The paddocks around Clevedon, in the heart of Collins Country, aka the Papakura electorate, are a lush emerald green, the grass thick, the trees budding. Everything gleams in the gentle rain. If heaven was a farm it would look like Clevedon right now.
"Don't be fooled," says Ant Tringham, who farms locally and runs The Curious Croppers tomato company with his wife Angela. "It's spring, you expect this. But our bores are dry. This pasture should be sodden by now."
Rain, but not nearly enough of it. Those hills just over there are the Hunua Ranges, a key water catchment, with several dams still much emptier than they should be.
Clevedon Farmers' Market on a wet Sunday, and here's Judith Collins dressed as the National Party personified: party cap, party jacket, jute party carry bag, blue needle cords and low heels. She inspects the wares of each stall in turn: quail eggs, lavender, mozzarella from the local buffaloes, the Tringhams' tasty beefsteak tomatoes.
She's got the grin on. Collins likes having a good time: it comes easily to her and she also likes that she likes it. Pleasure buoys her. She fills her carry bag, though she passes the knife-sharpening guy without stopping. Doesn't need his services today.
"You're doing well," a supporter tells her.
"I'm having fun!" she says brightly. The rain is bucketing down now.
A woman trips and falls, on her face, right in front of Collins, who stays with her as first aid is arranged, distracting her from the shock and pain with small talk and good cheer.
It's the day Labour announces its new policy to phase out more plastics. "Going to take away cotton buds, now, are they?" says Collins to assembled media, and smirks. "I'm not sure what the point of that is."
Reporter Tova O'Brien from Newshub explains it's an issue with ocean pollution, putting seabirds that eat them at risk.
"Oh," says Collins. She says the important issue is jobs.
A sunny day in Nelson
We're on a playing field in front of Nelson hospital, with a National Party marquee in the bright sunshine, 20 or so party members and a coffee cart. Two copies of Collins' book, each with a pen, sit waiting on a small table.
Local MP Nick Smith turns up in his little EV car. "Only got a range of 120km, and you know what? I've never needed to recharge it away from home," he says proudly.
Nick Smith is not campaigning with the billboards and slogans used by everyone else in the party. He's been an MP for 30 years and no one, especially not a new party leader he's never previously supported, is going to stop him promoting "Nick 4 Nelson, A Good MP". Smith is fighting for his political life this election and the party name isn't even on his car.
Collins arrives, "Hello everybody, nice to see you, nice to see you." She does a photo with the youth wing, signs the books and takes up position at the microphones. She's in blue again today, a big winter coat she will keep on all day, inside and out. "Might I say," she begins, "Nick 4 Nelson!". She pauses. A wan smile. They clap.
Then she says the policy they're going to announce means a lot to Smith so she's going to let him announce it. And she does, stepping away from the microphone. The event is for him and he does all the talking from then on.
The hospital is an earthquake risk and they want to rebuild it, bigger and better, on the present site. They don't take questions. When Smith finishes they leave, Collins in the Crown limo, Smith in his bubble car.
"Is that it?" says one party member. "Very short and sharp and sweet," says another.
The sky is still bright blue but now it's raining. There's a very big wind up there blowing the weather in from behind the hill.
In the most nondescript office you ever saw, one floor up on a downtown Nelson street, 14 youngish men sit at their computer screens. This is Core Transport Technologies, providing tracking systems for containers all round the world. "I'm right into this," says Collins, meaning IT. "My son has broadened my mind."
Ian Craig, the managing director, an unassuming older man with an impressive moustache, says he isn't allowed to name all his clients but allows Collins to guess they include Amazon. You want to know where your parcel is, the suppliers and couriers use Core technology to find out: they handle a million scans a day.
"They're not all mine," says Collins. Nick Smith asks a lot of questions.
Core does the communications and also designs the software and builds the hardware. "We've got a little assembly room right here," says Craig's partner, IT director Annette Schleiss. Core is a spectacular IT success, with staff who mostly trained at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT). Last year they sold the company to a Canadian corporation for a cool $45 million, and stayed on to run things.
Collins is impressed. She knows this is the heart of the future economy and talks about it often. The tech sector is bigger than fisheries and forestry combined, she tells audiences. The jobs are well paid. We're just getting started. National has an IT policy. Of the other parties, only the Greens can say as much.
A little later, at NMIT itself, she announces more funding and reform that will undo Labour's reform.
Donna Wells, a fish exports broker and Colab client who's in the audience, is not much impressed. "I think she should stick to what she wants to do. Give us a better vision and don't even criticise Jacinda Ardern, let alone attack her."
That's Ardern's own strategy, but it's not Collins' way. Instead, she talks about how business must lead the rebuild and the focus is jobs. That's all good. And the Resource Management Act (RMA) is the demon wall blocking progress. But she doesn't fit the jobs-and-business message into a bigger idea about the country she hopes we can become.
She tells an RMA "horror story". A local company wants to build a temporary car park downtown but has been so frustrated by the process they've given up. "Personally, I think they should just knock down the fence and let people park for free, but apparently that's not a good idea either."
