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* The rise and fall of Todd Muller - the man who could have been PM

New National Party leader Judith Collins is already targeting Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern - and ensuring she won't get away with any "nonsense" - but one of her own senior MPs may be the first in her sights.

Collins would not confirm today whether Michael Woodhouse would retain the critical health portfolio, following the scandal last week over Covid patients' details being leaked by former party president Michelle Boag and MP Hamish Walker - a saga that played a role in Todd Muller's decision to quit as party leader.

Woodhouse also received information from Boag and his future as National health spokesman will be determined today.

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"That is a very good question and one I will be answering pretty soon, once I have looked at the facts. I have had no oversight of that," Collins told RNZ when asked whether Woodhouse will retain the role.

She said she was "absolutely not at all comfortable" around the leaking of patients' details.

"I have not seen anything quite like that and I am taking it quite seriously.

"I'll be talking to Michael today, we'll be getting some information on that and then I'll be making a call."

The National Party hasn't had a female leader for 19 years, with Collins, 61, the second woman to have the job after Jenny Shipley.

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Collins told Newstalk ZB's Mike Yardley today that she was feeling "very hopeful".

"We will do our very best - we didn't see it coming. I'm still getting over the excitement of it all actually."

She said she had not spoken to Muller since his announcement but added: "I have heard from one of his close friends that he and his wife were delighted with the results yesterday."

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Collins last night said she would unite her caucus after their second leadership change in less than two months.

"I think it's really important we all have a common goal and the common goal is to get rid of the current government and put in place a far better government focused on the people of this country," she said at a press conference and standing in front of her caucus.

About her taking on Ardern as her adversary, Collins said she'd always respected the Prime Minister and thought her party had underestimated her for years.

It was all smiles last night as Gerry Brownlee and Judith Collins became the new National Party leadership team. Photo / Mark Mitchell
It was all smiles last night as Gerry Brownlee and Judith Collins became the new National Party leadership team. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"I think it's important to give credit where it's due.

"But at the same time there is no chance at all that I'm going to let Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern get away with any nonsense when it comes to the economy and doing her job.

"We will hold her to account."

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Asked what she had over Ardern, she said: "Experience, toughness and the ability to make tough decisions."

When asked if she could shake the nickname "Crusher", she said: "I am hoping that the National Party will collectively crush the other lot come September 19."

She said she never worried about what happened in the past. "We're just going to have the most fun as we take back the country."

She added: "We're a serious party, with serious policies."

Collins confirmed this morning that Paula Bennett was sticking with her decision to leave politics. She had yet to talk to Amy Adams, who had planned to leave politics but changed her mind when Muller became leader. Collins said she got on well with Adams.

Collins told Newstalk ZB she was not planning a major reshuffle of MPs' portfolios, other than assigning the roles she and Brownlee held. "We don't need a big reshuffle, we just need to accommodate the changes."

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Asked if Simon Bridges would continue with the foreign affairs role she said she did not see why not. She expected Bridges would be "more occupied" with the leadership change.

"I don't think there's a great need for any massive change," adding there was no need for any overhaul of policies.

She would be reassessing the upcoming infrastructure speech as she sat down to examine her diary. The gangs were still a focus of the National agenda.

"We have a country that is about to go through very difficult economic times and people need to have a feeling of certainty that things are going to get better quicker."

People needed to be realistic but "we have a way through", she said.

On aligning with Winston Peters, she said: "We work with New Zealand First now on various pieces of legislation. I don't think that's going to be the big issue and reasonably comfortable that it won't be the same issue as last time."

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She said after her years in Parliament she had learned a valuable lesson in longevity and aspiration. "Never give up. Just keep going," she said.

"I thought very quickly about whether putting my hand up in these circumstances and didn't come into Parliament to be mild. I can make a difference."

One of her first priorities last night was to take stock after one of the most extraordinary days in New Zealand politics.

"I think it might be time for a drink," said Collins, as she concluded her first press conference as National leader, a few seconds before 10pm on Tuesday.

It was the "third time lucky", said Collins - this was her third run at the leadership.

It ended a bruising day for the party, in which Todd Muller quit as leader at 7.30am, MPs made their way to Wellington for an emergency caucus meeting, and Collins emerged victorious as the leader after the contested leadership race against Mark Mitchell.

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Mitchell told Newstalk ZB he was "100 per cent" behind Collins. He did not know the voting numbers, but said there was a new voting process. "What happens in caucus stays in caucus."

"Unification now is extremely important and I know Judith understands that clearly and the caucus does as well."

National MPs took two hours late last night to decide Collins should be their new leader, with Gerry Brownlee elected as her deputy. Nikki Kaye, who was Muller's deputy, did not seek re-election for the position.

Brownlee told Newstalk ZB today that Muller's resignation had come as a "shock for us".

