ReadingRoom

Judith, joylessly

Steve Braunias reviews the half-alive political memoir by Judith Collins.

And the winner is Golriz Ghahraman. Two memoirs by well-known New Zealand politicians working on either side of the social responsibility fence, published in the same month, both with really quite artless covers, both with back-cover blurbs dipping deep into the cliché bucket (“passionate and unflinching”; “forthright and fearless”) –  but only one of them qualifies as literature, and able to convey something of the sense of being human. Ghahraman’s memoir Know Your Place is a record of a high-functioning neurotic, someone sleepless and anxious and driven. Pull No Punches by Judith Collins reads like it was dictated. The voice is distant, toneless. There is barely a moment of self-doubt, of reflection, of deeply considered thought.

Her preface sets the pace. The sentences are short and plain. “I have always wanted to write a book.” She asked someone called Mary Langridge for advice. “She said to be me.” An amazing revelation took place. “I knew that I had to write my own book. I had to type every word.” Her typing fingers duly fell down on every word like a ton of bricks. She declared war on the comma. “Never did I feel so attached to anything I have written as I do to this book. It has been the most cathartic experience.” And then a terrible threat: “I have enjoyed it so much that I will keep on writing.”

It’s really not necessary. What joy, what catharsis? I don’t know if Pull No Punches is intended as a job application as such – you know, to take over as National leader if the hapless Muller fails in September – but it certainly provides a bland and joyless mission statement. The mission is to present herself as invulnerable and impeccable.

There are times when her flat Jack-and-Jill prose has a kind of power. This paragraph on her parents, from the opening chapters about her Waikato childhood, nails down every sentence to the floor: “They paid off their farm mortgage as fast as they could. They did not use hire purchase or lay-by. They never bought anything without first having the money on the bank. They were the last people on our road to buy a tractor rather than horses for farm work. They were never extravagant...They never had passports. They did not even have photo identification. Businesses in Matamata and Morrinsville where they shopped always accepted their cheques. They had accounts with many businesses. No one ever asked for a credit check. They were trusted and respected.” Briefly, the book comes alive; here are the virtues and qualities of rural New Zealand, of upstanding folks who went about their lives with good sense and hard work. Collins, too, stands for these things, genuinely and admirably.

The family were Labour. So was Collins, until a sour experience with unions turned her towards National. She writes about law school, becoming a partner of a Takapuna firm at the age of 27, buying a restaurant, having a baby, setting up her own law firm, becoming  president of the Auckland District Law Society (“This where I learned how to chair meetings”) and ZZZZ. The publisher’s decision to include great big break-out quotes in bold is an attempt to enliven the dull prose. It is not a successful attempt.

The rest is politics, and more self-admiring ZZZZ. She was an Opposition MP under Don Brash, and writes of his Orewa speech, which was a kind of watershed moment in the new wave of anti-Māori sentiment: “Many New Zealanders reacted positively to what Don said.”  She entered government as Corrections Minister, and this massively inelegant sentence is allowed to stand unedited: “The smoking ban [in prisons] is the single ministerial accomplishment of which I am most proud.” She attended the Pike River Memorial Service, and writes with real feeling: “To hear [Pike boss] Peter Whitall being praised made me feel sick.” But then she adds, “Enormous amounts of money have been spent on a possible re-entry and recovery of the remains of the deceased.” Waste of money, she concludes. That may well make the families feel sick. She became Minister for Ethnic Affairs: “We are all ‘pretty ethnic’.”  She holds drinks in her office to mark the death of Thatcher: “Quite a lot of toasting went on.” Unlikely that anyone played Margaret on a Guillotine, the great song about Thatcher by Morrissey, who so looked forward to that sad day when he sang, “When will you die?”

A chapter on the Bain compensation, a chapter on the Oravida stuff. There is redemption, exoneration, and love, always love: “My dancing on stage with an Elvis tribute artist gained some positive media coverage and made a lot of people laugh....Police officers often gave me hugs in the street”, etc.  The book ends with a bright blue future: “She [Jacinda Ardern] is simply not across detail. We in the National Party are better than that.” Lol.  

Much of Pull No Punches is a litany of bland little certainties. But one of the enduring appeals of Collins as a politician is the way she seems animated by rage and bitterness, and these hostilities are expressed throughout the book towards its dark stain, its bad dream – John Key. Here, then, is the joy and the catharsis she felt as an author: utu, served cold.  

On Key, as an Opposition  MP: “It seemed to me from his actions that John Key was on a course where nothing would get in his way.” As Opposition leader, he signs off on Sue Bradford’s anti-smacking bill, which “left some of us, who had strongly opposed it, high and dry”. She campaigned to get an honour for the war heroine Nancy Wake,  but “PM Key” refused. He humiliated her over the Oravida thing: “John said that if I was a junior Minister I would have been sacked. I could not believe what I was hearing.”  After Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics was published, revealing Collins’ close dealings with blogger Cameron Slater,  Key gave her the ultimatum of resigning or being sacked. She did the honourable thing, and jumped. But what did he do? “My staff and I were given two days to vacate our offices. I thought that was particularly nasty...That night, I texted John Key, ‘How come I [only] get 2 days to get out of my office?’” The dog!

Briefly, or intermittently, the book comes to life; but it’s only a half-life. Collins omits to deal in any detail with the hacked emails between her and Slater that Hager published in Dirty Politics. Slater’s name is mentioned only in passing in Pull No Punches. She blathered to Andrea Vance of Stuff this weekend,  “I mean, honestly, I got about six pages [in Dirty Politics]. John Key and John Key’s office got chapters.” Actually she got 10 pages, and an entire chapter; her name features in the book’s index as heavily as the other goons and operatives implicated in Dirty Politics – Jason Ede, David Farrar, Jordan Williams, Simon Lusk.

She was thick as thieves with Slater for years. Hager writes, "They were drawn together by …a shared attraction to aggressive and often petty attack politics.” Some of their exchanges are actually kind of funny. Their name for Ardern: “My Little Pony.” I think it’s only fair to appreciate Collins as a humourist. Equally, she does a good line in malice. Famously, as Hager revealed, she emailed Slater her philosophy of utu: “you know the rule. always reward with Double.”

Hager’s chapter in Dirty Politics concludes, “Collins…was directly involved in providing information about and attacking a Ministerial Services staff member…she disclosed confidential departmental and client information…She was also a close friend and trusted confidante of Cameron Slater, which says much about her as a politician.”

Oh, nothing to see here, as Key said at the time, and Collins says now. She does the old thing of dismissing Hager as an “activist”, and not a journalist. He relied on stolen information. He very bad man. He no good. She quotes a columnist at some length to back up her claims: that paragon of balance, and cool assessment of left and right, Karl du Fresne.

Writing is a discovery. You find things, you surprise yourself with a thought, an idea, maybe a pretty sentence. But there’s very little sense that what Collins writes came as any surprise to her. I think back to an essay that I nagged one of Collins’ National Party colleagues to write for ReadingRoom about her experience in lockdown. It’s a lovely, thoughtful, uncertain piece; it doesn’t have a pat ending, it ebbs and flows, it’s vulnerable; I’m pretty sure it surprised Paula Bennett that she wrote it.

Bennett has announced that she’s leaving politics. I look forward to her memoir. Like Collins, she has a story  to tell; like Ghahraman, I think she has the wit and the sensitivity to tell it.

Pull No Punches by Judith Collins (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is available from Wednesday at bookstores nationwide.

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