National's Judith Collins opens up about the 'unhelpful decision' made when Todd Muller took over

Judith Collins has opened up about the "unhelpful decision" made to shelve policy developed under the National Party leadership of Simon Bridges when Todd Muller took over. 

Reflecting on 2020, which she admitted was not one of National's "stellar years", Collins spoke to Magic Talk about some of the elements that may have led to such a heavy election defeat for the party, including the coup against Simon Bridges. 

In Newshub's February poll, National was ahead of Labour on 43.3 percent. But by May - after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had received wide praise for her COVID-19 leadership - National fell to 30.6 percent and talk of a leadership coup was brewing.

Muller swooped in and took over as National Party leader. But he only lasted in the job for less than two months. Collins was then voted in by the caucus as leader and led National to a crushing election loss in October. 

But Collins says keeping Bridges in the top spot wouldn't have made a difference. She told Magic Talk that while he was publicly polling high before COVID-19, National's internal polling painted a different picture. 

"Our internal polling was nowhere near those stellar heights," Collins said. 

"I think the fact is that the caucus chose Todd Muller to be the leader. There were all sorts of reasons for that but the main point is that it already happened now and I think we just have to move on.

"What the National Party hasn't done in the past is to wallow in decisions over and over and over... what's the point? You have to just keep going and that's what we're doing - looking to the future."

Collins pushed back against the suggestion that National went into the election without any exciting new policies to convince New Zealanders to vote for them instead of the incumbent Government - which is what Labour was accused of in Opposition. 

National leader Judith Collins in Parliament.
National leader Judith Collins in Parliament. Photo credit: Getty
Todd Muller was National Party leader from May 22 to July 14.
Todd Muller was National Party leader from May 22 to July 14. Photo credit: Getty

"I think it's possibly a bit harsh," Collins said. 

"One of the decisions I thought was unhelpful was to get rid of all the policy that we'd work on for two-and-a-half years under Simon Bridges... and the first thing I did as the new leader - almost the first thing - was to bring all that policy back in so we had something to go into the election with.

"A lot of work had gone into that and I thought that was an unfortunate decision at the start. 

"But look, I think whatever it is it's very hard for any first-term Government to lose office and it hasn't happened since 1975 so I just think that it was a very tough challenge, particularly with COVID coming in - that made it particularly hard too.

"You've just got to be realistic about it too that the incumbency of Government is a very powerful thing and where it becomes a problem for any Government or any party is when it becomes utterly arrogant and that's something that happens to most governments."

What's next for National?

Collins has previously revealed how internal polling showed National had dropped "down to the 20s" before she took over as leader.  

She became National leader 13 weeks from the election and was been hit with internal problems such as Hamish Walker leaking private COVID-19 patient data, Andrew Falloon's scandal, botched budget numbers, and MPs leaking against her

"I don't think there's quite the same issues that we had this year, frankly, or the years before that and that's partly about having a great big fat loss - there's nothing like a loss to focus everyone's minds on what's really important and what's not important - the National party talking about the National Party," Collins told Magic Talk. 

She said while 2020 was a tough year, at least there were some highlights.  

"I became the leader - I thought that was quite good," she laughed. "I mean goodness, I'm looking for any glimmer of hope to resurrect or have anything good to say about 2020.

"It was a hell of a year, frankly, for the National Party. Seeing a whole lot of MPs leave not because they chose to is pretty tough for anybody in any party so I think it's a good time for us to rebuild and that's what we're doing now."

Despite National losing 15 seats to Labour and one to the Greens in the election, and facing the reality of a shrunken down caucus of 33 compared to 56 in 2017, Collins expects to remain leader in 2021. 

"I don't see any moves otherwise and I think what I need to do is to bring the team together and I've already been doing that," she said. 

"We've got a two-day caucus coming up in early February, we've got some work going on to obviously build the team, but also to make sure that our new MPs - and even those from the 2017 year group - are properly trained and given the opportunities that they need to show what they can do.

"I think it's really important that every person on our team feels that they're valued and knows that they have a contribution to make. That's something that you'll see in my leadership style. It really seriously isn't all about me."