She survived the Oravida scandal, but is Judith Collins now damaged goods?
A man in a business suit and a good tan swooped on Judith Collins, 55, when she stepped into the lobby of a downtown hotel for our interview. He introduced himself and they shook hands. He smiled and nodded and gazed upon her with something resembling awe. When he left, I said to her, “One of your fans?” She confirmed that was the case. O Queen! Her Majesty, the Minister of Justice, ACC and Ethnic Affairs, looked up to, respected, admired, feared by her opponents, loathed by her colleagues, inspiring an intense loyalty and a kind of love — everything was going so swimmingly until Oravida. She was spoken of as Prime Minister in waiting. O fat chance now.
Like many introverts, she’s theatrical and grand; like most actresses, she needs an audience. I emailed her office an interview request. A reply came back within an hour: “Judith could meet you at 9.30am on Saturday….” Another story came up and I asked for a raincheck, and then Oravida happened. I wondered whether she preferred to go to ground after that. I put through another request. “Judith could meet you…”
We met twice. She wore pearls and rings and brooches, an immaculately presented Tory matron with pale green eyes. I asked her whether I was now talking to someone who felt like damaged goods, and she said, “No, not at all. Do you think I should?” I confirmed that was the case. She said on the contrary, it allowed people to see her softer side.
She meant the tears of March. She cried over spilt milk, on camera and again over the phone to the Herald’s Rachel Glucina, both times weeping at the mess she got herself into during the Oravida scandal. Oravida, Oravida. Once merely the blameless name of a milk export company no one had ever heard of, now a word as common as muck, ever since Collins was accused of a conflict of interest — her husband is an Oravida board member, and Collins took time out of a ministerial visit to China to dine with Oravida officials.
Much of the scandal has been boring. It’s almost got to the point where Labour has demanded to know whether she ordered noodles or rice. Sweet and sour-gate, dim sum-gate — whatever, but the interest was in Collins’ shifty and indignant response to the whole thing. It’s made her look like she’s had something to hide, and she’s cut a lonely, marooned figure in Parliament.
There was a kind of apology, not much, and tears, a few; there were also recriminations and accusations, her familiar bitter tone, when she directed a question to Labour MP Grant Robertson on her Twitter account: “Why do you think it’s OK to spread disgusting rumours about my private life?”
I said to Collins, “What disgusting rumours? I didn’t hear anything.”
She said, “Good. Let’s leave it at that. They were running around Parliament.”
The implication was that Robertson, and Labour, suggested there was something improper in Collins’ friendship with Oravida chairman Stone Shi. I called Robertson and said, “What disgusting rumours?”
He said, “I don’t know what she’s talking about. I have spread no rumours at all of any nature about her private life.”
I said, “Did you hear rumours?”
He said, “There was a story floating around that she and her husband had stayed at Mr Shi’s mansion while their house was being renovated. I heard that rumour from a journalist, who asked Judith Collins, and she said no. That’s all I’d ever heard. I’m picturing that journalist now; she put this rumour to me and a couple of other people, and then it circulated around a bit but I played no part in that.”
To Robertson, Collins wept “crocodile tears”; on Twitter, novelist Danyl Mclauchlan wrote, “How many floors did the tears burn a hole through?”
But she was genuinely upset, especially when she howled down the phone to Glucina, who said, “I gave her a call as a friend and said, ‘Are you OK?’, and she started sobbing. She really, really sobbed.” How did a personal call end up in the paper? Well, she said, she mentioned it to Herald editor Shayne Currie, and he said it was a great yarn, so she called Collins, who said that was okay with her…
Labour bayed for her head on a stick. But her head was not for sticking. John Key said he was “very disappointed” with her, and left it at that.
In any case, her hot tears became the story. RadioLive’s Duncan Garner was unmoved. He said, “She’s thrown plenty of shit in Parliament. If you give it, you have to take it.” But it won her a lot of sympathy and support. What didn’t kill her made her seem softer.
I asked Glucina, “Do you think of her as vulnerable?” She said, “Yes, yes, yes!” She added: “I cherish her. She’s so caring and kind.”
