Whatever you think of Judith Collins, and however you plan to vote next month, Judith Collins is a breath of fresh air. Immediately upon her election as Leader of the Opposition she displayed that rarest of political qualities, a sense of humour, once abundant but now all but extinct as politicians strive to avoid being labelled as any number of undesirable types.
Her advice to journalists who do not understand a joke was to watch her eyebrows. If she was joking, she said, she would raise them.
There was a time when journalists, of all people, were pretty good at reading body language. Not any more. These days they tend to be unstintingly aggressive, too often framing their questions as though they had a point to prove, politicians responding by talking in platitudes.
That is why we see so much prevarication these days. Saying what they really think can instantly turn them into headline fodder, responses that can possibly be regarded as politically incorrect becoming 'the story.'
Collins' short-lived predecessor Todd Muller soon found that out, when he tried to explain a perceived lack of ethnic diversity on his front bench. What he might have said was that his party looked for talent, for people who could and would serve all New Zealanders' best interests. That National was a meritocracy, as opposed to a party that was slavishly devoted to inclusivity at the expense of vision and skill.
Instead he tried to defend himself against questions that should never have been asked, while his equally short-lived deputy, Nikki Kaye, gained instant stardom not for her undoubted ability and potential as a party leader but by inventing a Māori in Paul Goldsmith, who quickly pointed out that he was pure Caucasian.
Collins is made of much better stuff. She needs to be, for all our sakes. This media penchant for seizing on trivia and an unguarded word is not only silly. It has the capacity to stifle genuine political debate. Goodness knows there are plenty of important issues that should be discussed, honestly and openly, not so one politician can score points against another but to help shape policies that will be good for this country, whoever comes up with them.
Collins' explanation that her eyebrows would "go up" when she cracked a joke, before questioning a journalist as to whether they understood what a joke was, arose from questioning of her views on the granting of asylum to Kurdish-Iranian author Behrouz Boochani. And she was right to do so. There might be no grounds to doubt the motives that prompted the decision to grant him asylum, but the National Party has every right to ask legitimate questions about the processes involved, especially given Immigration NZ's record. Inevitably, however, she was asked if she was 'race-baiting.'
That, Collins, who no one could accuse of having a poker face, said was a stupid question. It was also one that revealed much that is wrong these days with the political system and politicians' relationship with the media. The question was no longer whether Boochani should have been granted asylum, but was Judith Collins racist?
Helen Clark was pretty good at shutting down discussions that she did not want to have by labelling her critics racist or whatever term fitted the occasion. Many people, who should have been asking questions on our behalf, stopped doing so. This was another example of that tactic, albeit from media, who are supposed to be apolitical.
The last thing we want is politicians who are afraid to speak honestly for fear of being labelled racist. That serves no one well. Judith Collins not only clearly understands that, but will not be playing the game. Good for her.
Political correctness in all its forms was once funny to sensible, rational people, but not any more. It might have become increasingly ridiculous, but is now dangerous. We saw another example of that last week when National MP Nick Smith quite properly expressed his opinion that the option of transferring from the Māori electoral roll to the general roll should be offered more frequently than in tandem with the five-yearly census was not desirable because, in his view, that could potentially lead to the manipulation of voters, and came under strong attack from a TVNZ journalist who wanted to know if he thought Māori voters were thick.
So much for political neutrality. And it was sad that Dr Smith saw the need to explain, at some length, that his concern for the integrity of the electoral system was not based on racism or disregard for the ability of Māori to understand what and who they are voting for. All that line of questioning, which made up a fair chunk of TVNZ's coverage of the issue, achieved was to expose the bias of the reporter, whoever edited her contribution to the story and channel that aired it, at the expense of any discussion of the point that Dr Smith, rightly or wrongly, was trying to make.
It is of little consolation that we are not alone in prostrating ourselves before the altar of political correctness. The Poms are at it too, with even greater enthusiasm than us, recent examples of that including ITV's hand-wringing over whether Shaun Wallace, one of the stars of its programme 'The Chase,' should continue to be known as the Dark Destroyer. The name was apparently bestowed upon him by host Bradley Walsh, but Wallace likes it, and intends to keep using it.
Problem is that 'Dark' presumably refers to his complexion, and that, some say, denigrates non-white people all over the planet. Utter bollocks, of course, but such is the increasingly powerful urge in some quarters not to cause offence.
Will the pendulum ever begin to swing back to a more rational worldview? We know that, in the Western world at least, voters, generally led by Europe, tend to swing left, becoming increasingly liberal, then swing back to more conservative. The swing is becoming less pronounced though, and the return to conservatism never seems to go quite as far as the swing before. Perhaps one day the pendulum will stop swinging altogether, and will just point downwards, somewhere in the middle.
It's hard to see political correctness losing its mass appeal though. Increasingly it seems to be driven by silly people who have little if any understanding of whatever it is that aggravates them, aided and abetted by media that have completely lost sight of their actual role. The once non-negotiable insistence that journalists disseminate news not views has long gone, and it will take some dogged, courageous people to turn that around.
Judith Collins might well be one of those people. No one who remembers Rob Muldoon at his pugnacious worst will want a return to those days, although Winston Peters, especially in election mode, does his best to deliver a pale imitation, but the media can hopefully be persuaded to give their role something like the respect it deserves without having to succumb to bullying.
Collins' behaviour so far suggests that she has the balance about right. She shows every sign of being approachable and happy to explain what she is thinking, what she is doing and why, with no great ability or desire to suffer fools. Nor should she. She is doing her job for us, and can only do the job we deserve if she is not constrained by the idiocy that these days passes for a social conscience.