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Original photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas
Original photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

PoliticsSeptember 22, 2020

Stuff the focus groups: The Spinoff meets Judith Collins

Original photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas
Original photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

The National Party leader tells Duncan Greive what conviction means to her, and why she thinks she gets treated differently to Jacinda Ardern.

The first time I saw Judith Collins at close quarters, she was moving through what was inelegantly billed as the “National stakeholder party” held at parliament last year. It was a fun evening, with karaoke and a somehow quite electric mix of government relations people, MPs and press gallery corps, all very off duty. After a few drinks the initial stiffness faded, all the in-groups co-mingled and, in the last pre-Covid winter, no one kept their social distance. 

All except one. Judith Collins had the effect of parting seas of people, in whichever room I saw her she seemed surrounded yet still alone. It fit. Her reputation within the National Party at the time was of a tremendously talented MP who didn’t play nicely with others. Yet while almost anyone else would have found the social anxiety too much to bear, Collins seemed to be entirely comfortable – almost to revel in it. She freely admits to being unconcerned with the alliance building that normally precedes ascension to leadership, instead wanting to be elevated based on the caucus realising that she was their best (or only) option.

A year on, after a chaotic couple of months which saw two leaders fall, her moment arrived. This political paradox – too powerful to ostracise, too dangerous to let get too close to power – finally ascended to the position she’d coveted since first entering parliament nearly two decades earlier. The party which had kept her on a leash and at a certain remove for over a decade had finally admitted it needed her. 

Three months later, it feels like she has yet to quite put her stamp on the role. She was presented with the awful Andrew Falloon scandal, calamitous polling, and a truly bizarre press conference in which her deputy implied the government had deliberately delayed letting the public know that Covid-19 had once again begun community transmission. 

Judith Collins launching the 2020 National Party campaign. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

It’s little wonder that she’s a little prickly when we meet. “There’s not much that The Spinoff writes about me that I agree with,” she says early in our conversation, later complaining about political reporter Justin Giovannetti’s account of National’s campaign launch on Sunday. Of RNZ’s Morning Report she says, “I don’t normally listen to them as of choice. It would just make me annoyed in the morning.”

It’s abundantly clear that she feels the deck is stacked against her – that through circumstances largely beyond her control, a woman like her has a far higher barrier to overcome.

‘There’s always sexism against a strong woman’

New Zealand doesn’t actively present as having much to fear for a woman seeking high office. Three of its last five prime ministers have been women, and currently both its chief justice and governor general are too. 

As is the leader of the opposition. Yet a year on from that evening, Judith Collins says there is a gulf between the way she is received and the response to prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

“I think that the way in which the centre right women are treated is entirely different from centre left women,” she says. Collins puts it down to “the view in which people see that women should be on the softer, caring side – not understanding where money comes from. 

“Well, yeah I do understand where money comes from. It comes from hard work, and other people’s often. I will not manage myself to conform to a view of women that we all need to be soft and cuddly.”

Her career backs up that self-assessment. Before she became an MP she was a lawyer, working across the commercial and tax fields, each still male-dominated, even more so when she entered them in the early 80s. Later, in government, Collins sought out portfolios – corrections, police, energy, revenue – which have seen her commanding areas of the state where the workforce is largely male. 

Her whole working life has existed in spaces designed for men, and some colleagues believe her ability to command those spaces is part of what makes her such a polarising figure. 

“There’s always sexism against a strong woman,” says Chris Finlayson, the long-time attorney general and a former cabinet colleague of Collins. He worked closely with her during her time as minister of police and then corrections in National’s first two terms, and the way she’s characterised reminds him of a line he says the left often deployed to sneer at UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher – “that she wasn’t the UK’s first woman prime minister, because she wasn’t a woman at all”.

Judith Collins putting up election billboards in Papakura (Photo: Twitter)

Collins contrasts her reception with that of her opponent, and says that part of Ardern’s megawatt appeal across media both traditional and social is that her brand – kindness, empathy, compassion – is tied to traditional and maternal conceptions of femininity. That the way the public and media are drawn to her is implicitly tied up in an approving nod at the way she more comfortably fits society’s conceptions of what a woman should be.

Kindness has never been part of brand Collins. Her reputation has had a thread of almost unseemly power, right up against the edge of vindictiveness. Sometimes it’s thrust upon her, as with “Crusher”, a nickname bestowed on her for scantly-deployed legislation which destroyed the cars of boy racers, or self-proclaimed, as with Pull no Punches, the title of her recent biography. 

Her steeliness was given a near-mythic quality when Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics revealed an email communication with the since-enfeebled blogger Cameron “Whale Oil” Slater, in which she discussed the “double rule”. It said that, when slighted, she would “always reward with double” the pain inflicted.

‘They did not give up’

This is the necessarily reductive image of Collins the public has always known – strong, independent, entirely ruthless. It’s modulated to an extent by the backstory she presented to New Zealand in her autobiography. 

