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Leader of the pack

The National MP who led the charge on David Benson-Pope says she (almost always) sticks to the rules.

Backhandedly, the government adores Judith Collins. She's the Casting Central idea of the scary Tory woman, a worthy successor to past fear figures Ruth Richardson, Jenny Shipley, and the Mother of all Tory terrors, Maggie Thatcher.

She doesn't simply ask tough Parliamentary questions; she prosecutes them with a disapproving tightening of the mouth that thrills Labour ministers into displays of joyful intemperance.

Collins seems to thrive on it: she threatened to sue Labour minister Ruth Dyson for saying she called DPB mums "scrubbers", and got a retraction; she got a newspaper to retract a headline suggesting she "rejoiced" in a survey that showed most people thought poverty was due to laziness; she says Steve Maharey simply "made it up" when he said she supported the idea of more low-income mothers adopting out their babies.

"I should be able to write a good book on defamation when I leave here. That'll be my PhD subject," says the former partner with Auckland law firm Simpson Grierson. And despite her ever-ready dimply smile and cheerfully self-deprecating off-duty manner, she's not joking about that.

Collins, lately one of National's highest-profile MPs, says she's aware that some negative things get said about her - and she doesn't directly deny that some of it is said by colleagues. But, having already forged an almost comical reputation for refusing to dwell on anything negative - "Yes, I'm relentlessly positive!" she trills self-mockingly - she says she chooses to ignore sledging, except when she might be able to sue the sledger. "And I will. I decided very early on I wasn't going to take any nonsense."

She won't be drawn on whether she has been dogged by the traditional caucus jealousies that arise when an individual gets a lot of media coverage. Nor will she comment on being sometimes touted as a future deputy leader.

"I make no apology for my good relationship with the media," she says. "I do ring people up and give them stories, because, gee, I guess I think that's my job, otherwise you might run another story from someone else that I might not want you to run.

"I always get fingered for anything that goes wrong, anywhere. Normally by the Labour Party. I guess it's because I always try to be available to the media. If anyone wants to criticise the very friendly and open relationships I continue to have with the media across the spectrum, then I would suggest that says more about them than it says about me." The dimples momentarily snap smooth.

Though only a second-term MP, Collins is increasingly included in caucus's senior-management loop, especially when planning attacks on ministers during Question Time. Her profile rose when, as a backbencher, she smoked out discrepancies in Immigration Minister Lianne Dalziel's statements over the case of a young Sri Lankan overstayer. Dalziel resigned. Collins also: forced a select committee inquiry into Agent Orange; campaigned against the decriminalising of prostitution; and campaigned for doctors to be forced to report proposed abortions on minors to their parents. And she has been a lead attack dog against David Benson-Pope.

Collins is used to being at the front of the pack. She was the youngest-ever president of the Auckland District Law Society, which is not a job for the lightweight or faint-hearted. And it's hard to forget that she won her comfortably blue-tinged seat by challenging the well-liked and inoffensive sitting National MP, Warren Kyd.

All of which makes her look as the government likes to see her, a right toughie. So it's a bit of a surprise when she confesses that, on her lifestyle block in her Clevedon electorate, are a flock of ageing sheep and several cows "which I think I will probably be feeding into their old age". Despite her childhood on a dairy farm, she simply cannot bring herself to send them to the works "now we've gotten to know them".

And it's a shock when, in the middle of describing one of her old cases as a lawyer, her eyes suddenly brim with tears and she loses control of her cut-glass voice. The case of convicted murderer Ray Prince, whose life was blighted when welfare authorities adopted him out to a cruel and negligent family, still gets her. It was a landmark case, in which Collins set out to prove that the state had a duty of care toward Prince, and that it failed in that duty, with terrible consequences for him. The tears are partly because, although she proved several of her claims, "in the end, nothing has changed". People placed in bad family situations by agencies of the state still lack avenues of redress.

Collins says what moved her about Prince was that he took responsibility for himself. "He said, 'I'm guilty. I'm a murderer. I'm not making any excuses for that.' But where he had been placed, he never stood a chance of having a decent life. He was on the streets at 13. When his [birth] mother found him, he was in jail, aged 18, for murder."

Collins describes the despair she found in prison cells. "They've got no hope. We put these people in these prisons ..." Tears threaten again. "That's one of the reasons I'm so pro private prisons, because from what I've seen, the mentality in them is quite different. There's a culture of respect - a two-way street."

In that environment, she says, efforts at mental health counselling, rehabilitation, acceptance of culpability, and education are far more likely to succeed.

What's accurate about the government's caricature of Collins is that she's a firm believer in the ideology of personal responsibility. She says individuals are often in disadvantaged situations because others - usually their parents - have let them down badly. But they cannot begin to rebuild, in her book, unless they accept that it's up to them. She says that's ultimately why she - a keen Labour supporter from childhood - decided to move to National. "That culture of blame won't get you anywhere. It can't take a person forward."

Collins supports catching troubled people early. "If a 10- to 14-year-old commits a crime, it's no use saying to them, 'Well, we'll let you off this time, but if you do it again in a year's time, then it becomes important.' Which is what we do. We need to treat them like thinking human beings with options, and be tough with them, and honest about what the consequences are."

Politically formative years for Collins came after her marriage to part-Samoan policeman-turned-lawyer David Wong-Tung in the 1980s. "We married in Hong Kong, and it was my first time overseas, and the energy and vitality of the people there just blew us both away. So many of them had so little, but they worked and worked, and really made something for themselves."

Inspired, the couple redoubled their own productivity immediately, buying into a restaurant. Collins rose at 6.00am to make cheesecakes for the dessert trolley, did her job at Simpson Grierson, delivered the puddings, helped in the restaurant, did the accounts and banking at nights and lunchtimes and, in the weekends, completed her masters degree.

For three years in this "work zone", Collins says she had no real leisure time or private headspace. It couldn't have gone on indefinitely. But it was an empowering experience, to know she and her husband had such energy and work capacity. "And it gave us a good financial foundation." (The couple now support a young teenage son and ailing parent.)

It also soured her on Labour and its philosophy, thanks to her dealings with union officials over staff. "I was shocked to find that they treated me - one of them! - like the Enemy. And they weren't even interested in the staff's welfare, just in scoring points, getting one over the boss, whoever the boss was. I just couldn't see how this 'us and them' attitude was going to help anyone, business or workers."

Getting colleagues or opponents to comment on Collins on the record could lead a journalist to suspect a conspiracy of silence. Only John Key - who thinks she's terrific - would speak up. Even Annette King, Collins's old mark as Health Minister, said, "There are many things I could say, but I'd probably better not."

Privately, some colleagues profess exasperation at what they say is Collins's helium-filled ego, her buttering-up of the leader and a tendency to go off-track when fronting important battles. She did muff a key Parliamentary question on the Benson-Pope affair, leaving colleagues visibly pained. But even a detractor says, "Look, if there was a caucus vote on who gets to be a frontbencher, she'd win a place, hands down. She works very hard, she fronts very well."

Collins refuses to talk about her policy battles in caucus - if any - because "I never discuss what happens in caucus. Ever. Because those are the rules, and I'm very rules-based. You tell me the rules, and I stick by them. Occasionally I break out," she adds. And yes, the dimples are suddenly on again.