By MICHELE HEWITSON
Judith Collins is showing off her place. The traditional tour MPs give to visiting journalists is a whisk around successful local industry, a visit to a showcase school, a head in the door at the library.
The MP for Clevedon has other ideas.
In the back of her army-green Range Rover are bags of clothes she's liberated from the cupboards of her son, husband and electorate secretary.
She boots it through Conifer Grove in Takanini, past the well-maintained brick and tile family homes with their gardens and neat driveways, until we pull up at a plain little Housing New Zealand house in Kindergarten Drive.
The Black Power live next door, Mongrel Mob affiliates just across the road. One street over is the caravan park which provides a sort of haven for newly released prisoners. A bored dog barks at the music shaking the shut-up houses.
So, says Judith Collins, grinning at the redundancy of what she is about to say, "not exactly a traditional National area".
Here, in the ghetto where no perceptible blue heart beats, is an unlikely alliance: a royal-blue-suited Nat talking to Veronica Atherton, the co-ordinator of Safer Papakura trust about gangs, and welfare, and how to get Housing New Zealand to reduce the rent on the trust's headquarters.
"What can I do to help?" asks Collins.
Here's the bigger question: what can the National party do to help itself? The party is using the catchcry "Rejuvenation". The National Party has tried to reinvent itself before. It went for the Botox fix: younger, friskier and designer-dressed. Her name was Boag.
Collins, who at 43 has the style of a young Jenny Shipley with her fitted blue jackets and determined jaw, is the way of the future. She is smart enough to know that you don't reinvent the brand from scratch every time you want to make a sale. And she is old-fashioned enough in her views - she says "work is good", she believes in God, she doesn't want to be known as "nice" - to appeal to the voters who gave up on their party.
Collins is also a savvy-enough politician to know when to let other people do the talking.
Inside the tidy house in Kindergarten Drive, Atherton happily accepts the clothes for sale in the second-hand shop, and talks about life in a street "where Housing New Zealand put all the misfits".
Atherton is a tough little ball of energy who keeps one eye out for truants from the window which was once shot at with a .22 rifle. When she spots a truant, she calls the police. The locals call this place "the Pig House".
Collins has chosen to pop in for a purpose. She is in opposition. Look, here's the proof that New Zealand isn't doing so well under a Labour-led coalition Government.
What does Safer Papakura want from Collins? "Well, my clothes for a start," she says sharply. Collins has no idea whether Atherton voted for her: "I've never asked."
Atherton didn't. She is on the Maori roll.
There is no vote here for Collins. It is unlikely, no matter how often she drops in, that there will be many votes from the surrounding houses. What is she doing here?
Collins rolls her eyes: "We're the caring party, for goodness' sake. People forget that."
What people mostly forgot last July was to vote for the National Party. They polled 21 per cent, their most abysmal result in ... "Well," says Collins, "let's just say forever."
Collins won Clevedon against all odds.
"I felt quite strongly that people [in the party] had just written us off - that's my perception. That was a red rag to a bull to me. I thought: 'Well, I'll show you'."
She held Clevedon with a majority of just over 3000. As for the party vote, "We did as well as anyone else in the country, but the fact is that it wasn't a product that was being bought that day."
What has been acknowledged is that Collins and her team ran a brilliant campaign. And that National ran a confused and confusing one. "I shall not argue with you. You can't argue with the facts.
"People were saying 'I know what you stand for; I don't know what the National party stands for'."
She is scathingly critical (she calls it being honest) about the central campaign planning - or lack of it. She asked for a template for a business card, flyers and a billboard and was told, "'Well, we've got a billboard one, but the others you can just do as you like.' Why wasn't there a standard? What is this?"
Some candidates decided they didn't like National colours on their billboards. "I mean: what!" explodes Collins, "The fact is at least people should have been able to look at it and go: that's a National person. That sort of thing should should absolutely never have been tolerated. You don't have a KFC franchise decide they're going to have a different thing."
Collins is the new face of National. She is, along with former governor of the Reserve Bank, Don Brash and wealthy businessman, John Key, regarded as the "new Auckland influence", critical to the future of the National Party's fortunes.
What may well be critical to the future of the National party's fortunes is what Collins, a lawyer with a background in marketing, innately knew: don't forget the grassroots. "Grassroots are to National what the unions are to Labour. That's always been our powerbase and the perception has been that National had become distant from its grassroots."
Later in the evening we will drive past the green and prosperous fields of Whitford, home to Clevedon's MP, to find her at the Clevedon Bowling Club - for a demonstration of grassroots politics in action. This will be where the rejuvenation - as the National party's consultation paper "Towards a strategic review" puts it - will begin.
IF THE buck starts in small rooms in little communities, it stops in a room in the Leader of the Opposition's suite at Parliament. This week, a new poll showed Winston Peters up another 2 percentage points to 13 per cent in the preferred Prime Minister stakes; English had slipped further to 7 per cent, down from 9 per cent. Only 3 per cent of National voters gave English a tick for performing "very well".
In reception is a copy of the April issue of Metro magazine. The coverline is: "Storming Helengrad: Why Bill English Can Still Win". Do his staff keep it there as a reminder of the dangers of false prophecies? Or in the hope that one day it will come true?
