"You're lucky I'm a Christian," Judith Collins said to me, like a bolt from the blue, in a radio studio the other day.
I was incredulous. "Why's that, Judith?"
"That way, I can forgive you," she replied.
"Forgive me for what? I'm not seeking your forgiveness."
Instead of elaborating, she turned to the other panellists to tell them what kind of person I was. Much awkward shuffling ensued.
Usually, I would observe the unspoken kaupapa that what happens off-air stays off-air. But the truth is, this kind of unpleasant interaction is a rarity - in fact, I'd go as far as to say it was a first for me. Despite what you see and hear in the media, those of us who participate in the New Zealand political discourse are almost always respectful, friendly even, to one another when nobody's watching. We might disagree fiercely on issues but rarely does that translate to personal hostility. New Zealand's too small and, frankly, life's too short to turn every political disagreement into utu.
So why am I sharing details of my exchange with Collins? It's simple really. She wants to be Prime Minister, and what Collins' conduct reveals about her temperament and mindset should be taken into account when we consider whether she's up to the task.
Her comments reveal almost translucently thin skin. I am a former union official, lifelong Labour activist and unapologetic Māori progressive, so I'm baffled any conservative party leader might consider criticisms I make of their leadership in any way surprising, let alone demanding of forgiveness. Can you imagine Jacinda Ardern saying anything of the sort to, say, Matthew Hooton? Not in a million years.
Former US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the Depression-era President possessed a "second-class intellect but a first-class temperament". Snobbishness aside, it's an astute insight into what makes a successful leader: personal and political courage; measured confidence in oneself; the capacity to retain perspective, to curtail impulses of ego, and see the forest for the trees.
The combination of intellectual grunt and stable temperament is optimal, of course - Barack Obama springs to mind - but, if you had to choose one, you'd opt for the latter every time. Kevin Rudd, for instance, is an undeniable brain box but failed miserably in both stints as Australian Prime Minister because of his out-of-control ego and propensity for rage and resentments. Likewise, David Lange's tenure as Prime Minister was cut short by personal insecurities, despite possessing the sharpest mind of any Kiwi politician in my lifetime.
Collins may be bright enough but she is temperamentally ill-suited to the job she seeks. Snapping at me the other day was just the latest example as to why, and hardly the most egregious.
Under Collins' leadership, National got shellacked this year, no bones about it. But if her response to the defeat is to petulantly offer forgiveness to critics, taking personal umbrage instead of dealing with the substance of the criticisms themselves, the party's prospects for any kind of comeback with her at the helm are dim indeed. Plenty of her colleagues have said as much to me.
National's predicament wasn't helped by their woeful recruitment this year. The newly diminished caucus isn't just ethnically monochromatic; it lacks diversity of any kind, whether in terms of professional background or lived experiences. It's like the Koru Club lounge, only whiter. Of their current MPs, only Chris Bishop could hold his own in a smoko room and only Shane Reti brings any mana to engagement with Māori. To paraphrase late-night host Stephen Colbert, the rest are about as compelling to most Kiwi voters as Manila folders stapled to a beige wall.
National strategists are wrong to believe they can trust Collins to hold their floor of support at 29 per cent while they slowly coalesce around who best to replace her. I can see the party dipping into the teens under her stewardship, at which point any future leader won't have much in the way of furniture to save.
Since this is my last column of before Christmas, however, I'd like to end on a positive note. While political leaders and Ashley Bloomfield have deservedly received the lion's share of praise over the Government's Covid response, far less has been said about the role of the Ministry of Social Development in marshalling resources to deliver the unprecedented wage subsidy scheme that helped mitigate the social and economic fallout. It's because of such efficiency and effectiveness that New Zealanders retain such high levels of faith in government, the best antidote to the cynicism and mistrust that pervades politics in so many other countries.
It was a titanic effort - and we owe both Minister Carmel Sepuloni and her dedicated MSD officials a word of appreciation. They have thoroughly earned a few days off over the holidays.
Please accept best wishes for the festive season from my whānau to yours, and let's look forward to a comparatively boring 2021.
• Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a company director at Mega Ltd, a commentator and blogger and a former Labour Party activist.