting a lecture in loyalty and unity when those two [Collins and Brownlee] leaked so much in the past.”
Why, then, did her colleagues choose her as leader? The main answer seems to be that no one else wanted the job. The more credible candidates don’t think National can win the election and don’t want to be the one who leads them to defeat. The only other MP who put his name forward to be leader was Rodney electorate MP, Mark Mitchell. Mitchell also starred in a chapter on Dirty Politics. He had commissioned Cameron Slater to attack and smear the other National Party hopefuls so he could win the candidacy of the Rodney seat. Ex-boss of a mercenary company in Iraq, he was even less attractive or hopeful than Collins. But it was not a happy choice. Another National MP told Tova O’Brien that, in voting for Collins, “a lot of dead rats had to be swallowed.”
Many of her colleagues may not like her, but her leadership serves a (modest) purpose. National has its own internal polling. They know they are far behind. They are clearly hoping that Collins might stop them losing too badly. We can expect a small rise in the polls for National from her taking over the leadership, maybe taking back some votes from other parties of the right. If so, this will save a few National MPs’ seats.
5. Judith Collins is not Donald Trump
But couldn’t Collins be the New Zealand Trump: terrifying, and then surprising everyone by winning? No. This is a remote possibility. Collins is not Trump and, far more important, New Zealand is not the United States. New Zealanders backed a science-based response to Covid. New Zealanders are responding strongly to working together and being kind. They really didn’t like Covid patient data being traded around National. Trump may fascinate people in New Zealand, like a ghastly Netflix series, but he is hugely unpopular. It is the wrong kind of “strong” for most New Zealanders.