Back from the dead? National backbenchers, particularly those down the party list, might be breathing again— now that Judith Collins has taken control, after the political trauma of the past few weeks.
Party stalwarts, some of whom had been drifting off to ACT party, are rallying again. Collins’ ascension has come just in time.
Even so, she faces a daunting challenge. Only 60 days to dispose of the wreckage, fire up her team, and win back disenchanted supporters. No time for the inquest into what had gone wrong (though questions still reverberate about the panic the caucus must have been in when it chose Todd Muller).
Collins, reassuringly, brings vast experience to the task, and she immediately revived caucus morale by insisting they stand with her at the podium as she took the reins on Tuesday night.
That sense of renewed unity took a dent almost immediately as first Nikki Kaye and then Amy Adams decided to quit Parliament. Both were close to Todd Muller and were disconcerted by his sudden departure.
It is unclear whether internal party polling shows that – even with Collins at the helm – National has little hope of regaining the Treasury benches. But Kaye and Adams, in leaving now, have put another hurdle in Collins’ campaign path.
Only the bluest, dyed-in-the-wool loyalists are convinced Collins can win on September 19, given the long lead Labour enjoys in opinion polls. Jacindamania is so powerfully embedded in the electorate that it seems impossible National could get within a bull’s roar of the Treasury benches.
Yet, some National strategists believe there are vulnerabilities within the coalition which a politician as astute as Collins can exploit. They see this election shaping as the way the Crusaders maintain their superiority in Super Rugby, by exerting all the pressure in the final quarter of each game.
Two factors could work in Collins’ favour. The first is the MMP system itself: no political party has ever gained 50% of the party vote since this form of proportional representation was introduced.
And history shows the electorate always deals severely with any of the minor parties which join a coalition government (think of the Alliance, United Future and the Maori Party).
NZ First has been consistently polling below the 5% threshold and the Greens so close to it that they need to pull votes from Labour itself to get across the line – not an easy task when Ardern’s popularity has been the dominant factor in current NZ politics.
NZ First, in the weeks running up to the election, may face unpleasant headlines as the case being brought by the Serious Fraud Office against the financial manoeuvres of the NZ First Foundation is aired in court.
And the Greens risk a backlash by proposing new taxes, not just the wealth tax, but the new rubbish tax which Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage announced this week and could cost households an extra $2bn a year. NZ electors have always shown themselves to be averse to politicians who come up with new tax ideas—and in the current economic environment, stripping more from the hard-earned wages of individuals won’t be popular.
On her own side of the political fence, Collins is already inspiring a fresh wave of enthusiasm among supporters. A fundraiser in Auckland is said to have raised an eye-watering amount for the party.
In removing Michael Woodhouse as the party’s health spokesman, Collins exerted the kind of discipline other strong leaders do, a contrast to the “kindness and compassion” Ardern has displayed towards incompetence among several of her ministers.
The reality is that National needs to front the electorate with a strong and effective policy to rebuild the economy. Collins, with all her varied strengths, cannot do it on her own, and the caucus behind her has not been conspicuous in promulgating the fresh ideas which will inspire voters.
There has been little focus inside National, as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the global economy, on how the government needs to apply powerful stimulus to the key export industries, not only the food-producing sector, but those especially in the technology sector, on which NZ is increasingly dependent.
In the era when climate change has led to “sustainability” becoming the goal of activists of all stripes, particularly the Greens, NZ needs something more. Judith Collins has to find that policy formula— and at the same time convince the electorate she can make it work.
For long enough Collins has revelled in being the “crusher”. Now she has to show she can be a builder as well – dare we suggest capable of making us plusher?