Jul 1, 2021 Politics
One thing that political scientists struggle to measure, a thing that’s often central to any political leader’s success, is luck. Sometimes events conspire, the polls crash and the caucus issues a casting call for a new leader: that eases the incomer’s path, for the moment.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is, in this sense, lucky, and events continue to unfold in ways that — regardless of her professional competence — benefit her. This isn’t meant to deny her political skills or her care or charisma, but it is meant to assert that, sometimes, timing is everything. Would Ardern’s “stardust” have made sense in any other year but 2017? Could John Key have won an election in 2002 rather than 2008?
One leader who isn’t lucky, though, is Judith Collins.
The National Party leader isn’t held in place out of admiration for her policy knowledge, or her political manoeuvring, or her charisma, or her control of the largest constituency in caucus. Instead, her colleagues are keeping her in place because, to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s words, that there is no alternative.
Former Air New Zealand chief executive Chris Luxon remains green, and it’s a struggle to recall anything that might distinguish his time in Parliament other than his former corporate career. He is, for example, suspiciously silent as Collins digs her heels in over the He Puapua report. Wouldn’t the party’s Māori development spokesperson have a view on his party’s new anti-Māori position? Apparently not.
But, rather than Luxon’s silence reflecting his inexperience, it might instead reflect his tactics. If he does make a move for the leadership, he can, having said next to nothing in the past eight months, credibly claim that his National Party is making a clean break from the He Puapua era. You might call it the “John Key side-step”, remembering that one of the first moves the former prime minister made after taking the leadership from Don Brash was to make a quick, public break from the politics of Ōrewa. Like every good trader, Key knew when to sell, eventually inviting Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples’ Māori Party into government. Like every good CEO, Luxon probably knows when to fold as well.
But the same can’t be said for Judith Collins. She’s the politician’s politician. The MP for Papakura has spent her nearly two decades in Parliament crafting a headmistress’s image — stern, authoritative, perhaps the sort of person you might want to rely on in a crisis (a Covid crisis, anyone?). One of the enduring quotes from Dirty Politics, the Nicky Hager book revealing correspondence between Collins and the attack blogger Cameron Slater, was “give back double”. One of the enduring images of Collins is of her fi ring a pistol at an Institute of Environmental Science and Research testing facility in 2014. Her nickname: “Crusher Collins”.
The trouble for the National Party leader, though, is that projecting this image is a spectacular misreading of the global mood in 2021. Kindness is in, and that image and effect belong wholly to Jacinda Ardern. This might explain why Collins is reluctant to change, whether it’s her hard-as-nails persona or her uncompromising politics. If the job of a Leader of the Opposition is to do the opposite of what the Government is doing, then Collins’ Cruella makes a certain sense against Ardern’s Snow White. Her stand against He Puapua and “separatism” makes sense against Labour’s record investment in Māori housing and its record-setting Māori caucus, the largest in the history of the New Zealand Parliament.
But even that is another spectacular misread — the politics of Ōrewa just doesn’t work. As former National Party operative Ben Thomas points out, Don Brash lost in 2005. Arguing, without any concrete facts at all, that the Labour Government is pursuing a separatist agenda is guaranteed to lose another election. Aside from the rump of the New Zealand First vote, there isn’t a constituency for anti-Māori politics. This is partly out of demographics — millennials, who are famously “woke”, are coming into their own as the largest voting bloc — and partly out of the political changes the last National Government helped to embed.
Co-governance, Treaty settlements, you name it, it’s normalised. The world didn’t end aft er the tenure of woke John Key and woke Bill English. The world won’t end after woke Ardern, either.
Perhaps it’s cynical to think this, but it sometimes seems as if Collins is begging for a “woke mob” to cancel her for criticising He Puapua and the Labour Government’s formless “separatist agenda”. It would temporarily boost her popularity — cancellations tend to focus sympathetic attention on a public or private figure. But more likely than cancel culture coming for the Opposition leader is consequences culture. If Collins can’t pivot to an issue that will lift National in the polls, it’s only a matter of time before a viable alternative leader emerges.