In it she’s the youngest daughter of a farming family, with ancestors who eked a life out of the bare earth, lacking a tractor so fencing the farm with draft horses. They’re stalked by death, yet making do – the admiring sentence which captures the spirit of those lives is “they did not give up”.

She approvingly describes an upbringing of hardship by most modern standards: few toys, her pet a very edible lamb, exotic fruit only at Christmas, parents with no passports. When she brought home her future husband, her father’s review was “nice bloke. Shame he’s black.” That remark is downplayed, but her subsequent character suggests it might have made her commitment to marry David Wong-Tung unshakable.

Collins is now 61 years old, a baby boomer, and represents a generation and a worldview which, after decades in limitless power, is in the quite unaccustomed position of being on the back foot – and having to defend itself. All the assumptions baked into her life, and the lives of many of her generation – that hard work will overcome any obstacle, that New Zealand society is essentially egalitarian and more-or-less the same opportunities exist for all – they’re now fiercely debated, if not outright dismissed.

Add that to the worldwide reckoning and economic scorched earth that is Covid-19, and National finds itself unmoored from its usual policy arsenal – rhetorical levers pulled that no longer work. Sensing weakness, Ardern and her finance minister Grant Robertson, previously not noted fans of former prime minister John Key and his longtime finance minister Bill English, have taken to expressing nostalgia for the pair. Consistently talking about the ways in which Collins and Brownlee – both high ranking ministers in Key and English’s government – are not their predecessors.

Collins laughs mirthlessly when this is raised, calling Robertson a “total hypocrite”, for his pretense at a latter-day conversion to appreciation for Key. Still, she seems a little flat when she arrives at our appointment, in a dingy back room of National’s northern regional headquarters, amid a nondescript strip of Great South Road. The building is the electoral office of MPs Paul Goldsmith and Jian Yang, each representing a different variety of the kind of headache which has never really let up since Collins assumed National’s leadership. 

Yang was all but accused of being a Chinese spy, and refused a truly heroic number of interview requests on the matter before quietly announcing he’d be stepping down at this election. Goldsmith, meanwhile, has transcended his previous minor notoriety as the valiant sacrificial loser of the Epsom electorate each election to become the party’s finance spokesperson, reliably orthodox and mostly unobtrusive. Aside, obviously, from being attributed Māori ethnicity by a terrified and combusting Nikki Kaye during the riveting leadership tumult which ultimately resulted in Collins becoming National leader. 

He performed well until, just hours out from its online campaign launch, Labour revealed that Goldsmith’s spending plan had a spreadsheet error of a casual $4bn. It put something of a dampener on MC Maggie Barry’s attempts to talk up National’s “well thought-out and costed policies” in her introduction that afternoon.

One bleak positive of the myriad missteps is that they no longer hold their paralysing power. “I thought, ‘well, I’ve got a speech to give’,” says Collins of Sunday morning’s revelations. “I was disappointed obviously, but Paul Goldsmith was so apologetic down the phone,” she says, in a way which makes you think her finance spokesperson might have needed new trousers after the call.

Goldsmith has accepted total responsibility, and the story has had a mercifully brief half-life – a little over 30 hours after it broke, there was just one mention of it each on the homepages of Stuff and the NZ Herald. A stark contrast with the endless back-and-forth over the purported and discredited $11.7bn fiscal hole in 2017. It’s helped by the furious volume of major stories this year – the latest being mysterious new community Covid-19 cases and monstrous traffic jams due to the damaged Harbour Bridge. 

While its fast motion through the news cycle will be welcome, the story’s lingering effects could be singularly damaging. The reason Joyce’s fiscal hole was so powerful was that it spoke to National’s perceived strength as economic managers, and Labour’s perceived weakness in the same area. That the hole was largely dismissed by economists didn’t matter – the public believed it to be true. Now, after three years during which Labour has demystified its young leadership team, it is enjoying turning the tables on National. And Collins is not enjoying it at all. 

An iPhone and a ‘regulation free zone’

When we meet, Collins has just returned from Buckley Systems in Mt Wellington. “Is that an iPhone?” It is. “That screen is made using a machine made by Buckley Systems.” It’s a precision manufacturer of complex machinery, “going since about 1978, and it’s all built on magnets and making the machines that make the silicon chips”, she says. “It’s just incredible.” 

This is what Collins would much rather be talking about than debt reduction targets gone wrong. Her tech policy, announced an hour earlier, seeks to double the sector’s size from $8bn in export earnings today to $16bn in just 10 years. The plan to get there is a patchwork: $300m to grow various venture capital funds; science and tech scholarships for low-decile schools; a “regulation free zone” in Dunedin – and a brand new minister for technology to oversee it all. 

It’s a lovely vision for a complicated sector. I ask about the challenges of tech. The profit-shifting that leaves little tax revenue to run a country, the rampant spread of anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, the anticompetitive behaviour.