The thin line of her mouth expressed rage, scorn, petulance.
Her kindness was immediately mentioned by all her friends. Everybody, even people with reason to hate her, said Collins has a great sense of humour; and likewise, friends and opponents credit her “fierce intelligence”, as former National leader Don Brash put it. Sensitive, funny, smart — why, she had recently charmed Russell Brown from Public Address with merry talk on Twitter about the merits of fresh figs. I looked forward to meeting her and was sure I’d like her, but she was stolid and boorish company. The thin line of her mouth expressed rage, scorn, petulance. There were the expected mirthless put-downs of various Labour MPs, and her self-belief was relentless. “I’m a role model”, etc.
She said, “I have a huge sense of fun!”
I said, humourlessly, “How does that exhibit itself?”
She said, “I apparently have quite a quick whip. Wit, I should say. Didn’t say it properly. Quick wit.”
No, she got it right first time.
What makes her so sure of herself, and so venal? She grew up on a dairy farm in Paratu Loop Road in Walton, near Matamata, the youngest by seven years in a family of six. Yes, she said, she was rather spoiled, and forever in the company of adults. “I got to go and visit all the old relatives and traipse around with Mum and Dad everywhere. They wouldn’t go to weddings unless I went too. I never once had a babysitter. I just went everywhere with them… I was always more comfortable with adults than kids my own age.”
“Mum read everything about movie stars that she could get her hands on. She loved drama. She’d think she was an actress.”
The dust rising from the gravel farm road, the house on the hill that looked across to Mt Te Aroha: “When I live places, I need to live with a real sense of height. I cannot stand being on a plain.” Dad was strict and extroverted, Mum was deaf as a post and almost reclusive, but also infatuated with Hollywood idols. “One of my jobs at Matamata College was I had a note from Mum that I could go down to the bookstore at lunchtime and buy her the latest movie magazines. She loved the glamour. Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor — the ones who were over the top.”
Her older sister Pam said their brother Gary was named after actor Gary Cooper: “Mum read everything about movie stars that she could get her hands on. She loved drama. She’d think she was an actress.”
Glamour and fantasy swirling behind closed doors in a Waikato farmhouse; real life, with its secrets and lies, came calling when Collins was about 10.
She began her gothic story thus: “I was brought up to believe my grandfather was dead.” Then: “I had this terrible shock. It turned out he was dying in hospital, and wanted to see my mother. I thought he was dead! Well, he was. He was dead to my mother. She refused to go and see him on his deathbed. He had left them to starve.” He deserted his wife and seven children on an Otorohanga farm “with lots of fern, ragwort and rabbits”.
Her grandmother worked the farm: “There has never been a submissive female in the family.” Her mother had to leave school at 13 to look after her baby sister: “That’s one of the reasons why I have always been so absolutely determined to get as much education as I possibly can.”
There was a third lesson, another moral to the story. I said, “Did you ever find out anything more about your grandfather’s life?”
She said, “No.”
I said, “What do you think of him?”
She said, “I think he was irresponsible and a very selfish person.” The unforgiven.
A life of certainties, decisiveness, taking a stand. The fact of her marriage to David Wong Tung, of Samoan-Chinese heritage, was an act of defiance. She said, “We got married in Hong Kong so we didn’t have to go through the awful trauma of having my father and whole chunks of my family not turning up to my wedding.”
I said, “Was that a real possibility?”
She said, “It wasn’t a possibility; that’s what would have happened. My father had very firm views about everything. Ha! I note the irony. Ha! And he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘your mother can go to the wedding, but I can’t bring myself to.’ And I knew that half of my family would turn up and the other half wouldn’t. And that this would be a split which I would never forgive. So I simply said, ‘That’s fine, no one’s invited, we are going to elope.’”
Sister Pam told a strange story. She said: “They were very superstitious, my parents. They were milking one morning and a fantail flew into the cowshed. I can remember my mother saying to Dad, ‘Percy. There’s a fantail in the cowshed. It’s bringing us some bad news.’ And that was the day Judith was bringing David home for the first time. And Dad was not at all happy. And it was all because of the fantail.”
