Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Is the National Government unravelling?

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National Party MP Judith Collins. File photo / Mark Mitchell
National Party MP Judith Collins. File photo / Mark Mitchell

If Judith Collins is any indication of the health of the Government, it is in serious trouble. Her bizarre actions at the weekend made her appear arrogant and out of control and suggest the pressure is taking its toll. So is this an aberration, or does it indicate a government that is unravelling? Certainly John Key's Government has faced challenges, scandals, and negative media coverage before and survived. Its poll ratings have remained incredibly high for six years so it would be premature to write off this Government based on one bad week. However the Government is certainly fraying at more than the edges. The continuing coverage of the Maurice Williamson scandal is surely hurting National, suggesting all sorts of ethical problems regarding ministers. But it is Collins' ongoing inability to put the Oravida scandal to bed and her increasingly eccentric behaviour that prevents the public and the media from being able to 'move on'.

Judith Collins vs the media

Judith Collins' latest bizarre antics are reported best in Brook Sabin's 4-minute TV3 6pm news item Judith Collins takes swing at Press Gallery journalist. You can watch the 10-minute video here: Judith Collins attacks media - full interview. See also, the 5-minute Breakfast TV item that includes an interview with John Key: PM facing more questions over Judith Collins' outburst.

The bulk of Collins' attack has been carried out on Twitter.

For a full survey of what the Minister has been tweeting, and for an interesting analysis of it all, see Matthew Beveridge's Judith Collins, Katie Bradford and the long term effects. And to read the most interesting and insightful Twitter responses to Collins from everyone else, see my blog post Top tweets about Judith Collins. The NBR's Chris Keall laments how this Twitter-based controversy is likely to lead to a reduction in the authenticity and colourfulness of politicians on social media - see: PM warns about 'dangerous' Twitter.

Judith Collins has 'lost the plot' according to Russell Brown, and he puts her allegations in the context of other government-related clampdowns on the freedom of the media. He argues that 'the lashing out at those who don't dwell in the sphere of influence is becoming creepy and alarming' - see: The sphere of influence.

Labour blogger Rob Salmond has some interesting things to say about this as well: 'To make it worse, my information is the Gallery's phones are running hot with National insiders spilling their guts about how Collins has embarrassed them. When the Press Gallery is angry with you, the last thing you need is your own team supplying more ammo' - see: Implosion. Also see Salmond's post, Even more new, damning evidence on Collins. No Right Turn labels this The smoking gun.

Collins 'needs protection from herself' according to John Armstrong - see: Can Collins survive as a minister?. He seems to think that the Minister's future is in the balance and that Key is close to sacking her. Armstrong suggests that her leadership aspirations are in tatters, and she has herself to blame for keeping the Oravida scandal alive: 'There is obviously a massive battle of wills going on in her brain between what is the logical thing to do - keeping her head down and her tongue on a very tight leash - and what is her innate preference for the pugilist approach to politics which helped get to where she is today'.

The media is clearly striking back at Collins now - see Patrick Gower's Collins' gutter politics a liability for Key. Not only does Gower accuse Collins of 'gutter politics' but also displaying 'arrogance and contempt'. He defends the media's coverage of the Williamson scandal, and puts the case for why Collins is now 'a political liability for John Key' and 'damaging the National Government'.

Law professor Andrew Geddis also challenges the logic of Collins' recent attacks, saying 'it looks like Collins sought to declare war by firing a load of blanks' - see: It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against ... and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.

For the latest update on 'Collins vs the media', see TVNZ's Judith Collins: I lashed out.

Is National melting down?

Most of the scandals and controversies National has dealt with over the last six years have been astutely handled, helping prevent them from resonating widely with the voting public. Even the latest scandals may be considered 'beltway', but some are arguing that there is a risk recent controversies will combine to produce an electoral 'critical mass' that could seriously tarnish the Naitonal Party.

Tim Watkin puts this best in his blog post, Are we approaching a political tipping point?. He comments on the growing number of 'crony capitalism' sagas: 'Key, apart from arguably too many golf games and a tendency for him to use his popularity to become 'Fundraiser in Chief', remains clear of any taint, but his government is starting to look questionable beyond the beltway. The complaints of "crony capitalism" and too much help for "the big end of town" that used to bounce off the Key-led government are now striking the odd hit. We're not at tipping point yet, but this past week suggests to me a change in the wind. The golf games, dinners at Antoines and offers of face time to raise money for the Maori Party all looked a little dubious, but nothing a busy electorate would care too much about. Hey, powerful people do posh things, right? And isn't the economy recovering? The Oravida case was a big dodgy, but really it was too complicated and nuanced for most people to understand. Maurice Williamson and his phone call to the cops on behalf of a multi-millionaire Chinese businessman though, that people can understand. He rang the top cop in his district and, if the police are to be believed, prompted a review of the investigation into that businessman. It's dirty. They might not see it as a hanging offence on its own, but suddenly it puts all the other dealings in a different light'.

