OPINION: In her end-of-year interview with Stuff last year, Judith Collins was in fine fettle. Having started it as yesterday’s woman – even publishing what looked like an end-of-career book – she was now the undisputed National leader.
Sure, she had been shellacked in the general election, but was now, for the first time, given the opportunity to pick her own front bench freed from the shackles of an immediate election. Given that National barely convinced a quarter of New Zealanders to vote for the party, there was clearly work to be done.
She told me then that she planned to reshape the party culture, have more business-like relationships and close the revolving door of leadership the Nats opened in May when they rolled Simon Bridges.
Goodbye Crusher, hello Judith.
In the wash-up to any election defeat that large, there is a lot of scrambling around and finger-pointing over whose fault it was. The National Party is currently conducting a review into that defeat. A key question is whether Collins was handed a hospital pass including a previous leader's team, campaign and staff ill-suited to her leadership style and made the best of it, or whether her own poor performance made it worse.
It is unlikely the National Party review will frame it in quite so binary terms, or it may find, in more diplomatic language, that the problem was both.
Back during that Christmas interview, Collins was asked to nominate one area that she believed was going to be a focus for National this year.
“I believe that law and order is going to be one of them,” she said. “I think Labour’s been pretty soft on gangs.”
And so it has become that Collins has gone back to the tried-and-tested turf of law and order and labelling the Government as being soft on gangs. The riot at Waikeria prison over summer which the Government has studiously avoided calling a riot – laid the perfect platform for Collins to leap from.
Fortunately for the Government, no-one told the prisoners that a riot over New Year’s after a year that included lockdowns for the non-prison population was the worst possible time to try to protest prison conditions. Few in the public noticed or cared. Had the protest been even a few weeks later it would have been a massive issue.
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That notwithstanding, law and order is back. But there is a problem for Collins. The man she has put in charge of Justice is one of her predecessors, Simon Bridges.
He is also one of the more entertaining and effective exponents of retail politics. So a fair chunk of the week was taken up around him calling the Police Commissioner Andrew Coster a “wokester” and taking him to task in select committee for being harder on parliamentarians than criminals.
Coster, as you would expect from a senior police officer, gave as good as he got.
It is unusual for the cops to be attacked so directly. Despite Collins’ public protestations that the past leadership tensions are water under the bridge – undoubtedly helped by the fact that it wasn’t Collins who rolled Bridges – there is no love lost between the two.
This was evidenced by the fact that, despite Collins publicly saying that Bridges’ language was not a descriptor she would have used.
Bridges rejected that he had been reprimanded. In fact, he said that “here is the only one person who can reprimand me, and her name is Natalie Bridges”. His wife.
Both Bridges and Collins have one thing in common: they are trying to identify and prosecute issues favourable to National, and bad for Labour.
With National’s diminished numbers in the House, the party gets far fewer parliamentary questions and needs to find other ways to talk its book.
But focussing on crime is a problem for Collins. She is already identified by the public as a tough on crime character, so it wins no new supporters.
Unless there is actually a big crime wave out there (of which there is no evidence) it's not going to help a Collins-led National Party start to rebuild from 26 per cent of the vote.
And it can drown out other National Party MPs with good issues: Labour’s Progressive Home Ownership scheme, which has delivered a total of 12 houses to date. The Government’s odd on-again-off-again and general caginess over the travel bubble. Matt Doocey’s thorough questioning of the Government over its record in mental health in Question Time on Thursday – a subject for another day – was a good start on an issue where Labour has talked a big game but delivered little concrete to date. That's before talking about housing more generally.
Law and order drowned all that out.
You would expect National to be a bit directionless. It suffered a huge defeat in October and is trying to regroup, despite all of its MPs knowing deep down that the swing to Labour was so great that they are likely looking at a long period in opposition.
That's why it's just a matter of time before the leadership comes up again. Very few people inside the National Party, and virtually no-one outside, think that Collins can appeal to enough Kiwis to win National an election.
In the argument between: was it National disunity or Collins’ leadership that saw National slump to its defeat, most MPs would probably say both (plus Covid-19 giving Jacinda Ardern a massive boost). But the former can be fixed. The latter, not so much. Every bit of data available suggest that the public has basically made up its mind about Collins one way or the other.
This, of course, is the sort of environment Collins thrives in: she loves to prove the critics wrong.
And while there is a fair bit of low-level grumbling there is absolutely no mood among the National Party caucus for change. Plus there really is no obvious replacement. Not Simon Bridges and certainly not Christopher Luxon. Yet the iron laws of arithmetic that govern all politics don't just go away. National likely cannot win with Judith Collins as leader. It is not the Labour Party, there isn’t ideological purity at stake. There isn’t going to be the commitment to a loser policy such as a capital gains tax for reasons of dogma and high principle.
For National there is no pride in being a true believer and losing. That’s why Judith Collins could already be a lame duck leader, whether she knows it or not. She has appointed some good spokespeople, works very hard and there are three years yet to run. Yet few think she will lead National to the next election, but no-one wants to replace her yet.