Judith Collins is not about to be sacked. For the second time in a matter of months, circumstance is on her side. In May, when John Key suggested she had "over-reached", Maurice Williamson had just resigned as a minister. Now, with the Prime Minister acknowledging that she had been "unwise", it is too close to the general election for drastic action. Only even more damaging revelations from the "Whaledump" hacker about the Justice Minister's activities with blogger Cameron Slater would force Mr Key's hand. After the election, however, it will be a different story. Ms Collins must be put in her place.
As much should be inevitable given that New Zealanders have now been given a thorough insight into the attitude and behaviour of her and her "faction". There can be no risk in demoting her even within the National Party. The days when she gloried under the sobriquet "Crusher", a product of her recognition of some people's hankering for conflict, are long gone. A series of deplorable episodes, the latest of which saw her receive a second final warning from Mr Key this week, have seen to that.
Each revealed a glaring shortcoming. Collectively, they make it untenable for her to continue as a senior or influential minister in a post-election National government. First, she displayed carelessness and naivety in visiting her husband's dairy company in China, with an unwillingness to acknowledge the error of her ways. Instead of being upfront about the circumstances of the visit, she blustered and did her best to deflect blame. Subsequently, she had to admit to misleading the Prime Minister and the public over a dinner with Oravida boss Deyi Shi. Soon afterwards, it was revealed that, during her time as Police Minister, she failed to act on hundreds of burglaries being taken out of crime statistics for the Counties-Manukau district. This was irresponsible, as was her erroneous assumption that disclosure of the subject was "politically motivated".
Equally misjudged but also smacking of vindictiveness and cold calculation was an attack on TVNZ reporter Katie Bradford over a private conversation four years earlier. Ms Collins had, again, to apologise publicly and say she had been wrong. The same traits have now been laid bare in her dealings with Mr Slater, as revealed in Nicky Hager's book, Dirty Politics. It is almost incomprehensible that a Justice Minister, no less, would collude with a blogger by passing details about public servant Simon Pleasants to Mr Slater. The day after receiving these details in 2009, the Whale Oil blog began an online campaign against Mr Pleasants, who Mr Slater suspected of working to embarrass Finance Minister Bill English. This led to death threats against Mr Pleasants, who has always protested his innocence.
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Whaledump's release of emails has forced Mr Key to stop defending Ms Collins. It must surely have also cemented her fate. Ms Collins has never hidden her wish to lead the National Party but it now seems inconceivable that she could head off the competent Steven Joyce when Mr Key departs. Indeed, those who would gather around her in a caucus now have real pause for thought on how not to tarnish their own political brands.
In May, after her abuse of Ms Bradford, the Prime Minister told Ms Collins to take time out from her ministerial duties. His next directive will surely have to involve more than that. She has surrendered her right to seniority.
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