I said, “Was his dislike because David’s Samoan?”
She said, “No, I think it was more the fact that David was Chinese. My dad had been to war. Okay? He was an engineer in Egypt. It wasn’t the Samoa; it was the Chinese…”
Before the day of the fantail, Pam said, her parents asked her to meet David, and report back. “My husband and I were actually ordered to go to Auckland and find out about him. ‘Go and meet him, and see what he’s like.’ We stayed in a motel, and went to Judith’s flat. She made us lunch.
“No sooner had I got home than I had to ring straightaway to the farm. So I said, ‘Look, there’s nothing wrong with David. He’s tall.’ My mother said, ‘Is he dark?’ I said, ‘Yes he is. There’s nothing wrong with that.’ I said, ‘The heart is where the heart is, Mum.’
“Mum was always great with David. But Dad couldn’t get his head around it. He did give her a cheque to go and get married, though. I don’t think he ever knew they went to Hong Kong…”
On tough days in Parliament, she said, Judith wears their mother’s ring to give her strength. “She’s very sentimental.” It was a nice, rare glimpse of her vulnerable side. And then it was gone. I asked Pam about her sister’s qualities and she said, “Ooooh, she’s very strong-willed. Very righteous.”
Judith Collins, feminist. She studied law at Auckland University in the early 1980s with Claire Schoeller, who said, “There were a lot of women’s issues at the time and that was very important to us. We discussed that quite a lot.”
She remembered her as a brilliant student, ambitious and determined. “And she always looked immaculate, always dressed well. Judith’s always been a very well-turned-out, very attractive person, that smiling, approachable, friendly type.”
Schoeller said they both flatted in Remuera, Collins in a small, spartan room. “I was absolutely thrilled when I visited years later and that the same tea-set came out. I thought, ‘Isn’t that lovely.’ It was just a plain white tea-set but it was just really neat that it was still the best one.”
Collins worked for law firm Simpson Grierson, and had her own practice for 10 years. Cecilia Daldry worked on administration. “I remember the feeling of teamwork in there,” she said. “Like at morning tea, Judith would gather everybody together and someone would get coffee and do a muffin run.”
It was a fun office. “Judith’s enormously funny. One day, she grabbed me and took me into this boutique, put me in front of a mirror, stood behind me, and lifted my skirt up past my knees and gave me a lecture: ‘You have really good legs, why do you keep hiding them behind these skirts?’ But she always took fashion seriously. She was always immaculately decked out. It’s a very conservative look; it’s never the trousers malarkey.”
She had her second child at the same time Collins was pregnant with her son James. “She guarded that belly like nothing on Earth. And when James was born, she was besotted. Absolutely besotted.”
Collins entered politics in 2002, when she made an aggressive bid for the restored Clevedon seat, beating Warren Kyd, a sitting MP. She went on to win by a comfortable margin. “I contacted her the next day to congratulate her and ask if I could come and work for her,” said Megan Wallace. “I’d heard she was going to do well, and thought she sounded like someone I’d like to work for. She said, ‘Thank you very much and send me your CV,’ and that’s how it started.”
“New Orleans blues, not Chicago blues. I like the delta sound. I’ve been to Bourbon St and listened to the most unbelievable music I’ve ever heard.” At home, she’ll play Keb’ Mo’, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker.
Yes, she said, she supposed that was a radical approach to a complete stranger. Wallace is now Collins’ senior private secretary, and attended both of our interviews as minder. The two have become close, with Collins and her husband and son spending last Christmas with Wallace’s family. “She brought her cheesecake, of course. Her famous cheesecake. Oh, it’s beautiful! It’s a lovely chocolate base with a fabulous fruity filling and then fruit on top like a jam but not a jam.”
The fruity cheesecake, the faithful tea set; she collects glass paperweights, and has a love of the blues: “New Orleans blues, not Chicago blues. I like the delta sound. I’ve been to Bourbon St and listened to the most unbelievable music I’ve ever heard.” At home, she’ll play Keb’ Mo’, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker.
