The media is keen to convince us once again that Judith Collins is a likely candidate to be National Party leader.
The National Party tweeted: “Watch out Phil Twyford — Judith is coming for you.”
It appears they were right. Judith Collins has been instrumental in having Twyford lose his oversight of the Civil Aviation Authority after he made a phone call on a plane when the doors had been shut in preparation for take-off. An unidentified informant contacted Collins and she asked questions in the House.
Twyford admitted his sin and offered to resign as Transport Minister. Jacinda Ardern declined to accept his resignation but took Civil Aviation from him, at least while it conducts an investigation.
First blood to Collins then, but unfortunately she didn’t know when to stop. The day after her triumph, there she was on news media again announcing that Twyford had not only been spotted using his phone on the plane but he had also been seen standing up to stow his jacket in a locker when the seat-belt sign was on.
With no apparent sense of how silly she was looking, Collins said: “The same informant told me that following Phil’s phone call, he got up and took his jacket off and put it up in the luggage compartment when the plane was taxiing.”
You really can’t make this stuff up. The National Party’s most feared attack dog reveals a man stood up in a plane when the seatbelt light was on!
Newstalk ZB took it seriously, headlining its story “New Allegation Levelled Against Phil Twyford”.
Predictably, Cameron Slater’s Whaleoil blog was enthusiastic — as it is about anything involving Collins, no matter how daft. It ran with the headline “Twyford Hit by Fresh Allegations”, above a graphic of a beaming Collins beside Twyford’s head on a pike.
There was much mirth and bemusement on Twitter and Facebook as people tried to imagine where else this scandal might lead. Perhaps Twyford took two lollies from the basket rather than one? Perhaps he barged in front of an old lady to get his baggage off the luggage carousel before her? Perhaps Phil didn't leave his tray in the upright position?
Some of the kudos Collins had gained from her initial successful sting suddenly dissipated. Instead of looking magisterial, she looked childish. Certainly, the impact of the hit on Labour was softened.
But, then, Collins has always been a ham — at times a caricature of a hard-nosed, right-wing politician — from the nickname of “Crusher” she appears to enjoy so much, to the photo of her firing a gun, to her boast earlier this year that she “stabs from the front”.
What is in her favour is that she is aware of her own hamminess — typified by her declaration during February’s leadership contest that she was the “fun candidate” and adding that her idea of fun might be “gladiatorial”. But that also means she lacks the necessary imperiousness of someone like Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop — whose death stare, it is rumoured, can kill at 50 paces — to be truly gladiatorial.
She is, nevertheless, one of the National Party’s greatest assets (which cynics might say tells you quite a lot about the competition). It is true that she is a well-educated lawyer, whip-smart, and has an unrivalled ability in her party to get media attention. Unfortunately, she is also one of its greatest liabilities. She is divisive, often petty and has way too much baggage via her connection with Cameron Slater and Dirty Politics to be a safe bet for leader. Not to mention her unwise visit to Oravida HQ outside Shanghai in 2013.
She is the David Cunliffe of the National Party, with added baggage. Like him, she’s an effective minister and seems to believe, like him, that it is her destiny to lead her party and the nation. The fact her colleagues obviously don’t agree with her doesn’t seem to faze her one little bit. It didn’t faze Cunliffe either, with predictable and dire results — Labour eventually turned to him and in 2014 he led Labour to its worst loss since the 1920s.
When Collins was asked on RadioLive during the leadership contest whether it would be her last pitch for the party’s top job, she replied: “Only if I lose.”
Then after having lost the leadership contest to Simon Bridges and, apparently, the deputy’s position to Paula Bennett, Duncan Garner asked her again on The AM Show whether she still harboured leadership ambitions. She replied, with a rueful laugh: “Oh, you know me…”
Many influential media pundits backed her heavily during the leadership contest and her defeat hasn’t discouraged them. If you believed some of the media reports of the latest Newshub-Reid Research poll, you’d imagine that, just a few months after her latest drubbing for the leadership, Collins is well on her way to her party’s top job.
Newshub led its story about Collins’ debut on the preferred PM’s poll with, “Prime Minister Judith Collins — how do those four words strung together make you feel? For 3.7 per cent of New Zealanders, it feels pretty good.”
At this point in the election cycle, 3.7 per cent is hardly a strong indication of Collins’ prospects, any more than Simon Bridges’ nine per cent means he is doomed. As Helen Clark reminded viewers on The Project this week, at one time in the 1990s, she rated only two per cent.
Nevertheless, from her vantage point of less than 4 per cent support as preferred PM, Collins announced her extreme leadership ambitions had gone. Her assertion that “I'm not interested in rolling anyone or doing anything other than my job” is, of course, about as convincing as Winston Peters’ famous utterance when questioned about his prime ministerial ambitions: “I’m just happy to be the Member for Tauranga.”
She’s clearly still on the hunt. That’s not to say her chance won’t come to lead the party, as indeed it did eventually for David Cunliffe. But it required the Labour Party to become desperate first.
National is a long, long way from being desperate enough to want Collins as leader. To get 45 per cent in polls after being hammered relentlessly for months over its failings in office — whether at Middlemore Hospital or housing the homeless — is quite a feat.
To become desperate it would have to slip sharply in the polls. Losing Northcote in the byelection on June 9 wouldn’t help morale but it would be hardly likely to shift sentiment among the impressive swathe of voters who are National supporters.
During the party’s leadership contest in February, the NZ Herald claimed Collins had only two votes in the bag apart from her own. Has she really become so much more of a contender since then?
She has been pursuing Twyford relentlessly and successfully over the holes in his KiwiBuild plans but that doesn’t make her a leader any more than attack-dog Richard Prebble was likely to lead the Lange-Douglas government — despite the fact he was rated by Rob Muldoon as the “most irritating and damaging of [my] opponents” in the time he was Prime Minister between 1975 and 1984.
In the end, it seems that Collins’ hit on Twyford won’t do the government too much harm. In fact, it gave Ardern a chance to appear tough by stripping him of his CAA oversight, even though it was inconsequential to his major responsibilities in housing and transport. And the Prime Minister also took the opportunity to look principled by reminding the country that politicians are not above the law.
If anything, Collins’ recent slight increase in her public profile is a problem for National. The media’s symbiotic relationship with her means it will keep on promoting her for leader and she will keep on providing snackable content, which the media will lap up, no matter how silly it makes them or her sound.
Collins will continue to make hits on Labour but it still won’t make her a likely leader unless the National Party has a complete reversal of fortune. Her caucus colleagues know it, most of the public knows it, but the media, for its own reasons, likes to pretend otherwise.