National under leader Judith Collins: Storied comeback or ignominious slump

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Liam Hehir

Opinion – This was the third time that Judith Collins has put her hand up for the leadership of the National Party.

National Party leader Judith Collins addresses media alongside deputy leader Gerry Brownlee following the emergency caucus meeting on 14 July.

National Party leader Judith Collins addresses media alongside deputy leader Gerry Brownlee following the emergency caucus meeting on 14 July. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The first time she was bested by Bill English and the second lost out to Simon Bridges. This time, reportedly, her only competition was Rodney MP Mark Mitchell, who had also unsuccessfully sought the leadership in the past.

In various ways, Collins has made clear for some time that she wanted the leadership. And now she has it. What will she do with it?

The new leader of the opposition takes an pugnacious approach rhetorically but is really not that rigid ideologically. A social liberal who voted for legalising abortion and euthanasia, she is arguably less conservative than Simon Bridges or Todd Muller. Unlike them, however, Collins is entirely comfortable in her own skin and is extremely unlikely to be rattled or plagued by doubts.

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As a populist politician, this is pretty much ideal. It is a style of politics that emphasises style more than anything. That’s almost perfectly illustrated by Collins’ 2017 praise for Jeremy Corbyn since “at least he stands for something”.

Nevertheless, we can have some certainty about what the Collins leadership will entail. The tough-on-crime approach, recently abandoned by National, will almost certainly return. In such matters, Collins will be much less concerned about the reactions of metropolitan liberals who don’t tend to vote for the party anyway.

All of this should be sending terror down the spines of New Zealand First. Languishing in the polls, the one hope the party really had was for populism-minded National voters to defect as the party’s chances faded away. If Collins becomes the champion of that constituency, however, they may feel more loyalty to National.

In an election where they need every vote they can get, Collins probably signals doom for NZ First.

To say that Collins is not without baggage is something of an understatement. The year of 2014 was something of a low, with Collins facing allegations of improper involvement with an export company associated with her husband and entanglement in the Dirty Politics scandal. She eventually resigned her ministerial positions after being accused of attempting to undermine the director of the Serious Fraud Office (she was later cleared of any wrongdoing).

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All of that damaged Collins’ career back then, but it seems unlikely that ordinary voters will care much about that now. If she quickly strikes a chord with the public on the issues they care about – which is not a given but is possible – those things will be seen as ancient history. For Collins, this is her big chance to put those things behind her forever.

Will she succeed? Even as a National supporter, I have to concede that it’s less likely than not. But the choice of Collins indicates a willingness on National’s part to take a risk in the hopes of pulling off a victory – even at the risk of a more severe defeat.

Because that’s what you’re likely to get with this style of politics. National will have a storied comeback or it will suffer an ignominious slump. It will be one or the other.

Collins does not deal in ambiguity and nor is she likely to deliver it.

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*Liam Hehir is from Rongotea, a small village in the Manawatū hinterland. He was formerly active in the National Party and writes about politics, religion and popular culture.

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