Judith Collins: Hear her roar

by Guyon Espiner / 04 May, 2012
Judith Collins, the MG-driving Minister of Justice, ACC and Ethnic Affairs, didn’t get where she is today by being a shrinking violet.
Judith Collins
An inner struggle is clearly being played out between Judith Collins’s competing eyebrows.

The right eyebrow is steady and authoritative. The left is highly volatile. As she looks into the camera, the left soars – quite independently of its partner – to heights that verge on flirtatious suggestiveness. Beneath all this, her eyes – a dangerous mix of green and blue – glow like some fissile material. Freed from Collins’s clutches, Holly the jack russell quivers with fear under the table. She is frightened of cameras. Collins’s husband, David Wong-Tung, part Samoan, part Chinese, once a lawyer, once a cop, hovers in the background. He doesn’t like cameras much, either.


Judith Anne Collins has no such qualms. Down the barrel she stares. “I feel like a puppy,” she says, asked by the photographer to perform another trick. But she’s more like a stealthy feline, padding about the immaculate Maraetai home she has scrubbed spotless. In recent weeks, Collins has been at the centre of a political storm involving the ACC. She gets right under the skin of her opponents. “Oh, I hope so,” she says, with a giggle. “I am not there to make their lives easy.”

Then, quite suddenly, she becomes serious. “They are quite simplistic in their views about me. They want to portray me as a rich little white woman from middle-class New Zealand who has no understanding of anything – and I’m actually quite the opposite.” The ACC scandal has already cost Nick Smith his job. Collins confirms she is “not satisfied yet” that the ACC is dealing with privacy issues as it should. It is also notable that she has delayed reforms Smith had promoted. But she denies there is internecine warfare within the National Party. “There is warfare between a particular person and a real beef that she feels she’s got with ACC and I think that everyone else, including my colleague Nick Smith, is collateral damage. It’s sort of like friendly fire,” she says, laughing. Some have found her treatment of Smith somewhat cold, to say the least. “As he said, he made some foolish mistakes … but he probably just got so wrapped up in it. You don’t get a PhD because you are not bright,” she says.

Meanwhile, Collins is proceeding with plans to sue Labour MPs Trevor Mallard and Andrew Little for accusations they made about her role in all this. Her reaction shouldn’t have been a surprise. She once threatened to sue Labour MP Ruth Dyson for alleging that Collins had called DPB mums “scrubbers”, and got a retraction. She also had a newspaper retract a headline that suggested she “rejoiced” in a survey that showed most people thought poverty was a result of laziness.

In 2006, she told the Listener she’d be able to write a book on defamation after she left Parliament: “That’ll be my PhD subject.” She happily admitted to ignoring sledging – except when she might be able to sue the sledger. “I decided very early on I wasn’t going to take any nonsense,” she said at the time. In the same interview, she refused to apologise for her good relationship with the media. “I do ring people up and give them stories, because, gee, I guess I think that’s my job …” she said. Tellingly, it was because of her “friendly and open” relationships with the media that the Opposition tended to finger her for “anything that goes wrong, anywhere”.

Judith with Kiwi police serving in Afghanistan

For the ACC case, she has hired Julian Miles QC, to represent her. “Well, it is my professional reputation and it is not just about me as a person, or me as a politician, it’s also about me – all about me.” Yes, she says “it’s all about me”, without irony. Before she became a minister, Collins was brutal in opposition. She helped smoke out discrepancies in then 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 fought for doctors to be required to report proposed abortions for minors to their parents. She also used parliamentary privilege to call then Labour Minister David Benson-Pope a pervert. He also resigned.

“Well, there was no objection raised at the time,” she says glibly. “Unfortunately, sometimes you have those roles. It’s often a tough environment in Parliament itself. In the debating chamber there is a lot of robust debate and that is why there is [parliamentary] privilege.” Some would say she dishes it out inside Parliament, but sues when on the receiving end outside Parliament. Does this make her tough, or thin-skinned? Certainly she has a tough image, right down to the Crusher Collins moniker, earned for pushing through legislation allowing the state to crush the cars of errant boy racers. Is it an accurate portrayal?

