New Zealanders have avoided much of the nastiness of the politics of other countries, writes Matt McCarten. Will the appointment of Judith Collins as the Nets’ new leader change that?


What a mess. 

This week we’ve watched political cannibalism on a scale not ever seen in our history. What is so astonishing is that this blue mayhem is by National’s own hand. The “born to rule party” of the privileged has been exposed as the amateur and grasping rabble that it has become. 

Little more than 50 days ago, the National caucus realised that Simon Bridges was leading them into a slaughter. The polls showed that possibly half of the caucus could soon be joining the dole queues. And, when a ship starts sinking, the captain can’t count on the loyalty of those around him. 

A coup masterminded by Nikki Kaye dispatched the Nats’ former boy wonder in quick order, replacing him with Todd Muller, who symbolised the leadership the plotters believed we needed. His pedigree included being a longtime corporate lobbyist, a parliamentary Beehive insider, and a right-wing Christian espousing arch-conservatism views on abortion, euthanasia, and recreational drugs. 

The new leader was predictably male, bald, old and white. And, in case we were wondering about his political leanings, there was the MAGA cap proclaiming Donald Trump’s fatuous claim that he’d “Make America Great Again”. 

This sort of patriarch was fashionable in the 1950s. Back then, the idea of a prime minister who was young, smart, atheist, liberal, and an unmarried mother, would have been seen as the devil’s delusion.

However, it seems old white guys aren’t as tough as we remember in good ole boys’ movies. And when former party president Michelle Boag leaked the private details of Covid-19 patients to at least two National MPs, the new leader fell apart. 

It seems there was a lot more skullduggery than has been revealed, and I’m told Muller was stressed over some of his actions that were, shall we say, not entirely transparent. When he suddenly wasn’t available for public or media events, his enablers, Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams, claimed that it was because he was having a cup of tea and a lie-down. That was sheer chutzpah. But when he was a no-show on the Q + A programme and didn’t attend the Auckland regional party conference, the jig was up. Muller wasn’t coping and he was packing in the leader’s job.

If the MPs in the bottom half of the caucus were panicked into knifing Simon Bridges after his bad polling, imagine their hysteria when they were summoned to an early morning call this week to be told that their recent saviour had fallen on his sword. It was probably a good thing that Simon was in the Nelson outback. The sound of his screeching laughter echoing around the hills would’ve terrified the locals. 

So now we have Judith Collins as the leader of the Nats. Any thoughts among her opponents that she’s just a caretaker until the election is wishful thinking. She has waited over a decade for this job. She’s been plotting her path to be our prime minister for years. Her caucus hates and fears her in equal measure, but she will survive because the Trumpian base in the National Party love her. And, more importantly, she’s more ruthless than any politician who may covet her new throne. 

Judith Collins won’t win this election. Her party really is a shambles. They should be ashamed to even ask New Zealand voters to let them near the Treasury benches. My friends overseas are in tears over the criminal incompetence of their political leaders. They all wish they had a Jacinda Ardern. I assure them that most New Zealanders know we’re very lucky to have her. We read the international news and shudder.

If Collins can get her party to 40 percent of the vote in September, she can declare a personal victory. From that base, she can be the favourite in 2023. 

There’s never been any doubt that she has always been one of the most effective National MPs. Over the years, she’s been unfairly punished, ostracised, humiliated, betrayed, and scorned. And that’s just by her own caucus colleagues. Her political obituary has been written many times. Through it all, she gritted her teeth and waited — and waited. 

How she must have inwardly beamed when her fellow MPs came grovelling, begging her to take their party’s crown and save their skins. Any viable leadership contender such as Amy Adams or Nikki Kaye had already discredited themselves, and a rerun of Simon was laughable. 

That left Mark Mitchell to try a forlorn and feeble attempt to challenge. After Collins’ coronation, she ruthlessly dispatched him, demoting him and stripping him of his cherished justice portfolio, and then passing it to a grateful Simon Bridges. For good measure, she elevated Bridges from number 17 to number four.

The immediate exit of political twins Kaye and Adams removed any doubts that National is now Collins’ party. They were the most powerful women in the caucus. These two, and Paula Bennett, were John Key’s favourites. Breathtakingly, all three are now feather dusters. Judith didn’t bat an eyelid. But I’m sure there would’ve been at least a faint smirk. Her pathway to the prime minister’s job won’t be through liberal New Zealand. 

Among her talents is that she’s a political chess player. She moved Muller to the end of the front bench with a lightweight portfolio, musing that he’d be back in parliament in three weeks, good as new. He meekly thanked her for her largesse. 

No doubt Judith is amused that she has neutered the two previous leaders. The only powers they possess now is what she gifts them. Muller, for his own self-respect, should’ve resigned with the two women who loyally backed and covered for him, because he now has little hope for a respected political career. Cruel, but true.

Every ambitious National MP who wants to get ahead has now been sent a clear message: the queen taketh and the queen giveth. The era of John Key is well and truly dead. The reign of Judith Collins has begun.

And Labour shouldn’t underestimate her. She’s smart. At present she’s charming and wooing the media. Predictably, they’re falling for it. She won’t take Jacinda Ardern on directly. She may even praise her, and then focus on offering constructive solutions for our post-coronavirus world. That will be the new narrative. 

It’s instructive that Collins has retained the Muller strategists, Matthew Hooton and Janet Wilson, two of this country’s top political operators. Their reputations are tarnished for now for backing a loser. But helping the Nats get close to winning in September will redeem them. 

But here’s why Judith will still fail. She won’t be able to help herself. Red meat will be back on the table. She’ll remember Don Brash led National to within two seats of beating Helen Clark after a good dose of Māori bashing. I guarantee it won’t be long before the ugly dog whistles grow louder.

Most New Zealanders love and respect Ardern. Her leadership has been near flawless. And Collins will merely expose herself as the divider she is. So, although the vote gap will close, she won’t win. 

Through the years, we’ve avoided much of the nastiness of the politics of other countries. New Zealanders appreciate the quality of the serious and empathic political leadership we’ve had over the last three years. 

Collins is a different political beast and proudly styles herself as the Crusher who revels in combat. Some National diehards may enjoy the negative and destructive politics that is the Collins brand — but it’s not a winning formula.


Matt McCarten (Ngāpuhi) is a unionist with a long involvement in politics, mainly as a political strategist and organiser with the Alliance and then the Labour Party, where he was formerly chief of staff. He’s based in Auckland.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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