New Zealand's top chief executives say National's Judith Collins is failing to hit the mark as Opposition leader.
Their support for Collins has waned, with concerns she has lost sight of the issues that matter to New Zealand, and that her negativity is not appealing to the wider electorate.
In this year's Mood of the Boardroom survey, New Zealand's top business leaders were asked to rate Collins' performance as Opposition leader — holding the Government to account on critical national issues — on a scale where 1 = not impressive and 5 = very impressive. She received a score of 2.06/5.
This compares to 3.52/5 in last year's survey, held one month prior to the 2020 election.
Over one-third of respondents — some 35 per cent — scored Collins 1/5 for her performance.
Former National leader Simon Bridges received a score of 2.50/5 in his last Mood of the Boardroom survey as leader in 2019.
Collins has an impressive political track record, having served as Minister of Corrections, Police, Justice and for ACC in the Sir John Key and Bill English-led governments.
Prior to entering politics she was a commercial lawyer serving as Auckland District Law Society president and as a Housing New Zealand director.
Some say she is in an unenviable position with a tough job. "She has been handed a hospital pass and is trying her best," says independent director Carol Campbell. "But she has no support from her party."
Says another chair: "Being leader of the Opposition is a bloody tough job — particularly when the media is aggressively hostile."
Others suggest Collins' lack of strong leadership and negativity is giving the Government an easy ride.
"Hopeless," says Devon Funds Management principal Paul Glass. "Labour's best asset."
"I am yet to see Judith do anything other than complain," says a leading entrepreneur. "I'd much rather see her lead her opposition by offering smart solutions."
"Always bitter and negative. Rarely constructive," says an IT boss.
"She has lost the confidence of her caucus, which has made National unelectable. There needs to be a change," says Datacom chair Tony Carter.
National is still languishing in the polls. The most recent polls by 1 News-Colmar Brunton, Newshub-Reid Research and Roy Morgan put National at 26, 28.7 and 25 per cent, respectively.
Under Collins' leadership, the National Party launched its campaign to "demand the debate". The party says: "New Zealanders are being left out of important decisions as Labour continues to make policy announcements that were never campaigned on and will have a significant impact on New Zealanders".
Some of the issues National has called out as part of this campaign include the Government's 2019 He Puapua report, the Government's "feebate" policy, gangs and crime, and homelessness. But the survey has seen business leaders express serious concern over the issues Collins is focused on. "Her instincts are all wrong," says an investment banker.
"She seems disconnected to most New Zealanders," says Federated Farmers CEO Terry Copeland.
A company director: "I'd love to see her focusing on the issues that will really matter for New Zealanders and especially the next generation of New Zealanders, so that she and National have some renewed relevance."
NATIONAL NEEDS TO HOLD GOVERNMENT TO ACCOUNT
National needs a refresh and to concentrate on the issues that matter. That's the clear message from New Zealand's business leaders in this year's Mood of the Boardroom survey.
When asked whether the party has sufficiently renewed its personnel at both party and political levels as well as policies since the election, an overwhelming majority — some 90 per cent — say no. Just 2 per cent say yes, while 8 per cent are unsure.
The election saw 23 MPs lose their seats. At the party's annual conference held in August, National party president Peter Goodfellow was under pressure since the disastrous election result — particularly due to his involvement in several troubling candidate selections. But despite a challenge from former speaker David Carter, Goodfellow was re-elected to the position and Carter resigned from the board, despite only joining last year.
"Goodfellow should have stepped down and commenced renewal from the top down," says a media executive.
A lot of experience has left since the election which is unfortunate — some had to go, but the volume of talent leaving was concerning," says Federated Farmers chief executive Terry Copeland. "On the flipside, they haven't replaced the party president which is perhaps stopping change and regeneration which is desperately needed."
MinterEllisonRuddWatts partner and SkyCity Entertainment director Silvana Schenone says "they desperately need to show new leadership."
"It is still very much in a rebuild mode," says Deloitte chair Thomas Pippos.
But a professional director says that is not to say the potential isn't there — "but it's certainly not publicly visible at the moment, with a couple of exceptions."
Focus on the issues that matter
Business leaders were asked to comment on where National should be making more inroads in its role as the prime Opposition party.
This prompted several chief executives to respond with just a single word: "Everywhere!", and one banker to joke: "This is a trick question. It's not the Opposition, Act is!"
Many of the criticisms lobbed at the party are due to its failure to focus on the issues that matter to the electorate. Several CEOs expressed concern that side issues like the painting of Winston Churchill in Parliament seemed to receive more attention than the economy and holding the government to account on key priorities — namely poverty, health, housing, education, infrastructure, crime, and the country's route out of the pandemic; although MP Chris Bishop's work in this area was acknowledged.
Dentons Kensington Swan chair Hayden Wilson says the reality for National is that they are at the point the Labour party was at in 2013/2014:
"They had a really tough election, they had some quite significant divisions within their caucus, and that led to a complete lack of message discipline."
He points to the debate around whether or not the country should be called Aotearoa.
"I do not think they are focusing on the things that New Zealanders are worried about, or the things that New Zealanders don't presently vote for them worry about," he says. "That does a disservice to the people in the National party caucus who are doing sterling work on the issues that matter."
"What New Zealanders want to see in an Opposition is someone that they would be comfortable running the country. That means having ideas about things that matter.
"We haven't seen that from the Opposition since the election."
A professional director shares a similar view: "National has not focused its airtime on the issues that matter most to the business community. Coming out with clear policy on issues where the Government is falling short would help, also calling for more Government accountability."
"They have lost touch with the emerging voting base," says Norwood CEO Tim Myers.
"National used to stand for intelligent conversation and fiscal responsibility," suggests a technology entrepreneur. "All I hear now are cheap shots and complaints, I have no idea what they even stand for anymore."
Says a property executive: "The immigration policy was an excellent one, released without fanfare or PR support… and was almost immediately lost in the noise around the Aotearoa referendum."
Others suggest national needs to focus on credible, workable alternative policy — not just discussion documents filled with questions and "demanding the debate".
"They need to outline what they would do, how and why," says the head of an investment firm. "At present it comes across as quibbling and bleating."
Says the head of a bank: "Detailed alternative policy agenda which reflects the things that matter outside the beltway. Having a view is more important than criticising."
The party needs to focus on its values and what it stands for — connecting with New Zealanders on issues that matter and not the ones that don't," says BusinessNZ CEO Kirk Hope. "Stay off Twitter!"