Week in Review

The Leaders: Low-energy Collins yet to fire

Tim Murphy begins a regular election campaign column on how the party leaders are performing, and how their efforts compare with those who went before.

I might be wrong about Judith Collins, because I once claimed Helen Clark and Jim Bolger were unelectable when they were in Opposition. Both went on to win three general elections.

But on the evidence so far, after her eight weeks as National Party leader, Collins is yet to convince she could win even one.

She was, remember, National's last woman standing as it rapidly ran through its options with an electoral cliff looming. From holding a clutch of votes among her fellow MPs just two years ago, she managed with the help of fate, fear and circumstance to forge a majority and become the party's 39th leader.

There are reasons why those MPs took a fair bit of persuading about their ambitious Papakura colleague. Her time as a minister under John Key and Bill English's government had given them clues: inexplicable lack of judgment that saw her leave the ministry, an offhand and at times underhand (via the practitioners of Dirty Politics) regard for the norms of political behaviour.

But she was well exposed to the public, familiar with appearing in the media and, in particular, on television and could give as good as she got.

When made leader, Collins coped. Her first press conference was happily adequate, if hinting at one of her current deficiencies - answering questions about what she or her party would do by simply saying 'We'll do it better than them'.

Sure, it was all a bit sudden. But then Jacinda Ardern's ascension to Labour's leadership was equally rapid and her first performance before the nation was strong.

Collins has achieved a moderately good polling result in the 1 News Colmar Brunton survey for preferred Prime Minister. At 20 percent to Ardern's 54 percent it is demonstrably better than the low bar set by her two immediate predecessors.

However when Key was Leader of the Opposition before he led National to victory in 2008, at the same point in the electoral cycle and in the same poll, he had 41 percent to Helen Clark's 31 percent. When Ardern toppled Bill English in 2017, at a similar point in the race, she was at 30 percent to English's 30 percent.

New polls are due from both 1 News and Newshub soon, so Collins might have made progress. Labour has been far from perfect over the past month, beset by political bushfires arising from the pandemic and lockdowns, from spin and, in some areas, over-promising and under-delivering.

But you'd have to wonder how much growth there is in Collins' number if she remains so unremarkable. Her media, parliamentary and campaign performances so far - the times the public have been able to see her in action - have not been as energising as her party would have hoped at that dark point back on July 14.

Far from appearing dynamic, Collins has seemed almost subdued. She's been deliberate and slow in her questioning of Ardern in the House. She's slow-timed her answers to the media pack at stand-ups, delivering eyebrow-raising jokes or, again, falling back on that crutch of 'Well, we're better than the other guys'. And there's a limit to how excited we can all be at just how 'excited' Collins is to be having such 'fun' on the campaign.

Yesterday, one reason she suggested people vote National was because the prospect of a Labour-Greens government should 'scare the bejesus' out of them. Hardly selling hope, and, if anything, possibly helping New Zealand First.

It's possible the 'low-energy' (to borrow a Donald Trump putdown of Jeb Bush) Collins is a result of internal party polls advising her to adopt a John Key approach of 'I'm pretty relaxed about that', or to pull her punches where Ardern is concerned, so as not to risk a backlash for going after the much-preferred politician of the moment.

What's also evident is that Collins is not as willing as Ardern or past major party leaders to get into the detail of the economy or policy facts and figures. She seems smart enough, in that I-was-a-lawyer, self-validating way she shares with Winston Peters, but has not yet displayed an agility to go alongside the raw confidence in her claims about National's economic solutions.

Collins has started to grab some attention with a parental leave policy and a methamphetamine addiction treatment announcement. She's relying heavily on Dr Shane Reti, her health spokesman, over Covid elimination measures and looking like she's leaving Paul Goldsmith to critique the Government's economic moves. She's cuddled babies and marched around in high-vis vests as well as the next person.

At a superficial level, her pairing with the veteran Gerry Brownlee on party hoardings around the country, seems to emphasise 'experience' in a way that might well be detrimental rather than positive.

Collins will get her chance to shine, one-on-one, versus Ardern in the three televised leader debates starting a fortnight from now. The public will look for someone who is across the details of both parties' policies, confident about the numbers, nimble in pulling up her opponent on spin, failure or inconsistency. Going on what we've seen to this point, a playing-it-safe Collins might eke out a draw or an  honourable defeat.

Six weeks from polling day, this is not a party leader seizing the stage, grabbing the incumbents by the scruff of the neck and capturing the imagination.

When your time as leader started with the party sitting at 38 percent in the 1 News poll and (after scandals and leadership change) has moved the dial to the early 30s, that's not a sign of imminent regime change.

But I've been wrong before.

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