The election is in 56 days, so expect party leaders to pop up in your neighbourhood any day now. Political editor Justin Giovannetti followed National’s Judith Collins as voters asked about cheaper cheese, pine trees and everything, really, but the scandals rocking parliament.
The National Party’s leader is on a first-name basis with the entire country. After 18 sometimes tumultuous years in parliament, Judith Collins finally has the job she’s always wanted. She’s now been in the leader’s office for two weeks, one of which she’d no doubt like to forget as it became dominated by headlines around Andrew Falloon, the now disgraced former MP.
After days of questions about Falloon, yesterday Collins took to the road to get away from the press gallery. It was her first real day on the campaign trail away from the big cities. She drove over the serpentine and treacherous hump known as the Remutaka Range for the National-held promised land that lay beyond.
The party’s stated reason for going to the Wairarapa region was pretty thin. A transportation plan that centres around building a new roundabout south of Masterton that the government has promised to build next year. Collins’ promise is that she’ll also build it next year.
What’s the different between the government’s plan and the Collins plan? She’ll build it, she says, and you can’t trust the Labour Party who promised you Kiwibuild.
Collins then went to a food-processing plant and later peeked under the hood of new buses in a nearby factory. She stopped in on a smoko with some workers and spoke about what good a National government could do. The Wairarapa electorate isn’t exactly a safe seat for National, but they’ve held it since 2005. Most locals were willing to give her a listen as she listed off a number of “Judith guarantees”.
The highlight of her day was at a town hall in Carterton a few kilometres to the south, where she spoke to a crowd of about 100.
A seasoned performer on the hustings, Collins has a wide array of disarming quips to paper over areas where she might not be up-to-speed on her party’s policies. She almost used one dodge that’s been available to her throughout her career. About to say that she’d need to consult with her party’s leader on a policy, she stopped herself. “I am the leader now, aren’t I?” She smiled for a moment and her eyebrows shot out. Collins conveys more emotion through her eyebrows than her ill-fated predecessor could manage from his entire body.
She may have been at her most relaxed in front of the cameras at the start of the day. A few members of the press gallery followed Collins out. There were more allegations against Falloon and more for her to comment on. After so long with the media, she seems to enjoy the banter of speaking to television and radio.
Collins showed up a few minutes late in a chauffeured silver BMW limousine. The publicly funded car is one of the perks available to her as opposition leader. Where some legislators might dress more casually for an event held in an industrial yard, beside a petrol station, nearly two hours from the capital, Collins was dressed for the parliamentary office she had just left. Her tidy dress shoes were carefully kept free of mud.
Following questions from press gallery members about the ongoing scandals surrounding Falloon and Iain Lees-Galloway, a local reporter leaned over and whispered to a Wellington-based journalist: “What happened with Lees-Galloway?” The former immigration minister had of course been sacked the previous day for carrying on an affair with a government staffer.
Then we went to the town hall in Carterton. She in her BMW, two local candidates in a small blue SUV. Over about 35 minutes in the town’s library she faced a flurry of questions from locals, retirees and business owners. Each question started the same way: “Hi Judith.” The previous month of scandals and resignations in the National Party was never mentioned. Former leader Todd Muller’s name, never spoken, came up indirectly through the words of congratulations to Collins on her ascent to the leadership.
We were truly outside the gravitational pull of the Beehive.
While she may have been looking to escape Falloon, she seemed at ease answering questions about her former MP. But at several points Collins seemed unsure, using a quick joke to move the crowd to the next question
She was asked about trees. Unease with the government’s climate change programme has locally turned into a hatred for pine trees. Thickets of young pines in the surrounding ranges are viewed with suspicion. Collins joined in with the local mood. “They are disgusting things, really,” she said of pines.
Locals aren’t happy that part of the response to climate change has been the planting of trees to sequester carbon. Instead, they say pines owned by foreigners are replacing local productive farmland. Collins said that while the National Party supported part of the government’s climate change legislation, she’d like to see substantial amendments to existing laws, calling them a “raw deal” for people in Wairarapa.
Facing a crowd that obviously has spent significant time studying the country’s emissions trading scheme, Collins tried to answer a question and then stopped. She grinned. “I’ll move aside,” surrendering the microphone to local MP Alastair Scott. Facing questions several minutes later about wool prices, Collins eyed the exits and asked Scott to take over as well.
At other times she can throw herself fully into an explanation. The Resource Management Act, New Zealand’s main set of regulations for environmental management, is a favoured target. She’s pledged to scrap the act and blamed it for delaying everything from road projects to renovating sitting rooms.
National’s strongest supporters are based in more rural and farming-centred areas. While Collins is a lawyer by training, she takes any chance she can to burnish her rural credentials: She grew up on a dairy farm, she’s driven back roads, she also hates narrow bridges. “I’m a first-generation townie,” she said with a chuckle at one point.
There came a moment midway through her stop in Carterton where Collins may have convinced one or two people in the crowd to vote National. After a self-effacing question from a farmer, she launched into a passionate sermon about how New Zealand has lost it way with farming.
Her voice dripping with emotion, Collins talked about people who describe themselves “only as farmers”. These people should be seen as the country’s cornerstone. “What the hell is going on?” she thundered. “Be proud of farmers, be proud of heritage.”
She held the crowd in the palm of her hand for a moment.
There were more serious moments. A grandmother asked Collins why she wants to charge her grandson $3,000 to enter managed isolation at the border when he returns from school in the UK. The grandmother said students overseas have lost jobs and are coming home poor and desperate.
Collins incorrectly told the woman that the Labour-led coalition also wants to charge the same amount and has accepted her plan to start the fees in October. In effect, she was suggesting it’s a done deal. The government has not committed to any fees yet.
She pledged not to increase taxes. She said the best way to lower housing costs would be to make it easier for landlords to buy more homes. She also promised to unleash the competition bureau on Foodstuffs and Woolworths for raising food prices too high. A voter asked why everything was so expensive, from cheese to his friend’s apples down the lane. No mention was made of Collins’ suggestion last week that a 1kg block of “the tasty cheese” costs $4 or $5.
The crowd showed no sign of slowing down with the new National leader. “Gosh, a lot of questions,” Collins said in surprise as hands continued to pop up.