Strange but true: five years ago I took Judith Collins and Jacinda Ardern to lunch. I don't know, it seemed like it might lead to something one day.
Collins was, temporarily, a backbencher in John Key's Government; Ardern was a front-bench member of the Opposition. It was, apart from an occasional hello in parliamentary lifts, the first time they had talked.
2015. Life was so carefree. They both had some fun.
Collins said about Ardern, "I think she's got a great future ahead of her. But she will have to endure a tremendous amount of jealousy."
Why? Collins said it was because of her high profile. "It puts a big fat target on her head. But you know what, Jacinda? I wouldn't worry about it. Just go with it."
I reminded Ardern she had once told another interviewer she'd only ever met one person she didn't think was "nice", and it was Judith Collins. She'd also said she thought Collins would take that as a compliment.
Collins slumped when she heard that and then responded in a small voice. "Even I, Jacinda, am human."
"Yeah, no, absolutely," said Ardern, embarrassed.
"Not," Collins added, "that I'd want anyone to know that. Please don't tell anyone."
Bring on the election, eh. It's going to be quite a battle.
Collins really does like to have fun. We've seen that this week with her public appearances. The big theatrical gesture, marching through the halls of Parliament at the head of her entire caucus to announce her leadership triumph. Cometh the hour and all that.
In her media conferences, oddly, there are no big speeches, no rhetorical reaching for the high ground. She stands there slightly hunched, eyes slightly shifty, and says something very simple. Example: I have made Shane Reti our spokesperson on health, any questions? For Wednesday's announcement that was literally all she said.
But then come the questions and that's when she shines. Watch the body language: the shoulders square up, her eyes are alight, the twitchy grin in play. She banters with the crowd and that's when she's in her happy place. She actually giggles.
During that lunch, the same thing was on show. It's a real difference in personality between the two of them: when Ardern talks, I realised, you sense her thinking ahead, constantly getting the next phrases ready to elaborate on what she's saying. She doesn't ramble — she stays on point — but her explanations often don't stop.
Collins, on the other hand, looks for the decisive statement. She relishes the power of a full stop.
When Collins said Ardern should ignore the jealousy and forget the target on her head and "just go for it", she was talking about sexism. Collins doesn't stand for it and nor does Ardern.
Many people have complained the Nats have chosen leaders "from the past", but in this one important sense that is not true. We will have an election in which neither leader patronises the other for being a woman, or looks for some other way to take advantage of it. And, presumably, they won't welcome it from their supporters either. It's unprecedented.
Remember John Key's ponytail pulling? Collins dressed him down publicly for it.
Among both National and Labour supporters, especially on social media, there are many people who can't think past "Cindy" or "Gorgon monster" and they will struggle to understand this.
At that lunch I asked them which one was more likely to be the next prime minister?
Collins said it was "very, very naughty" of me to ask. Ardern said it would be "no one from National". Both agreed their ambition was "to get into Cabinet": such jocular humility.
It's not hard to see why the National Party caucus chose Collins. She's likely to hoover back a lot of the voters who've already deserted the party for Act, and stop them drifting to NZ First, and appeal to quite a few others as well. Nobody else in that caucus had a snowball's chance of doing these things. The core will not disintegrate.
But why did it take them so long?
Partly, it's been the influence of the church-driven conservatives in that caucus, of whom there are many. Simon Bridges was their champion. Judith Collins, anti-sexist, anti-racist too, supportive of a woman's right choose and the right to die, is not. She's socially liberal on a host of issues.
Not all, of course: she maintains a bridge to the reactionaries on law and order, also climate change, also support for beneficiaries.
Partly, it's been simply that she is a woman. In recent years National has seen nothing peculiar about a succession of male leaders flanked by one or two women smiling happily at their side.
But the biggest issue has been economic. Under John Key and Bill English, as under Helen Clark and Michael Cullen before them, neoliberal goals of lower taxes, less public spending and limited controls on business were pursued with "moderation".
The National caucus, on the whole, accepted that as a winning strategy. But Collins has always been far more hardline. Has the caucus now abandoned fiscal moderation? It's not clear.
Or has Collins, as part of that happy bantering leadership style, abandoned the fiscal hardline? After all, in this pandemic world the bankruptcy of neoliberalism – its faith in markets and its fetishisation of enormous wealth – has been laughably exposed.
It doesn't seem likely. She's already hinted at corporate tax breaks and brakes on the Government's public spending programme. She told RNZ's Kathryn Ryan people might find her tax policy "a little bit radical".
The first real sense of it comes today when she announces National's infrastructure plans. The policy was developed under Todd Muller and billed by his team as "the largest infrastructure spend ever". Will his plan remain intact, in either scale or focus? Collins is a bigger fan of roads than any of her recent predecessors.
As for Ardern, she presides over a spending programme that is already the largest we've ever seen. That's because the Government, like many others around the world right now, has embraced the same basic economic policies that pulled the world out of the Great Depression of the 1930s and into the post-war rebuild after 1945. Massive public spending, to keep people out of poverty and stimulate the economy.
And yet it's far from clear yet if Ardern's Government plans to spend the money in ways that genuinely improve the country's resilience or prosperity. Those must be the goals.
It's great we have two strong, entertaining personalities as the major party leaders: it makes more of us more interested in politics.
But now they have our attention, the choice is not about smiles and waves, banter and jokes. It's about policy, and there's a good chance the choice will be stark.
By the way, don't go thinking the happy bantering means Collins has put away the cutlass. Just ask Amy Adams and Nikki Kaye.
Both gone now, brutally and cleanly. Next: the election.
At the end of that lunch, the photographer took a few last shots. "How about a hug?" he asked. It didn't happen.