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Judith Collins speaking to media the day after the election defeat (Getty Images)
Judith Collins speaking to media the day after the election defeat (Getty Images)

The BulletinSeptember 15, 2021

Pressure on Collins mounts

Judith Collins speaking to media the day after the election defeat (Getty Images)
Judith Collins speaking to media the day after the election defeat (Getty Images)

A former press secretary for Judith Collins warns that the leader’s ‘paranoid style’ and bad decisions are destroying the National party, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

An extraordinary assessment of Judith Collins. Janet Wilson has been deeply involved in the National Party for more than a decade and served as Judith Collins’ press secretary during last year’s tumultuous election campaign. She’s voiced her concerns with the party’s direction since leaving the opposition leader’s office, including in a column for Stuff, but today she goes further, speaking with The Spinoff’s managing editor Duncan Grieve for The Fold podcast. She pulls no punches about her former boss.

Wilson’s message is clear: Collins could destroy the National party. She provides an insider’s view of Collins from the moment she took over the leadership. While Collins’ delivered a calming influence within the party last year after the sudden resignation of Todd Muller, it didn’t last. The leader has now turned to “paranoid storms” and a caucus kept in fear. The full interview is striking and reveals Wilson’s fear that the damage now being done to the party risks becoming irrevocable.

The ‘brink of oblivion’. It’s clear that Wilson still sees the value of a party led by the likes of John Key and Bill English, and its balance of interests. But that’s now hanging by a thread, she says. What was once a party of farmers and urban liberals doesn’t have a single farmer on its board and Collins has largely demoted the few urban liberal MPs left. Instead, she warns that the party is on the precipice, “suffering endless entitleditis”.

She isn’t the only former insider to raise the same concerns that the National party is in a death spiral over the past week. Wilson’s view goes along with Matthew Hooton’s scathing recent analysis for Metro. Long-serving National MP and cabinet minister Chris Finlayson recently told Stuff that Collins’ leadership was corrosive to the party. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen, in my life, brand destruction as devastating,” he said.

Wilson warns that the rise of Act and David Seymour is nearly inevitable. That is unless National is willing to make radical changes. For starters, it should focus on things people care about, an economy with red indicator lights, a broken housing market and the loss of affordability. Instead, Collins focused on Siouxsie Wiles.

Here’s an excerpt from her conversation:

She demands complete loyalty and focus from her caucus, which is what any leader should do. And then she, herself personally, doesn’t display that same focus on what the real issues are.

That’s part of the problem of her leadership, I believe, that she is consumed. As I said in the piece, she prizes loyalty above all else. But then her ugly stepsister, paranoia, steps in, and she has these almost paranoid storms. I think Friday’s speech to the National Samoan group on Siouxsie Wiles was completely unacceptable in a National party leader. Completely unacceptable. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the electorate will look at this and see it for what it is, which is a cheap shot at someone who’s… Whatever you think of Siouxsie Wiles is neither here nor there. Empathy will always be extended to Siouxsie because of this attack by a political leader. Why aren’t we talking about all the other things that New Zealanders are really, really worried about right now?

I asked Duncan Grieve how the interview with Wilson happened:

A few months ago, Stuff ran Wilson’s piece under the provocative headline “National rejects change, faces irrelevance”. As clicky as that was, the byline made it much more so: Janet Wilson. The words underneath didn’t disappoint, a withering condemnation of what Wilson saw as an increasingly paranoid leadership style and a refusal to heed the clear lessons of the 2020 election.

In the aftermath I approached Wilson to see if she’d come on The Fold, my media podcast, to discuss it, and the role of the press secretary more broadly. I thought I had a shot, I know Janet a little, as we were both panelists on TV3’s Firstline for a few years nearly a decade ago. She thought about it for 24 hours before demurring. Then, out the blue on Saturday morning, my phone buzzed. She was ready to talk. Yesterday we recorded an episode, and over 40 extraordinary minutes, she let it all hang out. She candidly discussed the campaign, the aftermath, the paranoid style and the bizarre attacks on Indira Stewart and Siouxsie Wiles in recent weeks.

It matters because Wilson is not some malcontent, but very much part of the National party machine. She helped prep John Key for his debates, and is close with former MP Nikki Kaye. She’s doing this not because she has fallen out of love with the party, but because she genuinely fears for its future as a major force in our politics under what she sees as Collins’ erratic and autocratic leadership. Which is precisely what makes her critique so compelling.

The full interview with Janet Wilson is on The Fold.

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