The new president of the National Party, Judy Kirk, in her pinstripes and pearls, could not be more different from Boag.
If Collins is the new face of the National politician, Kirk is the the new face of the party president - a return to National's roots.
She is publicity-shy; a backroom worker.
She says firmly, "My job is to promote the National Party. Bill English is the leader of the National Party."
This sounds like straight talking, but it is a veiled reference to the fact that Boag's big presence led to accusations from the party faithful that she might as well have been the leader.
Kirk does not talk about heads rolling (a Boag favourite). The key now is presenting a united front and, she suggests, the National party still hasn't quite got its head around campaigning in an MMP environment - she's working on that one. And on upping the membership.
She won't give figures but it's not rocket science, she says, to work out that people are no longer willing to "sit in a cold hall in the middle of winter. You've got to get smart."
The big problem with National's campaign, according to Collins, was that first there was no word to get out - nobody knew what National policy was. "You don't turn up seven weeks before an election and say , 'Oh, by the way, our policies are ... and then give people 56 of them. Who in their right mind wants to read 56 policies?"
The irrepressibly upbeat Bill English bounces into the room.
He has been seen whistling and skipping about Parliament: a Government gaffe, such as the PM's over the leaky building crisis, has a cheering effect on a down-in-the-polls opposition leader.
Reinvigorate? English likes the sound of that and "Protect the citizens from the depredations of the Government. Well, both of those". English has been undergoing media training. He is learning to be himself. The National Party could do with a bit of the same.
It's quite simple, says Collins: the National Party has to learn to be more like the National Party.
The big job, says English, is for National to reinhabit the middle ground which directly affects the way middle New Zealand lives."There are things that National stopped talking about and other people came in on that territory. As National got more focused on economic issues, other people came in and picked up on what used to be National's ground. We will get back on to it."
Between the election and now there have been more immediate issues. Says English, "We have done a very good job at holding together in post-election trauma."
YOU might imagine that being a Young Nat in the current climate would be a little traumatic. These are the people Michael Laws, a former Young Nat himself, called "a bunch of mutant nerds".
There is nothing nerdish about the irrepressible Gabrielle O'Brien. She carries her keys on a Southpark key ring and her Benson and Hedges in her knock-off Gucci handbag. She wears T-shirts with messages: "Do Not Start With Me, You Will Not Win". O'Brien, at 26, is quite old for a Young Nat. Her parents are staunch Labour. O'Brien is studying politics and Maori and admits she wants to be Prime Minister.
The University of Auckland Young Nats branch is gathered in Women's Space on a Thursday evening to talk about immigration, defence, leaky homes and Rejuvenation. Membership is down.
There was a mass exodus leading into the election. Members wanted, says O'Brien, to "join the big party. It does come down to the fact that we weren't offering them anything".
These Young Nats who will grow up to be old Nats are battling image problems. O'Brien, who is "economically conservative, socially liberal", says, "People think we're rich kids with our heads stuck in the sand. We don't get a good response."
Brendan Beach (who ran for New Lynn in the last election) an assistant manager at McDonald's, and law student Chris Graf agree. Telling people at parties about their involvement with the National Party is not usually their opening gambit.
Within the branch there are other concerns. O'Brien says the lesson from the election has been that the party needs "to have people on the ground and they need to know our opinions". Hers is that "Labour has taken the ground we used to dominate. We used to believe in social services as well."
To grow activism, young people need to be involved in policy. "We don't want to be people who sit in polling booths. We don't want to do the dog's work without having a say in the direction of the party."
But the party, says O'Brien, wants to cut down Young Nats representation. That would be a mistake, she says. Go to a conference: "the whole thing with the National Party is that everyone's quite old."
AT the Clevedon Bowling Club on a Tuesday evening the tables are set for a Lions Club dinner with blue tablecloths and plastic flowers. The buffet is splendid: salads, cold cuts and great heaps of buttered white bread. The guest speaker is Collins, nicely colour co-ordinated to match the tablecloths, from her jacket to her blue-painted fingernails. They are a friendly lot at the bowling club.
They are not here, or not particularly, to hear Collins' speech about "special privileges for Maori" and the "grievance gravy train". There are 38 for dinner, mostly over 50, mostly National voters. They are retired farmers, the local vet, the local chemist, the local school principal.
At least, they were once National voters. These are the people who gave Collins the ticks which won her Clevedon. Many, true blue for all their voting lives, did not give National their party vote.
And they are still not impressed. Bill English? "Cardboard cut-out would be the word." "There are leadership issues." "I felt my vote wasn't going to count." "I'd like them to be a bit more up-front."
How can National win back the voters in rooms like this? By cloning Collins perhaps. Or by replicating her diary: she turns up at little local dos like this one at least once, often twice a week, to have her ear bent over plates of fruit salad and artery-clogging mounds of whipped cream.
It's not flash and it looks boring but, says Collins, who knows about marketing: "Every one of these people will talk to other people." After she speaks, she is told: "If there were 50 politicians like you, this country'd be great."
Earlier she has said: "You may or may not be aware of it, but I am currently in campaign mode."
This time around, she hopes to have a party to sell.
By MICHELE HEWITSON