She’s Christian. She took acting classes every week for over a year. She favours wines from Te Whare Ra in Blenheim. She’s taken to designing her garden: “Today’s planting will be Tahitian pohutukawas, and beside those are white gardenias, and blue catnip as a ground cover. It will be very, very, very organised.”
Like all control freaks, Collins is also very, very good at arranging friends and allies. She can always count on the support of blogger Cameron Slater, and gets good press from diarist Glucina in her Herald columns. They’re close friends with Collins. They’re friends with each other, sort of, or at least no longer enemies.
On his Whale Oil blog, Slater is steadfast and true in his blazing admiration for every move Collins makes, every step she takes. But he didn’t have much to say about her role in putting a stop to his long, weird campaign of insults directed at Glucina.
“I wouldn’t describe it as a direct intervention of any sorts…She might have said at a function, ‘Oh, Rachel, Cam, do you know each other? It might be a good idea to get on.’ But that was about it.”
I said, “Was her encouragement crucial?”
He said, “No. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t do what I’m told.”
I said, “Because it’s not as if you’re her PR bitch.”
He said, “God, no.”
I asked Collins whether she engineered that peace talk. She said, “Yeah, I did, actually. There had been this… a lot of nastiness. I thought I should introduce them. They get on well now. Isn’t that great?”
“Collins and Cameron Slater have a close relationship. I don’t quite understand it. She’s sort of a surrogate mother to him.”
I asked Glucina for her version. She said, “Judith and I go back a long way. She said to me about Cam, ‘Let’s sort this out.’ So we were at a cocktail party, and she said, ‘Oh, by the way, Cameron wants to apologise to you.’ So she barks across the room, ‘Cameron!’ And he comes scurrying across the room like a little boy. ‘Have you got something to say to Rachel?’ He apologised, and we’ve moved on.”
I said, “He kind of seems besotted with her.”
She said, “I totally agree! They have a close relationship. I don’t quite understand it. She’s sort of a surrogate mother to him.”
Slater on Collins: “Perhaps the biggest support she showed me was during the last few months of my mother’s passing. She’d ring me up and say, ‘How’s your mum doing?’ and ask how my dad was, just being a friend. Judith’s a great friend. Loyal in actions and deeds. She’s one of these people who will ring you and actually doesn’t want anything; she’s just ringing to have a chat as a friend.”
Glucina on Collins: “She’s a mother hen slash friend. She’s like a fixer.”
Collins on Collins: “I like to bring people together.”
But according to Duncan Garner, everything came very close to falling apart for Collins because of Oravida.
The RadioLive and TV3 presenter said: “I spoke to a senior minister in Cabinet who was scathing of Collins, who said to me if he had any say in it she wouldn’t be anywhere near the leadership of the National Party in the future. Yep. He also said, ‘Don’t underestimate how close she went to losing her job.’
“He could just be saying that because it’s in his interests to block her. There’s always a motivation for people’s comments. But I think it probably is true. I think she’s done herself a lot of damage.
“If she ever did become PM, I don’t think she’d last long, to be honest. I really don’t. You’ve got to be more well-rounded to be PM.”
“Yes, she has the support of Whale Oil and all those guys who love her who see her as the next big thing, and she has a group of people around her who adore her and think she should be the next leader, but equally there’s a whole bunch of people who think she’s a bully and not fit for that kind of office… If she ever did become PM, I don’t think she’d last long, to be honest. I really don’t. You’ve got to be more well-rounded to be PM.”
Inspired by Garner to talk to people who didn’t want their names in print, I spoke with two senior aides to government ministers. One said that although “temperatures were high” over Oravida, there wasn’t the slightest intimation Collins would lose her job. She remained popular with many junior MPs: “She’s very well liked by a number of backbenchers.” What about in Cabinet? “Less so. Bill English is not a fan.” Is Gerry Brownlee a fan? “No.” Steven Joyce? “Ha! No.”