It seems almost random. Attack the RMA, that's on message. But do it with a joke that suggests an anarchist solution? And forget that the purpose of car parks is to make money, not provide free parking? Still, it's the underlying message that matters: I'm tough, I get things done.
An anguished night in Beachlands
Collins sits right in the middle of a long row of candidates in the Beachlands Baptist Church hall, like it's the Last Supper. She grins. She glows, too, because she's better lit than the others. Several of the candidates declare their Christianity. Two days later in the second TV leaders' debate, she will do the same. Twice.
"First up," says Collins when it's her turn to speak, "can I say it's great to live in a liberal democracy where we can meet and do this." It's a friendly message to the people in the room who think our freedoms have been stripped from us.
There are a lot of them. Beachlands is an isolated seaside suburb surrounded by lifestyle blocks, and about half the crowd is there for Collins. But the New Conservatives, Advance NZ, Outdoors Party and Act are at the table and almost all the questions come from their supporters.
And they're not about mainstream politics: "mandatory" vaccinations, state control of our lives, the hoax of climate change, 5G, 1080, binding referendums and abortion are what's got this crowd riled up. The questions are almost all for the main parties, and they follow a pattern: Why are Labour and the Greens pushing their horrifying ideas on us and is Collins going to stop them?
By the time Collins is asked about abortion, Teena Smith from the Outdoors Party has already asked the crowd, "What are they doing with the foetuses?" and provided the textbook conspiracist's answer: "Research it, you'll find out." There are votes to be won chasing this fringe, but not, for Collins, at any cost.
She says she voted for the new law that decriminalises abortion and explains why.
"I've never been in a position of unwanted pregnancies. I've never had to abort a dead baby at seven months. I had a woman come to see me once who said she'd had an abortion at full term, and when I asked why, she said it was because the doctors told her the baby didn't have a brain. I've never had to face that.
"This is a difficult issue but if we are going to have abortions, I want a system that means they can be done early. That's what the new law helps."
It's a principled answer to a crowd that doesn't want to hear it.
A tall man with groomed silver locks gets up and says this will be his 20th election — so he's well into his 70s — and he's never been so fearful about the future. The reason is climate change. The room waits: this could go either way. He says he's investigated exhaustively, he's written endlessly to MPs and he never gets an answer. But he's discovered that "no one can produce any evidence carbon dioxide is harming the atmosphere". In fact "it can't be harmful because it's the basis of life".
Collins says, "Ms Ardern said climate change was her generation's nuclear-free moment. I disagree with that. I think the economy is our biggest issue. And carbon dioxide? Photosynthesis turns CO2 into oxygen, or it did when I was at school. Has it changed?"
Collins doesn't agree with this guy. She does understand the basic science of global warming. But as with the car parks she can't resist making a joke that turns a serious issue to nonsense and, in this case, feeds the idea it's all a hoax. It's the opposite of a principled response.
Then she talks about farmers, who have been "treated as pariahs". She's so good at the snappy one-liner.
"Farmers have been cleaning up the waterways for years," she says. "The worst polluters are urban dwellers." When it comes to the environment, agriculture is simply not a problem.
Collins might understand global warming but doesn't think we need to do much about it. Climate change, not economic policy, has become the issue that defines the right-wing end of her views. That and Ihumātao, for which she has another snappy one-liner: "I will not spend a cent on it."
There's a lot packed into that one. Property rights: Fletchers owns the land so that's an end to it. It's time to draw the line with Māori protesters. The PM has a magic wand that she can wave and the whole problem will just go away. Has anyone asked Fletchers if it thinks that will work?
On economic policy, there's not a lot separating National and Labour. But there is a gulf between Collins and Ardern on how to manage a crisis and how to approach societal conflict, and Collins wants voters to know it.
She told a meeting in Nelson: "This is not a time for well wishing and wishful thinking and giving everyone a hug."
What a splendidly slithery sentence. But with issues like Ihumātao, Ardern might say there's another name for what she does: diplomacy. Whose true purpose is to find a way for everyone involved to be happy — or happy enough — with the outcome.
It's not touchy-feely trivial. Often, it's the hardest thing. But it's how to make society work, and the world, for that matter.
On the morning the harbour bridge closed again because of the weather, Collins tells a breakfast meeting at the corporate law firm MinterEllisonRuddWatts: "We're committed to building tunnels and no one in Wellington is going to stop us. We're just going to do it."
But she also rules out cutting the minimum wage. She's tough, renegade tough, but the economic policies have migrated to the middle. It's the world we live in now and she has to win votes in the centre as well as on the right. She wants the Jacinda fans who used to be John Key fans back.
An orchard in Kerikeri
Just around the corner and down the road from Shane Jones' house in the Kerikeri hinterland, Collins arrives at a new kiwifruit orchard. It's another remarkable success story. There was a dairy farm here six months ago, employing three people and, says orchardist Allan Dobbie, bringing in perhaps $400,000 a year. He says the orchard, once it's fully operational, will employ 44 people and have an income of $12 million.
