Audrey Young 's Opinion

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: A big question hanging over Judith Collins

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Has the influential and polarising MP ruined her leadership chances?

Cartoon / Rod Emmerson
Cartoon / Rod Emmerson

To understand the demise of Judith Collins, it helps to understand what a powerful role she has carved out for herself in the National Party.

Until this past month, she was not only National's most senior woman in ranking, but in influence as well.

With Collins' stocks on the decline, that position has been taken by Paula Bennett.

But Collins attracts strong followers. In fact, it could be said she has a following. She understands the party and her devotion to it enhanced her position in it.

John Key is supremely secure in the party leadership but were National to lose power at the election, there could be a leadership contest within five months.

Key is already on record as saying he would not want to stick around to be leader of the Opposition.

Collins' ambition to become the next leader has been so clear that Key talked about it openly in March with the Weekend Herald, when the Oravida affair first arose.

She said, unconvincingly, it was something she hadn't really thought about.

Key may still be right in his comment then that the Oravida affair has not affected her ambitions. It is not in her nature to give up.

But after the initial error of judgment, her mishandling of the issue, and the stress she has experienced, it has plainly affected her prospects.

The extent of Collins' demise can be measured by the fact that the big question is no longer whether she has damaged her chances of leadership. The question is whether she will survive as a minister.

Collins loyalists refuse to believe her leadership prospects have been destroyed.

They see a minister who has been unfairly hounded by the Opposition while contending with an undisclosed health scare.

"Judith is a very kind and compassionate person," says former party president John Slater.

His own wife, Margaret, died about 18 months ago after battling cancer and Collins went out of her way to offer the family support, usually with flowers.

"I've seen the soft side and I was deeply moved when she came, at least three times, on a Sunday afternoon to our home," he says. "That tells you about somebody that is a caring person."

He does not believe she has been irrevocably damaged by the Oravida affair.

"Not at all. I think the Opposition have been cruel in the way they have pursued it."

Collins is a polarising figure. She makes enemies easily.

Even in the party there are those who privately say she has got her comeuppance, that she is a victim of her own arrogance and that her enforced leave shows she could not handle the pressure of leadership.

Collins is No5 in Cabinet and a member of Key's Kitchen Cabinet. She has championed the role of women in the party, mentoring female MPs such as chief whip Louise Upston and former list MP Jackie Blue, whom she appointed as Human Rights Commissioner for Women.

The National Party board has been upbraided by Collins about needing to lift its game in the treatment of women in the party instead of tending to consign them to marginal seats.

She has made the most of her Ethnic Affairs portfolio to cultivate good relationships with ethnic communities, although she didn't seek the portfolio.

She has cultivated loyalty from the Young Nationals, although a great House of Cards rip-off quote by president Sean Topham, reportedly about Collins at the Young Nats Ball ("I love that woman more than sharks love blood"), was actually about Paula Bennett, he says.

She has been assiduous in cultivating good relationships with backbenchers and her coterie of acolytes is well known, including Upston, Sam Lotu-Iiga, Jami-Lee Ross and more senior supporters such as Anne Tolley and Maurice Williamson.

She has been equally assiduous in cultivating good relationships with the news media. She has a gift for recognising and feeding the public's appetite for conflict.

Every so often she will summon a chosen one for an audience in her office to receive a good story with lashings of quotes to turbocharge its potency.

"I make no apology for my good relationship with the media," she told the Listener's Jane Clifton in 2011 when her colleagues may have been left wondering why her profile was so high.

She likes being audacious. She likes a bit of shock and awe.

There was something else in her eyes on TV3 last Sunday when she turned on TVNZ reporter Katie Bradford over a private conversation four years ago. It appeared less audacious and more vindictive and calculating - and quite revealing.

Collins looked shattered on Tuesday heading into Parliament, after two months of torment by the Opposition over her dealings in China with the milk exporting company Oravida, which her husband helps run.

She had already suffered the ignominy of a lecture in caucus by Bill English - "we support you as a colleague but not your actions" was the gist of it - on top of the Prime Minister telling the country she should take some time off.

Tolley has been by Collins' side most of the week, but on Tuesday Paula Bennett joined the support team.

Both Collins and Bennett declined to talk to the Weekend Herald, but there is no mistaking that Bennett is on the ascendancy in terms of her influence in the party.

It was happening before the Collins decline, but it is more obvious now.

Bennett got the seat she wanted in Upper Harbour. She has recently been appointed to National's campaign committee.

She has the active patronage of the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and would almost certainly leapfrog over Collins in the rankings were National to get a third term - assuming Collins survives.

If National did not win a third term, Bennett, who entered Parliament in 2005, could well be a contender for at least deputy leader.

Collins became an MP in 2002, the same intake as John Key and former leader Don Brash.

She challenged sitting MP Warren Kyd for selection and has had a steady rise to influence.

The strongest theme of her maiden speech, besides a love of family, was a contempt for unions, which had given her trouble in a past life as a restaurateur.

Williamson by then had been an MP for 15 years and it is little wonder he was impressed by Collins. He wanted National better defined; he wanted policy that was hated by the likes of Sue Bradford and the Rev Charles Waldegrave.

Brash gave Collins her big break, making her welfare spokeswoman after two years in Parliament when Katherine Rich resigned because of his second Orewa speech.

The appointment was a no-brainer, Brash admits. He clearly wanted a woman in the role and with only five in the caucus of 27, and Rich and Georgina te Heuheu having fallen out with him, the choice was Collins, Pansy Wong or Sandra Goudie.

Yes, she is to the right of the party, he says.

"But the National Party is not a terribly ideological-driven party. So being on the right of the party doesn't mark you as being terribly ideological.

"She is very intelligent, very strong and I've always thought she would go far in politics."

Brash believes Collins could still run a credible challenge for the leadership.

But the fact that Key had ordered her to take a week off implied she buckled under pressure, and that was something she would have to overcome.

"I'm not saying she has buckled under pressure," Brash says. "That is the perception."

He takes a more tolerant view of her indiscretions. "I like to show compassion for people and not put the boot in when they are down."

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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