“It can be useful at times, but it also can be a huge hindrance because it is very easy to try to portray any strong and effective woman … as being a one-dimensional figure,” she replies. “And it gives people an excuse to portray me as such and not to think that I am a human being and I do have a family and I do all sorts of other things.” Not that she is about to change her style any time soon. “I didn’t come into politics to sit around twiddling my thumbs wanting everybody to love me. I came in to make a difference.”

Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett spends many hours with Collins on Cabinet committees. They have an occasional drink together. Bennett describes her as “one tough woman” who also has a good sense of humour and fun. Collins has a number of attributes you would expect in a future leader, says Bennett. “She is incredibly smart and has the rare combination of being book-smart and street-smart. The Westie in me would call it the mongrel – the bit that gives her an edge.”

Another colleague, National MP Tau Henare, says Collins reminds him of former MP Jenny Shipley. “She’s hard but she has quite a fun side to her. She’s not the dragon lady and the crusher everyone thinks she is. “Her issue is she doesn’t suffer fools,” he says. Not everyone in her party is believed to be a fan, however. In his 2006 book, The Hollow Men, Nicky Hager published emails that were supposedly from Bill English to then National leader Don Brash, critical of presentations she had made to caucus. English essentially suggested she had got too big for her boots. Behind the scenes, she had been a tough critic of her colleagues “and they know it”, he is alleged to have written. This could prove problematic, he suggested.

The question has to be asked: does Collins want to be Prime Minister one day? “No. I actually want to be a really, really good Minister of Justice and ACC and Ethnic Affairs and I just want to be the MP for my area,” she replies. You can’t call politicians liars, especially ones who might hire a QC in response. Let’s just say it’s rare for an MP to admit to such ambitions, for obvious reasons. Although she recovers well.

“My view is very firmly that you do the job you’ve got. You don’t necessarily go charging around wanting to do other people’s jobs. I always think that’s a really stupid thing to do.” Besides, John Key is a wonderful leader, she says. “He’s always backed me and he’s never ever been threatened. He is not somebody who feels threatened by a strong woman. He’s fine.”

Indeed, Key has always been a vocal supporter of Collins. They both entered Parliament in 2002, and together with three other new entrants to the National caucus – Don Brash, Brian Connell and Sandra Goudie – formed a breakfast group nicknamed “Hi-Five”. Only Key and Collins remain from the original group. It is perhaps not surprising that some people find Collins a little scary. In her maiden speech, she told Parliament: “There is nothing wrong with New Zealand that a change in attitudes wouldn’t fix.”

She stands by that statement today. “We have opportunities that most people in the world would die for,” she says, quickly listing them: the fish in the sea, clean air, a trustworthy justice system and police force, free education to tertiary level, and the student loans scheme. Can attitude alone fix the dire poverty that exists in New Zealand? “We do have poverty but attitude is incredibly important and I look at poverty that, in particular, my mother grew up in and think, why did she not give in to that? And it is pretty obvious to me that she always had an extreme will to survive and do the very best she could with what she had,” she says.

“In my electorate in Papakura there are families I know that have never taken their children to the beach, which in Papakura is a matter of minutes away.” Oblivious to her gaze, beyond the ranch slider and the spacious deck, the sea sparkles invitingly like the diamonds on her fingers. New Zealanders are reluctant to “call things as they are”, she says, and don’t seem to realise the biggest poverty trap is attitude. “They think they don’t have opportunities. They don’t know how to access them; they don’t know where they are; and they think they are at the bottom of the heap. They might well be at the moment, but they don’t have to stay there. That’s my message.”

Judith Collins with her son, James

It’s the same message she delivered in her maiden speech. Poverty, she noted then, was not just about money. “The poverty of which I speak is a poverty of responsibility. A poverty of courage, a poverty of truth, a poverty of love, a poverty of faith. I stand for the dignity of the individual. I believe in God and I believe that every human being is created with free will to do either good or evil.” The people who live in her street have mostly done well. The modest houses sell for around $700,000. Brian Tamaki, of the Destiny Church, lives next door. The no-exit street is blessed and quiet.