It's because of water. Kerikeri has a dam, completed in 1985 as one of Rob Muldoon's last Think Big projects, which has allowed horticulture to thrive. And this farm has an extremely efficient drip-feed system that optimises water use. Up the road at Kaikohe they have better soil for horticulture — everyone today agrees about that. But they don't have a dam. Why did the dam go to Kerikeri?
"I don't know," says Todd Jackson, another orchardist, "but I have heard it had something to do with a late night with a bottle of whisky."
That's Northland for you. Boomtown and broken, depending on where you look, and what made the difference was cronyism.
Does it still? Collins is here to announce a water policy, which will help developments like this. They take her to look at the drip-feed hoses. National's environment spokesperson Scott Simpson points out a sapling with a few buds.
"It's like a budding MP," says Collins.
"That's a male," says Simpson, "and this one's the female."
"She's the important one," says Collins.
"She needs to be pruned," says local MP Matt King, who is very tall and is standing right behind her.
"Well," says Collins without turning round, "someone needs to be pruned."
She asks if there was trouble getting the consents to convert the land to kiwifruit.
There wasn't: the land is classified "versatile", which means it can be used for a range of agricultural purposes. Nothing to blame the RMA for here.
The sandwiches are piled up on a trestle table while Collins announces the policy.
She uses another one-line zinger: "Water comes from the sky." It belongs to everyone and no one, and certainly not to Māori.
There will be a "streamlined consenting process" with newly defined minimum standards, but neither she nor agriculture spokesperson David Bennett can say if those standards will improve water quality. Simpson steps in to say they will.
It's question time.
Will she use Covid fund money for infrastructure projects like dams?
"Labour calls it the Covid fund but it's simply borrowed money."
Does that mean National won't have a Covid fund?
"We won't have Covid outbreaks."
So you won't have a Covid contingency fund?
She won't answer that directly. Nor is she announcing any new dams, or a game-changer for Kaikohe. Just that there will be a new policy on water.
Does she rule out working with the Advance NZ party if it gets into Parliament?
"Because I'm not insane."
There's a mockup circulating of Collins on the cover of Vogue, produced by a staffer, after she was asked in the TV debate if she'd like to be shown like that. She'd said of course, and suggested any politician who said no was a liar. Is being a Vogue model her equivalent of John Key's association with the All Blacks?
She thinks for a little while before answering. "I love fashion," she says. "But you know what? I love the All Blacks more."
It's clever politics.
Showtime with the fans
When she's nervous, Collins laughs at her own jokes. And they're not always warm: mockery is one of her favourite forms of humour.
For her, politics is a kind of street war. It's like she's walking through the world surrounded by targets that suddenly appear and she has to shoot them.
She probably hasn't played a lot of computer games, but that's the model.
Political enemies are her targets: Phil Twyford, James Shaw, Grant Robertson, Jacinda Ardern. Mostly, she doesn't go after civilians. She told me she treats everyone asking questions at political meetings with respect, even if she doesn't accept what they're saying. It's true, she did exactly that in Beachlands.
True unless you're a greenie or a hippie or some other kind of lunatic, of course. Then she'll poke fun at you any day of the week.
The moment when Judith Collins put the unreconstructed Crusher on show last week was with Grey Power in Nelson. They were fans, many of them adoring fans, and she rose to it.
This doesn't mean Grey Power in Nelson or anywhere else are in the National camp. Next week there'll be another party leader and another enthusiastic crowd. Grey Power contains multitudes and they know how to do meetings.
She steps to the lectern, then takes the mic and steps away. "I'm never any good with a lectern, I need to take over. You all know that."
Great timing, great fiercely grinning facial language.
She visited the Settlers Memorial that morning, because she has ancestors commemorated there. "I have connections through three families," she says, and names them. "And they all bred like rabbits, so I presume I'm related to everyone here." The crowd loves it.
"It's such a privilege to be leader of the National Party. I never thought it would ever happen. I bet you didn't either."
Then she gets stuck in. "The Government "goes to the Monopoly box, gets the money out and sprays it all around". She tears into the oil and gas exploration ban with phrases like "crazy government" and "tremendously stupid decisions" and "nuts!"
She talks about the evils of the cashless society. "Inland Revenue loves it, because they'll catch you every time, and having been their minister, I should too. But you do want a bit of freedom, don't you? You don't want them knowing everything you do."
What does that mean? She can't be saying she supports tax evasion. She speaks uninterrupted for half an hour, without notes: it's a vintage performance. Then it's question time.
A man introduces himself as Jim Williamson and tells her, "We need Crusher to take on the Gnasher!" He calls Ardern "that other woman, I can't even say her name". Collins doesn't admonish him for his boorishness.
But when a woman says she's been listening to Leighton Smith's podcast with Richard Prebble and it's clear we're going to turn into Zimbabwe, with a currency utterly destroyed by debt, Judith Collins draws the line.
"I am worried about the debt too but I don't think we're going down the Zimbabwe route."
She got a standing ovation on the way in and she gets another on the way out. Let it be said, Nelson Grey Power puts on a very good spread. Especially the sandwiches. Actually, everywhere Collins goes there are club sandwiches. I wondered if it was her rider, but her team said it wasn't. Besides, she didn't stay to eat them.