Opinion: The arguments for Judith Collins as National leader

  • Opinion
  • 16/04/2019

Toby Manhire for The Spinoff

OPINION: Suddenly the National Party is an issue again. When 1 News unveiled the results of its latest Colmar Brunton poll Monday night, attentions were focused less on the outcome for the parties of government than the performance of the biggest party in our parliament, and, especially, its leader.

Simon Bridges scored 5 percent on the preferred prime minister question, and the National Party slid two points to 40 percent, now eight points behind Labour. On the face of it that might seem pretty bad, but Team Bridges will be seriously pleased. The poll followed an almost universally praised response by Jacinda Arden to the appalling terrorist attack in Christchurch one month and one day ago.

Ardern has gone up seven points to 51 percent, and the only surprise there is that it's not more. Bridges has only lost one point - albeit from an ankle-high base. He's down to 5 percent. What matters very much, as far as things look, however, is that he remains neck and neck with Judith Collins, who also drops a point, also to 5 percent.

Had Collins opened a lead over Bridges, the abacuses would have been noisier. Especially after a day that began with a report by one of the best connected owls of the parliamentary press gallery, Richard Harman, suggesting that a leadership spill in the National caucus is growing ever likelier.

On his site Politik, Harman wrote that "even now, multiple sources say, [Collins] has the support of just over half the caucus to take the leadership". Figures in the caucus and wider party had been asking, he said, "questions about Bridges' political judgement and the judgments of his inner circle".

His conclusion: "Politik believes that It is almost inevitable that Bridges will face a challenge; perhaps an informal backroom one first, then if that fails a full caucus spill."

What kind of arguments might Collins' boosters be making - and likewise her detractors? These, probably.

FOR: The polls
 

Collins may not have cleanly overtaken Bridges in this poll, but she did in the last Reid/Newshub survey, and she's got to level pegging or better without being, well, the leader. Or the deputy. To get there without the profile and apparatus of leadership is sending caucus a message. When Jacinda Ardern passed Andrew Little in polls that felt like a turning point. And there is nothing that stiffens the sinews of an MP more than the calculation that current trends would see them losing that plush, padded, leather green seat.

AGAINST: The polls
 

Like I was saying, 40 percent is not a terrible result for National. Everyone expected Labour and Ardern to climb after so assuredly leading the response to 15/3. National still have a result that begins with four. It wasn't so long ago that Labour could only have dreamed of a number beginning in four. People may not have grown to know and like Bridges yet, but the base remains big and it remains strong. There is no call to panic.

FOR: Conviction
 

You know what you're getting with Collins: personal responsibility; tough on crime; tough on PC snowflakes.

It might at first seem an unlikely parallel, but the member for Papakura had a good amount in common with another well-known JC. No, not Him, but Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party. At a time when the party was languishing, and working out how to rebuild after years of centre-tilting government, the membership voted for someone with unvarnished old-school appeal. Might the National caucus think similarly?

The appeal of Corbyn? "At least he stands for something," one observer wrote for the Spinoff a few years ago. "At its best, politics is the contest of ideas. It shouldn't be about playing the game. It shouldn't be about doing anything to win. It's only by galvanising the base, by giving people a reason to care, that those more centrist will give the party a chance. If a party's base doesn't see why they're bothering, then why should anyone else?"

That observer was, ta da, Judith Collins.

AGAINST: Conviction, or dogmatism?
 

Conviction alone doesn't cut it. It's hard to think of a greater public display of ineptitude than the Tories' leadership on Brexit, and still Corbyn's Labour is trailing them in the polls. John Key's ability to coax the middle to the blue side of the fence was critical to his three resounding election victories. Collins is less malleable.

FOR: She's decisive
 

A deficiency of decisiveness is a criticism that has been successfully levelled against opposition leaders for just about ever. That's not always fair: it's not easy to demonstrate a firm handle on the levers of power when you don't really have any levers to handle. Ardern has faced charges of indecisiveness, too, although if they hadn't already, those have vaporised post-Christchurch. If there's anyone that can do steely and decisive for the opposition, however, it's Judith Collins.

AGAINST: The misinformation thing
 

It was quite funny when Judith Collins tweeted, apparently credulously, a false story linking to a French site known for peddling bullshit news. But also not really that funny given the impact of online misinformation on, you know, democracy.

FOR: Policy grasp
 

This should have come higher on the list, but there's no way to change it now. Collins has by any measure performed tremendously in her shadow portfolios this term, most notably on housing. Now, admittedly, that might be helped somewhat by Phil Twyford's enthusiasm for strapping a couple of wings to his back and go flapping in the direction of the sun, but she's been there to heckle him every day. She has a sure grip on detail and an effective combative style.

AGAINST: The Dirty Politics shadow
 

Having survived the Oravida scandal, Collins was obliged by John Key to resign from Cabinet ahead of the 2014 election over allegations related to the Dirty Politics saga. As she's been keen to point out, she was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, but the association with the Whaleoil blog and the attack politics personified by Cameron Slater were damaging for an MP who became nicknamed "the Tipline". That baggage is not irrelevant, and parts of the Jami-Lee Ross had that distinct Dirty Politics Odour. But it still feels like something from days gone by; Whaleoil is just no longer part of the political furniture.

FOR: Jami-Lee Ross
 

Hopefully Simon Bridges doesn't spend too much time lying in the dark thinking about whether it was a good idea to demand an inquiry into the leaking of his travel expenses. It was a dumb decision, but the punishment was out of all proportion, and it came in the giant letters JLR. In truth, given everything, Bridges rode out that extraordinary episode pretty well - in some ways he emerged stronger. But Ross is still sitting in parliament, still has recordings. It's all led to a review of party culture, which is already looking like it could be a mess. There's even a Serious Fraud Investigation into JLR-based revelations around party donations under way. Collins offers a chance to lance that boil.

AGAINST: Timing
 

While the country is still grieving the loss of 50 people and trying to come to terms with an unprecedented terror attack on a community, it's hardly the time for palace coups.

FOR: Personality
 

Collins is good at media. She can be scathing, she doesn't equivocate and she's able to laugh at herself.

AGAINST: It's a risk
 

Collins is polarising. A lot of people find her approach

FOR: It's a risk
 

With Ardern in the short-term untouchable in the popularity stakes, everything is a longshot. The way things are shaping up, how many National MPs in their hearts-of-hearts reckon they're a good chance for 2020? May as well roll the dice, right? After all, didn't Labour roll the dice seven weeks out from the 2017 vote? And if Collins doesn't work out, then maybe Nikki Kaye will be ready to step up and beat Ardern as she has twice before in her constituency.

AGAINST: The risk of schism
 

The National Party has always been a pragmatic coalition of different ideological strains, and there's nothing unusual about that. But those differences have in recent times only rarely come to the surface: the discipline has been awesome. A fiercely contested leadership race could push that discipline to breaking point; to the point, even, of a breakup.

FOR: The risk of schism
 

OK this is a stretch, but: National's big electoral problem is partners. There has been no single-party MMP government to date. To be a viable ongoing prospect National needs one or more of: the possibility of working with NZ First or the Greens; ACT to be substantially more than a one-seat afterthought on life support; the Māori Party to suddenly become strong again; or a new party to emerge somewhere.

In that last example, the most plausible genesis would be for a splinter group out of the current National caucus. Whether that's a centrist group with a green sheen, or a socially conservative Christian sort of package, what if a Collins leadership were to provide an amicable catalyst for a future coalition partner, especially if might in the process sink NZ First?

AGAINST: The NZ Labour Party, 2008-2017
 

I mean.

Toby Manhire is the editor of The Spinoff

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