Judith Collins and Brad Pitt in London. Photo: Twitter

Collins acknowledges that the law has not kept up with the evolution of tech giants like Facebook, Alphabet and Amazon. “Some of these big multinationals now are paying almost no tax anywhere, really, including New Zealand, and they take a big chunk out of advertising budgets.

“They view New Zealand as a diddly, teeny weeny little place, and they are bigger than New Zealand, and bigger than many other states. So they’re treating us with disrespect.”

Collins has some domain expertise. She oversaw both the Harmful Digital Communications Act while minister of justice and the torturous tax discussions around big tech while minister of revenue, and can accurately and confidently discuss the challenge the tech giants represent. She’s paying attention to the fearsome stare-down happening in Australia between Google, Facebook and the Australian consumer watchdog, which sees the tech giants threatening to remove news services from their products.

For all that, she’s content to let Australia take the lead, and let the international community figure out the admittedly complex task of regulating the tech giants.

“I don’t know that anybody has worked out the way to do it yet, and certainly I think, where it comes to Facebook, you’d be a brave politician to go out there and say, ‘I’m up for election, and I tell you what, we’re going to have a fight with Facebook for you’.”

“I’m brave,” she says. “But not bonkers.”

‘The land’s the problem’

John Key famously imagined New Zealand as becoming a financial hub, the Switzerland of the South Pacific, but Collins plumps for Singapore as the nation we should emulate. She admires its reinvention as a regional tech powerhouse, attracting skilled workers and smart capital from all over the world.

In truth, it makes more sense than Switzerland South ever did. When those knowledge workers arrive, however, they’ll be greeted with a scourge of Silicon Valley that Singapore has mostly avoided for its residents: house prices and rents that are among the world’s highest on a to-income basis. But unlike the others in that category – think Vancouver, Hong Kong, London – New Zealand has determinedly low wages. Rents and house prices rise remorselessly, stoked by record-low interest rates, as if a landlord class has tapped into New Zealand’s veins and turned young people into its blood boy, leaving them weakened but still just about able to get by while resolutely unable to escape its trap.

It wasn’t always this way, and Collins is old enough to recall the before-times. “I remember in the 80s, doing house purchases for people in places like Massey and Rānui and Manukau. They were $20,000 to $30,000 for a 600 square metre section. The interest rates were high, but people could afford to get into houses, and the price of the property wasn’t that expensive if you realised you just have to pay off the mortgage as fast as you could.”

To Collins, that all changed with one piece of much-debated legislation. “The land’s the problem. That started with the RMA.” 

Earlier this term, in a different lifetime, she was opposition spokesperson for housing, and inflicted a special kind of torture on a hapless Phil Twyford over the abject failure of Kiwibuild. She retains a precise knowledge of the RMA-related complaints of property developers – the 12 building inspections she says New Zealand demands, compared to the UK’s three, the GST charged on newbuilds but not on second-hand property, the myriad consents that make building affordably near impossible. 

It’s somewhat jarring to process, given that she has been a minister for nine of the past 12 years, during which essentially nothing happened to the decades-long march upwards of rents and house prices (outside of Christchurch, which required a tragic and deadly earthquake to achieve adequate price stability and housing supply).

‘He loved to be loved’

Throughout that period, RMA reform was a National talking point, but it never made it to the top of its legislative agenda. While there were always coalition partners standing in its way, none possessed anything like the power or obstinacy of what NZ First has represented to Labour through this term. The conclusion is unavoidable that RMA reform didn’t happen mainly because Key didn’t want it badly enough to use all his formidable powers of persuasion to make it happen. 

When asked to look back over the legacy of the National leader who dominated his party and seemed to have a special box reserved for Collins and her ambition, she frames Key as let down by his own amiability.

John Key and Judith Collins in December 2015 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

“I think the thing with John Key is that he loved to be loved,” she says. “And he was; the people just absolutely loved him. He’s very personable and very outgoing, and open. But ultimately he didn’t take the risks that he could have taken to transform the whole country.”

It’s a well-worn critique of Key, from both sides of the political aisle. And as Collins knows, it’s also rising around Ardern. Some believe that given the choice between consolidating power and radical change, from welfare reform to capital gains tax, this prime minister, like Key, will choose power every time.

Collins has yet to be tested on that front, always bound by fealty to another leader, or the constraints of opposition. When given opportunities to break from party lines she has taken it more often than she’s given credit for. Despite her conservative reputation, she voted for liberal touchstones in abortion law reform, assisted dying and gay marriage. 

She says that bold change is what she’s here for. The politician she most admires is Thatcher, but she has also expressed admiration for her ideological opposite – the vanquished ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. It’s one thing that even her legion of ardent critics would struggle to deny – that however they might fault her style or her behaviour, she has a worldview and is not for turning.

“It’s conviction politics,” she says. “You stand for something. If you stand for something, and you can proudly articulate it, and stand by it, that’s a significantly easier position to take, and to hold. Much more than one which depends on what a pollster says, or a focus group. I’ve never focus grouped, personally.

“I sort of say what I think.”

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