Week in Review

Judith, Jami-Lee and the politics of publishing

Judith Collins’ book will find a ready audience but a tell-all account by Jami-Lee Ross would fly off the shelves

If Judith Collins had needed a reminder of the dangers of publishing a book about her life and time in politics, it wasn’t long coming.

When she announced the happy news that she was expecting a book on The AM Show last Friday — but didn’t yet have a publisher or title or even a finished manuscript — one of the programme’s co-hosts, Mark Richardson, was there to help out.

Amanda Gillies had suggested Hey Jude! as a title but Richardson had a better idea.

“I think it’s got to be titled Judas Collins,” he chirruped.

There was a split-second of stunned disbelief and then a groan before the hosts quickly resumed normal transmission and an air of bonhomie was restored. This is, after all, breakfast television, which is designed to gently coax viewers from somnolence into full consciousness — and certainly not to deliver unfortunate truths before the very first coffee of the day has been poured. 

In fact, host Duncan Garner and fellow guest Willie Jackson had already pointed out that her book will be written to bolster her chances of becoming leader of the National Party — and possibly our next prime minister — so Richardson had only said what everyone else was thinking even if they weren’t willing to be quite so brutal.

You don’t have to be a seer or television host to guess that will be the book’s purpose. Collins, after all, is the Miss Havisham of the National Party, forever marooned in her wedding dress after being jilted several times at the altar of her leadership ambitions. 

Nevertheless, whatever the book is called it won’t be a work that would qualify to be titled Miss Havisham’s Revenge. It will undoubtedly be designed to show that Collins is prime ministerial material, with part of it devoted to explaining or justifying what is euphemistically termed her “chequered career”, some of which was exposed in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics. 

It will almost certainly show her to be a softer, lovelier person these days than the woman who even a few years ago appeared to enjoy being called “The Crusher”.

Collins said the book will describe “some things for the future”. In that vein, it’s a reasonable bet she will point out how she has the best chance among her political peers of reaching across the parliamentary divide to work constructively with Winston Peters.

Given the antipathy the NZ First leader has for Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett, it is not impossible that the ability to sup with the devil may help persuade Collins’ caucus colleagues to hold their noses long enough to vote for her as leader if the alternative looks like another three years on the opposition benches under Bridges.

It seems improbable that Collins doesn’t have a publisher already lined up, or a publication date in mind — with the latter carefully timed to give her the best possible chance of replacing Bridges. It would come as no surprise to find the book’s publication preceded a polling period for one of the major political surveys.

Collins will be in big demand for interviews and there is nothing like favourable appearances in the media to prompt people to suddenly think of that particular politician as their preferred prime minister when quizzed by a pollster. If she can open a bigger lead on Bridges in the polls, she will have given herself a very handy lever to use in her attempts to dislodge him.

Collins promised her book will show us “how things are done” and asserted that people will be “intrigued by the way things operate” but, of course, if publishers wanted to help us understand how our political system works they would approach Jami-Lee Ross with a book contract.

The Botany MP is presumably not positioning himself to be the leader of the National Party so he would be in a far better position to give us the unvarnished truth about how “things operate” than a pretender to National’s throne would be.

In fact, just this week, Ross gave us another fascinating glimpse into how our political elites do things. His tale, as related by Matt Nippert in the NZ Herald, wasn’t remarkable for the fact that Inner Mongolia Rider Horse Industry NZ gave National $150,000 before the last election. That much was common knowledge and had been dutifully declared by National to the Electoral Commission.

What was noteworthy was Ross’s account of the involvement of then Minister of Trade Todd McClay in facilitating that particular donation.

McClay met Chinese billionaire Lang Lin, who owns Inner Mongolia Rider Horse Industry NZ Ltd, when he was in Beijing in 2016 while on official government business.

Ross claims that, in 2017, after Lang visited McClay in his Rotorua electorate, he worked with him to arrange a donation. Consequently, $150,000 was deposited into the Rotorua National Party branch bank account from Inner Mongolia Rider Horse Industry NZ.

McClay says the possibility of a donation was not raised until that second meeting in Rotorua and at that time he was acting in his capacity as a National MP, not as a minister or even as the MP for Rotorua.

The main contention over the donation is that, while our electoral finance rules ban donations from foreign individuals, donations from foreign-owned companies are not, if the company is registered in New Zealand.

There is no question, therefore, of illegal behaviour by either McClay or Lang Lin but rather whether National exploited a loophole in the law.

McClay also received gifts from Lang of travel and accommodation for a three-day trip to China in 2018. 

Lang’s representatives have acknowledged that he “considered that he made so much effort to open the China market in exporting NZ horses to China, the NZ Government should award him an honour.”

None of this is illegal, but the question Ross has indirectly raised is that of the dangers of any politician being seen — rightly or wrongly — to be beholden to wealthy friends from another nation and particularly if they are citizens of a country with alarmingly different values to our own democratic principles.

McClay certainly raised eyebrows late last year when, as the opposition’s spokesman on foreign affairs, he echoed the Chinese government’s spin on the mass internment of more than a million Uighurs in Xinjiang province. McClay opined that “the existence and purpose of vocational training centres is a domestic matter for the Chinese government.”

It is beyond extraordinary that a senior New Zealand politician could reduce what the UN had already described as a region resembling a “massive internment camp shrouded in secrecy” to a matter of “vocational training centres” but he did. 

Some will think, of course, that some gilding of reality is unavoidable when your party relies heavily on donations and friendship from business figures with strong connections to China and its propaganda arm, the United Front Work Department.

Ross could obviously tell us a lot more about exactly how deeply our political elites are enmeshed with China, although he would probably have to go into a witness protection programme once he had signed a book contract. The well-documented harassment of Professor Anne-Marie Brady of Canterbury University — and the reluctance of our leaders to loudly condemn it — is a cautionary tale for anyone who might want to publicly criticise China.

He would be performing an essential public service as a whistleblower, and there would be no shortage of material. He could, for example, discuss how a former spy trainer in China and member of the Chinese Communist Party, who failed to disclose his connections with military intelligence when applying for New Zealand citizenship in 2004, is sitting in our Parliament as a National Party MP.

It’s hard to imagine, of course, any mainstream publisher in New Zealand agreeing to publish anything that would be highly critical of our politicians’ relationship with China given that most of their books are printed there — but only after China’s censors have approved their content.

It would have to be produced by an independent publisher who was willing to have their book published elsewhere and at a higher cost.

As well as describing the tentacles our political elites have in China, Ross could also offer revealing information about how troublesome politicians are dealt with in New Zealand.

He has been a National Party enforcer and knows “how things are done”, as Judith Collins put it. He has already confessed, for instance, that he was “asked to help exit [Southland MP] Todd Barclay because he was becoming difficult for Bill English” in 2017. Barclay didn’t stand for re-election that year after a scandal over secret recordings.

Jami-Lee Ross’s book would be one truly worth waiting for. If he was willing to tell us exactly what he knows as a former trusted National Party lieutenant and bagman, it would have “best-seller” written all over it. 

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