"The circumstances aren't all that good but getting a bit of stability into the place was absolutely necessary and that's what my colleagues thought this would do."

When asked what he brought to the new leadership team, he said there was a gender balance with he and Collins and representation for the North and South islands.

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New Zealand was facing uncertain times and he rejected the suggestion National could not win the election. "No one goes into any election looking to lose well.

"We'll be going for as much party vote as we can possibly get," he said.

Brownlee also dismissed the reliability of polls, drawing on the shock results in recent elections in Australia and the UK.

Muller called it quits in a shock announcement at 7.30am yesterday, just 53 days in the job after rolling Bridges in a coup. Ten weeks out from the election, he cited the toll the job had taken on his health.

Even MPs close to Muller were blindsided by the development, saying they had not realised he was struggling to that extent.

Shell-shocked MPs rushed back to Wellington's corridors of power from far corners of the country for their 7pm meeting to vote on who should be their new leader.

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READ MORE:
Todd Muller quits as National leader: MPs arrive ahead of tonight's crisis meeting
Todd Muller quits as National Party leader for health reasons
Heather du Plessis-Allan: Why Judith Collins should take over as National leader
Todd Muller gone, does National reinstate Simon Bridges or try a new leader?

Muller's exit left the caucus to elect its fourth leader in three years - and to try to rebuild yet again.

Last week Muller and the National Party came under intense scrutiny in the fallout from the Covid-19 patient data leak scandal.

The pressure came to a head when Muller was asked if health spokesman Michael Woodhouse was also sent sensitive data and said "no" - but it was revealed the next day he already knew Woodhouse had received such data.

He faced fierce questioning about whether that was a lie by omission - which he rejected.

Todd Muller quit as National Party leader in a shock announcement yesterday, saying the role had taken its toll. Photo / Andrew Warner
Todd Muller quit as National Party leader in a shock announcement yesterday, saying the role had taken its toll. Photo / Andrew Warner

Muller's resignation caught almost all of his MPs off-guard when they were told on a conference call yesterday morning.

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Muller's statement went out at 7.30am as an emergency caucus meeting to advise MPs began.

"The role has taken a heavy toll on me personally, and on my family, and this has become untenable from a health perspective," Muller said in the statement.

It had become clear he wasn't the best person to be the Leader of the Opposition and "it was more important than ever" the National Party had someone who was comfortable in the role of leader, he said.

Collins was one of the few given an advanced warning about his decision.

Simon Bridges played coy about whether he was hoping to be reinstated as leader after Todd Muller's shock resignation. Photo / Pool
Simon Bridges played coy about whether he was hoping to be reinstated as leader after Todd Muller's shock resignation. Photo / Pool

Last night, the new National leader said she was "devastated" for Muller and said she found him a "wonderful" person to work with so he would be welcomed back when he felt ready.

"I was just flabbergasted."

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In her press conference Collins said voters could expect some "strong messages" after becoming "a bit discombobulated in the last day or so and they need to know we're back on track".

Collins said there wouldn't be much change in their policy but there would be a slight reshuffle to acknowledge her and Brownlee rising in the ranks.

She confirmed Paul Goldsmith would stay as finance spokesman but was less certain about Michael Woodhouse as health spokesman. Along with Hamish Walker, Woodhouse has been caught up in the Michelle Boag leak of Covid-19 patient details.

Judith Collins has run for the National Party leadership twice before and kept her cards to herself about whether she'd make a third attempt. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Judith Collins has run for the National Party leadership twice before and kept her cards to herself about whether she'd make a third attempt. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Muller's deputy Nikki Kaye - who was acting leader yesterday before Collins was voted in - said her thoughts were with Muller.

"The important thing is we have compassion for Todd at this time while we work through what has been a very difficult time."

Senior National MP Mark Mitchell is understood to be interested in the deputy leadership. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Senior National MP Mark Mitchell is understood to be interested in the deputy leadership. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Muller's sudden resignation came on the morning he was due to give a big infrastructure speech in Auckland. He had not attended the party's northern regional conference at the weekend, and on Monday he had cancelled media interviews in Auckland saying he was sick.

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His office said Muller had caught a stomach bug from one of his children.

Muller challenged Bridges in May after National's polling crumbled to about 30 per cent over the Covid-19 lockdown.

The vote was reported to be close: Some claimed there was only one vote in it.

Muller's short leadership got off to a bad start over his Make America Great Again cap.

Muller's first day in Parliament was then overshadowed by Kaye wrongly describing Goldsmith as Māori when asked about the lack of diversity on their front bench.

In the latest 1News Colmar Brunton poll, Muller jumped to 13 per cent as preferred Prime Minister - which was the highest Bridges ever got in that poll in May 2018.

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