Collins once had some lingering doubts about the existence of God, but that changed when she held her father’s hand as he died. “It was like I could actually feel the spirit go.” She wrote movingly about her dad for a Father’s Day issue of the Listener two years ago. He died in 1994, leaving her an “adult orphan” in her mid-thirties. She says losing your parents means there is no excuse for not doing things you want to do; you don’t need to seek their approval. “I certainly wouldn’t have ended up in politics if both my parents were alive.”

She was the last of six children born to Waikato dairy farmers Percy and Jessie. Mum was opposed to her youngest daughter going into politics. “My mother was worried that it would be a very nasty place and people would be very unkind.” Was she right? “It’s a lot of fun, actually,” she says in a mischievous tone. “People can be unkind, but they can also be extremely nice. I get a huge amount of support from around the place. The detrimental negative sides of it are far outweighed by the fact that I can make changes and do the things I do.”

Collins herself made a profound political change, after growing up a Labour supporter in a strongly Labour family. Her mother’s father deserted his family when her mother was seven, leaving her grandmother to raise seven young children on a leasehold farm full of rabbits and fern. Labour, Collins maintains, has deserted the values that initially attracted her. “They became full of people who thought policy papers were going to be the answer to things, and moved a long way away from the sorts of beliefs and principles that my parents had, which was very much about self-reliance and doing the best you could and working hard.”

Her mother had “absolutely no tolerance” for people who didn’t work hard. She first started milking cows when aged five and was still doing so at the age of 74. She was also largely deaf, so Collins’s father would often take his daughter with him to local functions. She was usually the youngest child there – “the spoilt baby”.
At one outing at the Walton Memorial Hall, a family friend asked the 14-year-old what she would do when she grew up. “I’ll be a lawyer,” she replied, but was met with a shake of the head. “I said: ‘Why not?’ He said: ‘Because you’re a nice girl, you’ll get married.’ I said: ‘I can do both!’” They made a $5 bet. A few years later they raised it to $10. “Dad had great delight in ringing him up when I graduated with my first law degree and saying: ‘Judith has gone and graduated now; you better come up with the money.’”

Judith Collins with her parents at her graduation

The friend is probably lucky they didn’t stretch the bet further. After getting her LLB from Auckland, Collins followed up with an LLM (Hons) and later a Master of Taxation Studies. She became the youngest president of the Auckland District Law Society, and vice president of the New Zealand Law Society. Along the way she and her husband owned a restaurant, and she has talked about getting up early to prepare food, working all day as a lawyer, then returning to the restaurant at night. She is “pro-women”, rather than being a feminist. “I don’t think women should have to apologise for being women, frankly.” Her one reservation about her hero Margaret Thatcher is that she didn’t bring other women with her. “I think I should be seen as being supportive of other women. I go out of my way to support other women.”

Her husband has got out the MG so Collins can take a spin in the sports car for the camera. He stands on the side of the road as she zooms up and down the street. The Crown car has arrived, too, and waits at the end of the street. Wong-Tung served as a police officer in Wellington and Auckland. He practised law as well. He still has his practising certificate, but with his wife as the Justice Minister he has chosen to take a back seat. Once the photo shoot is over, the MG goes back into the garage next to the Porsche.

The Crown car is in the driveway waiting to take Collins to a Chinese sporting event she’s attending as Ethnic Affairs Minister. Wong-Tung is left holding Holly the dog. “She needs to go to the toilet,” Collins says briskly. Her husband nods and mutters something but it’s doubtful his wife hears before she slides into the back seat of the Crown limousine – a shiny silver 7 Series BMW. Depending on your outlook, the BMW could be seen as stylish or ostentatious. It even winks as it turns left out of the driveway and on to the street, although that was probably just the warm sun glancing off its steel skin.

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