May 6, 2014 Politics
“I regarded her strange furies as one of her strengths. They were a weakness.” Steve Braunias reappraises his Judith Collins profile in the current issue of Metro.
How come I missed it? I interviewed Minister of Justice Judith Collins twice, both times about an hour, and she was very open, very happy to talk about her childhood, her character, her life. I interviewed her sister. I interviewed close friends and colleagues, also Don Brash, a few press gallery chooks, and Radio Live rooster Duncan Garner. Two “senior aides” in government stepped out of the shadows to disclose how Collins is viewed by caucus, and then stepped back into the gloom whence they came. Various others offered various insights.
But when I wrote my 4000-word profile of Collins for the latest Metro, I missed what has become painfully apparent in the past few days – that she’s gone kind of crazy.
I looked at her face when she shot her mouth off to Sabin and saw someone unstable, someone on the verge of a kind of nervous collapse.
Her bizarre and self-destructive rant to TV3’s Brooke Sabin in the weekend has led to Prime Minister John Key instructing her to take stress leave. The pressure from the Oravida scandal finally got to her.
I looked at her face when she shot her mouth off to Sabin and saw someone unstable, someone on the verge of a kind of nervous collapse. She blinked rapidly, her mouth twitched, her words came out in a tumble, as though she were daring herself to keep on going, to match the speed and urgency of her beating heart.
I didn’t recognise that face. It was excited, schoolgirlish – Judith of the fifth form, fizzing with foolish gossip. Our conversations were civil. Her face stayed in one place. She remained calm, mostly, with occasional minor instances of rage and scorn and distaste.
These little vengeances and hostilities were all in a day’s work for Collins. I didn’t read anything into them, didn’t see any signs they were going to topple her over. In fact, I regarded her strange furies as one of her strengths. “She’s visceral,” as Cameron Slater had admiringly described her, when I spoke to her loyal and energetic attack dog.
But they were a weakness. All throughout the Oravida scandal, she has acted paranoid, all weeping and accusatory, the cliché of a bully who can hand it out but can’t take it. I’d asked her friend Rachel Glucina, soon to reinvent herself in the Herald as a political savant, whether she thought of Collins as vulnerable. “Yes, yes, yes!” she replied. I got the impression she thought of Collins as vulnerable.
Collins’s sensitivity to criticism was remarkable, and eventually pathetic. The baseless accusations that she levelled against reporter Katie Bradford, during her hiss and tell with Sabin, brought her to Key’s door for those “long conversations” and his gentle recommendation that she get the hell away from Parliament before he launches next week’s budget.
Stress leave, gardening leave – she’ll probably take that literally, because she’s been working on putting in a new garden at her Maraetai home for the past few months.
“I’ve put in the herb garden already and it’s hanging from the walls outside the front door,” she’d said when we met. “They’re beautiful. Very, very smart.”
I said, “Are you a cook?”
She said, “I can cook quite well, thank you, when I choose to. I like to cook plain food for my family. I make salads and cook things like steak… and… um… fish.”
Picture her, then, next week, cooking… um… fish, and busy toiling away in the garden, bending to the task with gloves and trowels, straightening up and looking at the sea views. Minister in exile, Judith out of sight and out of mind. I headlined the Metro story, HER MAJESTY. I probably should have headlined it, THE QUEEN IS DEAD.
But the whole thing about her dinner with officials from milk export company Oravida could be just about nothing very much, and so what that a TV reporter got bagged? In any case, Collins apologised to Bradford with good grace. And so she may survive all this, and just get on with the job.
She’s actually quite good at it, according to former National MP Katherine Rich. “We weren’t friends or allies the six years we overlapped in caucus, but over the last five years I’ve grown to admire and respect Judith Collins for what she has achieved,” Rich emailed.
“It’s not like there’s a rack of Cherry 2000s out the back to be switched on after the incumbent has been discarded for whatever minor infringement.”
“The problem for good governance is that it takes years to train a good MP and minister and competent ministers are scarce commodities. It’s not like there’s a rack of Cherry 2000s out the back to be switched on after the incumbent has been discarded for whatever minor infringement. Whether her colleagues and opponents like Judith Collins or not, I’d say most would admit as a minister she’s been a safe pair of hands…
“As a minister she’s had some of the toughest portfolios, some of them hospital passes like Corrections. She got the liquor industry to work on a code of practice for RTDs which was quite an achievement. And I admired how she made some last-minute changes to some legal-aid areas because she worried about the impact on women having access to justice. That impressed me because that was something that she personally would have chosen to roll back.”