The second aide acknowledged that Collins and Joyce are the two most likely future leaders of National. “But at the moment, it’s not Collins. Joyce has the numbers. She has hardly any. It’s all changed. A year ago, she might have had a good chance but now she wouldn’t have a shit show.”
The enmity with English is longstanding. “There was a definite antagonism between her and English,” said Don Brash, of his time as leader. A private email sent by English to Brash turned up in Nicky Hager’s 2006 book The Hollow Men — “she has an unfortunately high estimation of her own competence”.
I handed her some rope and waited to see what she would do with it when I said to her, “English was a poor leader of the National Party.”
She said, “Mmm. Yeah. But he’s a very good deputy leader… I think he’s come of age and really done extremely well as deputy.”
I threw out another piece of rope when I asked her what his failings were as leader, and she said, “I just don’t think he was able to connect to the public.”
Later, I said, “Do you think you connect with people?”
She said, “Yes, I do. I do have that quality.”
In August last year, current affairs show Q+A conducted a fairly shonky poll asking people to choose between Collins, English and Joyce as next leader of National. English collected 23 per cent, Joyce got 16 per cent and Collins was third on 11 per cent. Over at Whale Oil, Slater dismissed the result as nonsense, and asked his readers to vote in an equally shonky poll. The result: Collins in front with 48 per cent (354 votes), followed by Joyce with 37 per cent (274 votes) and English last on 4 per cent (a lousy 30 votes) — with “someone else” getting 11 per cent. “She works very hard at building her support,” said Slater, “and other potential leaders not so well.”
I said, “Are there snakes in the grass?”
He said, “Oh yeah. There’s a few backstabbing little snakes there.”
Beware snakes with knives; just as likely, though, they’re afraid of Collins. “She’d be a very strong leader,” said former National MP Sandra Goudie. Both entered Parliament in the 2002 election. “I’m a total fan. One of the things I love about her the most is that I find her to be absolutely clear about what she’s trying to say.”
Another former National MP, Katherine Rich, worked alongside Collins for two terms. “We weren’t mutual fans at the time,” she said, “but I started to change my view when I realised that there was a lot more heart in her politics than I’d previously judged. She’s done a lot of work to support women candidates and she’s been a mentor to a number of women MPs in the caucus.”
Follow the leader? Collins is always happy to accept comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. Firm, a right-wing menace, all that, but also charismatic, queenly. When I asked if she’d learned anything new about herself during Oravida, she said, “Yeah. I learned that I’m not someone who ever gives in when I’m right.”
But she already knew that, had learned it back on dusty Paratu Loop Road.
I asked, “Was your dad given to self-doubt?”
She said, “No.”
She said, “Because you then in fact end up limiting what you can achieve. My mother used to have a lot of self-doubt. I haven’t inherited that gene. In fact, that’s been one of the criticisms of my time in politics, that I apparently am very confident. I would have thought that was a good thing. I can do most things if I really want to.”
“For wild example, you could be Prime Minister?”
“Yes,” she said, “or not… Timing is very important in politics. It may never happen.”
It probably won’t. Her goose has been cooked in milk. But with her rare and thrilling invective (“visceral”, as Cameron Slater admires it), her acting skills, her imperious bearing, her pride and her intelligence and her convictions, it would be a spectacular thing to behold — Prime Minister Collins, the thin mouth forming all kinds of new distastes, the green eyes glinting with the delight of power and purpose. New Zealand might never be the same again.
Her sister Pam called the day after we spoke, and said, “I woke up in the middle of the night with a thought. It was that our parents taught us you have to aim for the top, but that you have to work just as hard if not harder to stay at the top. Okay? That was instilled in us. You can see Judith now, can’t you, now that I’ve told you that.
“She’s aiming for the top,” said her admiring sister, “and everything she does is right.”
Portrait: Simon Young. Illustration: Daron Parton. Parliament photo: Getty.
Also on metromag.co.nz: Simon Wilson on Judith Collins’ prime ministerial ambitions.