See also Watkin's other interesting and insightful blog post, Williamson questions remain, especially for police.

Similarly, Mike Hosking says today that 'What's still open to debate at this point is whether this is a beltway story...or whether it's broken out of Wellington and seeped into the National consciousness. If it's the latter, that's where your trouble is. Things that bring Governments down are: A bad economy; Staleness; Corruption. The first two they're okay on. But if three starts to become part of the National conversation in election year, then the other two won't save them' - see: Things that bring Governments down.

Hosking also argues that the ethnicity aspect feeds that narrative: 'National's problem now is not looking to explain away the individual cases or circumstances. Because they can probably still do that. But it's taken on a broader look...the story has got a theme. And the theme is rich Asians can buy influence with a National Government. And that's a theme that if allowed to fester and grow can bring you down'. And for more on the ethnic aspect, see Andrea Vance's We must talk about China.

Rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton argues today that 'If National loses September's election, the origins of its defeat will be traced to last week' - see his NBR column Collins, Williamson put National's lead in peril (paywalled). Hooton says that the recent controversies are particularly dangerous for National because they distract from 'what John Key calls "the things that matter": jobs, wages, health, education and law and order' and instead grow the narrative of 'a government that is concerned with delivering benefits to a chosen few and not communities and businesses generally'.

Hooton sees the current problems in National as relating to the various factions inside the party, and the leadership succession issue. It's the (Auckland) rightwing faction of the party - which Collins and Williamson lead - who are out of sync with the needs of National according to Hooton. But because Key is essentially hostage to them, he can't sack Collins: 'Mr Key, as he seeks today to re-discipline and refocus his government, is not that the conspiracy theory could be true but that supporters of Mrs Collins and Mr Williamson believe it might be'.

Martyn Bradbury argues that there is serious infighting between 'the Whaleoil-Collins faction, the Matthew Hooton-Bridges faction and the Joyce-Kiwiblog faction' - see: Why Key can't punish Judith Collins till after the election and the new factional war inside National.

Not everyone thinks these controversies will damage the Government. Rightwing commentator Liam Hehir argues 'Voters realise that politics isn't a contest between one set of degenerates and another set of moral paragons. They know they are choosing between different sets each with their own assortment of saints and sinners. Some scandals and sackings are to be expected and are tolerated accordingly. What voters are looking for is competence and, above all, credibility on the economy' - see: Williamson's 'Yes Minister'.

As far as Collins' attacks on the media go, today's Manawatu Standard newspaper editorial by Mathew Grocott argues they won't hurt National: 'The Collins-Bradford issue is likely to remain a beltway one, an issue that the general voter largely ignores when it comes to their party preference' - see: Sunday scrambles ominous for Nats.

National's reputation under pressure

There are plenty of other issues currently challenging National's reputation. From its inclination to recruit tobacco lobbyists as candidates - see, for example, Tobacco stain on would-be MP - through to the Canterbury rebuild - see, for example, Steven Cowan's The Crumbling plans of Gerry Brownlee - there are some major potential threats to the Government.

Another problem that the National Government will possibly have to face is the Edward Snowden leaks about New Zealand's international spying activities. Today security analyst Paul Buchanan is reported in the NBR to believe that an investigative journalist in New Zealand - surely Nicky Hager - has the Snowden information already and will drop the bombshell in the lead up to the election. In terms of content, Buchanan says 'It will probably involve New Zealand espionage, not so much on adversaries, but against allies particularly trading partners. Releasing those documents is going to be designed to hurt our reputation' - see Nathan Smith's Bombshell leaks may wreck NZ election, security analyst (paywalled). In terms of timing, Buchanan says 'the question is whether you dump it out there now and hope that the damage sticks through September or you dump it in July or August and force them to while they're trying to campaign. I tend to think they will wait until the last six weeks before the election. It would be very hard at that point for the government to conduct a proper election campaign when they're doing the diplomatic crisis-management'.

For the best weekend coverage of the Maurice Williamson scandal, see Audrey Young's Clouds darken over National as Labour shines, Fran O'Sullivan's There's no dots to join up, just a lot of naivety, Kerre McIvor's Citizenship is not for sale and Cherie Howie's Inquiries to police aren't rare, says Judith Collins.

Finally, for humour on the state of the National Party and its controversies, see Steve Braunias' Secret diary of Donghua Liu, Scott Yorke's parody blog posts, Bill English's secret speech and A statement from John Key, and my blog post aggregating recent cartoons: Images of the Judith Collins and Maurice Williamson National Government scandals.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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