But this isn’t the time for measured comments. This is a time for enemies – and colleagues – to take pleasure in Collins’ downfall. Dancing on graves is a ritual of every political disgrace but Collins has attracted new levels of mean-spiritedness and sheer malice. Some of it derives from National; my talks to those “senior aides” included mention of ministers enjoying the fact that Collins had got her “comeuppance” in the Oravida scandal.
Labour has enjoyed the spectacle, too. I interviewed Grant Robertson and Clayton Cosgrove for the story, and both brought up the same ancient grievance: when Collins was in opposition, she called Labour’s wretched David Benson-Pope a “pervert”. This was in 2005, when former pupils of Benson-Pope accused him of weird practices and ingenious punishments – not many teachers have thought of stuffing a tennis ball in a kid’s mouth.
Collins had said she only got into politics after her mother died in 2003. “My mother wouldn’t have been able to cope with the stress of it. What happens for some people, certainly me, when one becomes an adult orphan, is that actually it also takes off all the restrictions and the sense of what you can or can’t achieve. My mother always used to think that you can’t go to Parliament because it’s fully of really nasty people. And she’s right.”
I said, “Are you one of them?”
She said, “I don’t think so, but having said that I enjoy a good joke.”
I said, “You called Benson-Pope a pervert. Do you regret that?”
She said, “Actually, do you know what? Not really.” And then she told a story about a teacher she had at school in Matamata. “She used to strap us all the time. If we were a second late, she would strap us. And guess who was the most strapped child in that class?”
I said, “Judith.”
She said, “Yes. Judith. And I continued to be so. I was defiant. And there was one kid, one of those unfortunate kids who smelled.” She laughed, and said, “Not me, I hasten to add!”
She continued, “And this poor girl was unattractive, and overweight. Well, the teacher wouldn’t let kids go to the toilet unless it was in the break. This student asked and the teacher said no. It wasn’t long before she… It was the cruellest thing. I always remembered that. What a cruel, awful person.
“So when I heard stories about Benson-Pope and his tennis balls… I looked at him, and I saw that teacher. But I shouldn’t have used that term. I do regret it, actually. It was an unfortunate term. But he was a nasty man.”
She had worked herself up into one of her rages when she told the story of the poor kid who wet her pants. No doubt she was moved by what happened. But I don’t think the story was actually about the girl, or about the teacher. It was about Collins, the story’s defiant heroine, who distanced herself from the “unfortunate kid” – the sentence that did all the work was when she said, “Not me, I hasten to add!”
I looked forward to meeting her, but didn’t like her much. I was surprised. She said she was fun, and I thought she’d be fun. She wasn’t fun.
I wrote in the story that I looked forward to meeting her, but didn’t like her much. I was surprised. She said she was fun, and I thought she’d be fun. She wasn’t fun. It was disappointing. I suppose my expectation was in part because of the time I went to Canterbury to interview Ruth Richardson, and thoroughly enjoyed the company of quite possibly the single most destructive person in New Zealand political history. Ruthanasia, the Mother of all Budgets, the only finance minister who needed the DPS to save her from peril… All that, but she was a hoot, a likeable villain, a good sort.
As for Collins – I don’t know. I warmed to her now and then. She said that as a teenager, she was into Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Awl-right! Otherwise, I was just kind of bored. I guess I didn’t understand her. Things never got very far when we talked.
Rachel Smalley’s “heifer” remark was in the news during our second interview. I asked her about that, and she said, “The comment was revealing. It told me what she thought about women like me.”
I said, “One comment in public life can give you away, trip you up. A comment, a meeting. ‘Heifer’. Oravida. The smallest things.”
“Can become huge. Yes.”
“That could be your tombstone. Oravida. What a thing to be remembered for!”
“What, a really successful company doing well by exporting New Zealand products? Well, okay.”
“I don’t mean that. I mean, ‘Judith Collins. The milk lady.’”
“Better than the booze lady, isn’t it… Most people in New Zealand wonder why we have such a fascination with teeny weeny things.”
“Well, this Oravida thing reveals your arrogance.”
“Yes, so if I was a guy, what would that be?”
“Same thing,” I said.
“Rubbish, utter rubbish. Absolute rubbish.”
“You’re playing the gender card?”
“As a woman in politics, or law, or another field which is predominantly male, if you stand up for yourself, you’re arrogant, you’re overly confident. If it’s a guy, it’s ‘Oh, you’re strong, you’re assertive.’ It’s the language used to put down women who get above their station.”
“No, it isn’t,” she said.
“Arrogant men are constantly called arrogant.”
“Not to the same degree.”
“Nonsense,” I said.
It had degenerated into an antique dialogue – we were like two people discussing feminism in the 1980s, an old duffer and a feminist. We wouldn’t have liked each other back then, either.
Photo: Simon Young.