The pretender to National’s throne has been upstaged by an airline executive.
The Colmar-Brunton (TVNZ) and Reid Research (Newshub) polls were so widely divergent that their results were regarded as largely meaningless but the media once again busied themselves assessing Collins’ chances of rolling her leader.
In response, Collins played her usual coy game of damning Bridges with faint praise — “friendly, very personable, approachable” — and emphasising the temporary nature of his role: “It’s a tough job and whoever has the job — Simon has it at the moment — needs a lot of support from us.”
It’s a dance she performs at the drop of a hat — or a slight rise in an opinion poll — and one that viewers never seem to tire of, no matter how many times she appears on the media stage to offer exactly the same routine.
Then, suddenly, without warning, Air New Zealand’s Christopher Luxon burst onto the set.
The media was instantly transfixed. Suddenly, journalists only had eyes for the airline’s outgoing chief executive. A man with an air of bonhomie and a practised wit — who looks disconcertingly at times like Tau Henare or Robert Muldoon — he immediately shot straight into the media stratosphere as pundits calculated how long it would take to crown him PM at the head of a resurgent National Party.
Collins put on her bravest front when Ryan Bridge on The AM Show playfully asked her: “Is Christopher Luxon going to be the next leader of the National Party?”
Collins replied that when she heard the news of Luxon’s interest in politics, “You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.”
It was an unconvincing performance but she tried her best to emphasise just how thrilled she was by claiming she had texted Luxon as soon as she had learned of his political intentions — including suggesting that the Botany electorate could be an excellent launch pad for his ambitions.
Apparently he didn’t text back, which Collins quipped was “politically the wrong thing to do”. Her joke fell flat however — not least because Luxon’s lack of a response immediately indicated that she is of no consequence and thoroughly irrelevant to his political future.
The love-fest for Luxon underlined very clearly that Collins’ promotion as a candidate for the leadership is a confection whipped up by a media looking for clicks and eyeballs in the absence of someone who has real star quality, like Ardern or Key — and perhaps Luxon.
It emphasised the melancholy fact that the media-sponsored contest between Collins and Bridges is a reverse beauty contest where the least ugly — or least unpopular — candidate wins.
So as soon as someone much better looking — like Luxon — turns up, the relief and joy across the media are palpable, even if he is a mid-term prospect at best and does nothing to help National’s immediate problem of being a popular party with an unpopular leader.
NZ Herald columnist Matthew Hooton summed up the dilemma facing National over continuing with Bridges or taking a punt on Collins: “The logic MPs in these circumstances are forced to confront is whether it is better to have a leader who will definitely lose [the 2020 election] or take a risk with one who will probably lose but might have a fighting chance.”
Collins is apparently not well liked in caucus, and has a dedicated but limited appeal among voters — even if it may be slightly higher than Bridges’. Perhaps for those reasons, she has recently been trying to cast herself in a different light as a friendlier and softer version of The Crusher.
It is clear that the Judith Collins we are seeing now isn’t the Judith Collins we once knew. She has been doing her very best in the past six months or so to transform her image from the pistol-toting destroyer of boy racers to a softer, gentler “Aunty Judith”.
She has no doubt realised her tough girl routine is passé in the era of kindness and grace that was ushered into New Zealand politics with the advent — and subsequent media beatification — of Jacinda Ardern.
Where Collins had previously revelled in her mean girl persona — which included dubbing Ardern “My Little Pony” — there she was suddenly applauding Ardern in Parliament for donning a hijab after the mosque attacks and then defending Green MP Golriz Ghahraman after David Seymour had called her a “real menace to freedom in this country”.
Collins told Magic Talk’s Sean Plunket during a debate with Seymour over his comment: “We need to be a little bit kinder towards each other even when the other person has views entirely different from ourselves, and we don’t need to always make it so personal.”
Seymour, however, was wise to Collins’ push to recast herself. He reminded listeners he wasn’t fooled. “We all like the ‘Aunty Judith’ routine,” he said sardonically.
Collins is putting a lot of effort into a makeover. An interview with NZ Herald journalist Greg Bruce last month seemed designed in part to present a softer, more nuanced image of her personality.
That included denying she was a fighter: “I'm just someone who stands my ground. So I don’t go after people. I don’t want to end up in arguments or fights and things. I personally find conflict not that pleasant, but I have learnt now not to take the fall for anyone else.”
Can this be the same person who Nicky Hager claimed in his 2014 book Dirty Politics had emailed Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater: “If you can’t be loved, then best to be feared”?
And someone who allegedly recommended he pay back “double” any injury suffered — to which he replied: “I learned the rule from you.”
And can this be the same person who just last year responded to a Labour supporter urging her to stop “backstabbing Jacinda” by tweeting: “No problem. I stab from the front.”
Unfortunately, for Collins’ attempt to remodel her image, news came last week of a lawsuit that she and her husband had filed against the Nelson City Council and a couple, Ashley Cooper and Ingrid Penfold, who own a property next to a rental Collins owns.
Collins and David Wong-Tung are seeking around $180,000 for remedial works and lost income, plus other costs, after a slip caused by torrential rain in 2011 damaged their rental property.
Cooper said the civil action, filed six years after the event, “came completely out of the blue”.
“When we found out who it was that was suing us it made us even more worried because obviously the connections, the money these people have got and the power and the influence… It's really badly damaged us, emotionally, financially, we just don't have the money to go up against these sorts of people.”
Many New Zealanders would have immediately identified the Nelson couple as the underdogs in an unequal battle. Whether fair or not, the news made Aunty Judith suddenly look a lot less cuddly.
We know from observing Paula Bennett — and David Lange nearly 40 years ago — that a physical transformation can work wonders for a politician’s media image. However, whether Collins can shuck off her take-no-prisoners reputation is a much more complicated and delicate process — and with a much more uncertain outcome — than submitting to the surgeon’s knife.