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Can Judith Collins cause the Govt political pain?

Newly elected National leader Judith Collins has taken the job in unenviable circumstances, but she is unlikely to wallow as she tries to dethrone Jacinda Ardern, as Sam Sachdeva writes

So much of Todd Muller’s ill-fated stint as National Party leader was defined by pain: the pain he caused Simon Bridges by ousting him, the painful expression on his face as he fielded difficult questions from the media, and - ultimately - the pains of the job which led him to step aside after 53 days in the best interests of his own wellbeing.

So it was understandable, if a little jarring, that Judith Collins tried to lighten the mood after replacing Muller as leader following a late-night meeting of MPs called to Wellington from all over the country.

Flanked by deputy leader Gerry Brownlee and the vast majority of National’s 55-strong caucus, Collins eschewed a more formal speech in favour of some brief prepared remarks, followed by a range of quips as she fielded questions from the media; “I think it might be time for a drink,” she concluded before leaving the stage.

The choice of a minister dubbed ‘Crusher’ for her role in passing legislation to destroy boy racers’ cars - a nickname, Collins noted, she did not bestow upon herself -  suggests a return to the hard-edged approach of Bridges rather than Muller’s more moderate stance.

Indeed, she pledged to “take back our country from the current lot” while touting her experience and toughness as distinguishing her from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

But the new leader did show some proverbial silk as well as steel, speaking about growing up on a farm and adding: “My heart is utterly with New Zealand.”

She spoke compassionately about Muller’s decision to step down, saying she was “devastated” by the news, while she offered sympathy to Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker over his forced retirement as well as the Covid-19 patients whose privacy Walker, via former National Party president Michelle Boag, so carelessly violated.

The stain of Dirty Politics

Of course, Collins herself is no stranger to accusations of skulduggery.

Less than 30 minutes after her election was officially announced, investigative journalist and Dirty Politics author Nicky Hager issued a press release rebutting Collins’ previous claims to have been cleared of the book’s allegations.

While Collins had been exonerated of an accusation not in Dirty Politics, but which led to Prime Minister John Key removing her from Cabinet - namely, that she was involved in a smear campaign against the Serious Fraud Office boss Adam Feeley - Hager argued the chapter dedicated to Collins still stood.

“It shows a pettiness and meanness, as she sent snippets of gossip and dirt to Cameron Slater and helped him to attack people on his blog - including details of a public servant who was then strongly attacked on Slater's blog, including receiving death threats,” he said.

That shadow hangs over her, along with claims of a conflict of interest after she had a number of interactions with dairy company Oravida during a ministerial visit to China in 2014 - despite her husband serving as an Oravida director.

Judith Collins is no stranger to scandal. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

If National wanted to show the Walker scandal did not mean a return to its days of ‘dirty tricks’, electing Collins to lead the party may not have been top of the to-do list.

But the hope may be that while she has some skeletons from her long political career, they were unearthed from her closet some time ago.

Both Dirty Politics and the Oravida scandal have been public knowledge for the last six years, yet Collins has remained a hit with National’s base while continuing to register with the wider electorate through preferred prime minister polling.

She is, for better and for worse, a known quantity with the public - a crucial factor with less than two months until advance voting starts, and just one of the reasons why Mark Mitchell’s own leadership bid was doomed from the start.

That leaves little time to stamp her mark on the party, both in terms of policy and personnel, and Collins said there would be minimal changes to the caucus rankings and portfolios.

Finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith continued his hot streak of learning about his job retention through press conferences, although health spokesman Michael Woodhouse - still facing questions about his role in the Boag saga - was not so fortunate.

In Collins, National has a leader who has shown she can take the Government to task for its failures and who will not suffer from the indecision and self-doubt that has plagued many opposition leaders.

On policy, too, Collins signalled she would not spook the horses.

While the party’s discussion documents developed under Bridges had been pulled from National’s website as Muller and his team reviewed its plans, she described them as “incredibly good to go back to” and suggested they would continue to guide policy.

That continuity is not surprising; after all, Muller’s ousting of Bridges was not based on National’s message but its messenger, and it is basic political management rather than ideological division which has caused the party so much trouble in recent months.

In Brownlee, Collins has a deputy leader who is widely liked within the caucus and seen as a safe pair of hands when it comes to policy planning and campaign strategy.

That does not change the formidable task they face to unseat the popular Ardern and her first-term government, while convincing New Zealanders that National is not beset with division and incompetence.

But in Collins, National has a leader who has shown she can take the Government to task for its failures and who will not suffer from the indecision and self-doubt that has plagued many opposition leaders.

And while her fans and critics alike would probably agree on her penchant for pain - “always reward with double,” she famously said - it is rarely self-inflicted.

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