Is Judith Collins politically immortal?

by Jane Clifton / 09 May, 2018

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Judith Collins: her work was not in vain. Photo/Getty Images

Once known as “Crusher”, the National Party's Judith Collins could be rechristened “Carrie” for her ability to burst from the political grave.

It’s beginning to look as though Judith Collins is politically immortal. In recent weeks, she has reminded us of that scene from Carrie: she’s vanquished, she’s dead, she’s buried … and then a hand bursts from the grave.

Two policies she set in motion, even while she was relegated to her own Government’s Do Not Resuscitate list, have come onto the main agenda: the GST loophole in internet shopping is being fixed, and the new Administration is set to take on the predatory pricing practices of petrol companies.

These issues wouldn’t be nearly as far advanced were it not for Collins, which goes to show that, one, some policies are genuinely bipartisan despite the rhetoric and, two, you can’t necessarily bury an unwanted MP by giving her “nothing” jobs.

As Prime Minister, Bill English sought to relegate the stroppy MP, giving her revenue and energy, portfolios with little traditional scope for glory.

What he overlooked was that most women of Collins’ age grew up with tomes like 101 Ways With a Pound of Mince. She rapidly turned the revenue gig into a populist crusade, launching irreversible preparations to force multinationals such as Amazon and Google to be assessed for tax in New Zealand. She also rescued the GST-free-internet- shopping issue from the too-hard basket, setting it on a one-way voyage to Pay Up-land. For sport, she rarked up the foreign-owned petrol companies about their pricing practices, and when some refused to co-operate, she commissioned an inquiry by officials. All this work has given the new Government some handy “Here’s one we prepared earlier!” moments this week.

Fair’s fair

The GST extension to low-value internet imports won’t be wildly popular, but most consumers will probably concede it’s fair. Local retailers have had to compete with foreign suppliers untroubled by the 15% impost. The question was, how to levy GST on the flood of imported goods without creating a bureaucratic horror. What Collins, and subsequently the new Government, realised was that, a few years on from this country’s initial policy work on the issue, other countries had started to tax big online traders such as Amazon, so this tiny nation wouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel.

It is now no big deal that foreign companies supplying goods worth more than $60,000 a year to New Zealand will have to register for GST. It’s still fair to ask, why bother chasing low-value imports? The projected revenue’s not flash, the tax still won’t catch all the sales – like those of small traders – and a 15% handicap for foreign competitors won’t be enough to save local retailers.

But here the Kiwi “fair go” ethos kicks in. We hate that Amazon doesn’t pay company tax here, so it’s hard to defend giving it a GST advantage over local retailers. Given we don’t know the true extent of internet imports, the change could bring in much more than the estimated $64 million-$81 million a year.

The petrol-pricing issue’s a potential blockbuster, as it’s one of a slew of consumer problems this country faces because it’s too small to have fully competitive markets in all sectors. Petrol, like the grocery, electricity, post, building-products, car-parts, airline and airport sectors, is dominated by too few players to be competitive. We pay more than we should because there’s little to stop companies charging at will.

When pressed, they plead, “We need to charge extra to provide for capital investment”. Seldom is this excuse subject to expert scrutiny. Under the Commerce Act, BP has done nothing wrong by charging a bigger margin in some districts to make up for losses in another, a practice a leaked strategy disclosed. But this would not pass most consumers’ sniff test for Kiwi fairness.

Collins’ work has helped set the agenda for this Government to reassess the Commerce Act’s scope over petrol and other uncompetitive markets. This could be career fodder for another relegated minister, Kris Faafoi. He holds the opportunity-rich commerce portfolio – but outside Cabinet. His colleague Meka Whaitiri, also outside Cabinet, has made a star turn of her unpromising customs and associate agriculture jobs, co-fronting the new GST policy and introducing groundbreaking animal welfare legislation.

Swirling rumours

Although it would never be a bestseller, Crusher Collins’ 101 Ways With a Dead-end Cabinet Job would be a better investment of time than the latest swirl of political rumours. Vile stories about politicians of all stripes thrived before the internet. Now lurid nonsense gets passed off as fact online. Whether the product of malice or of Chinese-whisper misconstruals, these rumours are most vicious when they attack MPs’ nearest and dearest.

The police have taken the unprecedented step of saying they have no damaging information about the Prime Minister’s partner, Clarke Gayford, which shows just how much momentum a smear campaign can achieve without a skerrick of evidence.

National, overtly at least, has been discouraging its supporters from peddling rumours, too, suggesting that muck-chucking is a much-discredited political ploy. When it was in Government, it saw how Labour’s feverish efforts to find dirt on John Key backfired. It rightly judges that anyone caught trafficking this dirt would cop the most public odium, while the rumour victims would deservedly get the public’s sympathy.

Alas, too many people want to believe the absolute worst, and that powerful elites are covering it up.

The sheer powerlessness of a rumour’s victim is a loophole in our legal system and a challenge to media ethics. To confront the nastiness publicly gives it more oxygen. But keeping one’s head down doesn’t make it go away.

We’re tough on politicians. They volunteer, they’re well rewarded, they dish it out, they can take it. But when it’s an unfounded rumour, even the toughest can be cruelly persecuted.

For the media, even making inquiries to check information risks disseminating dirt. After having exhausted that approach, the less-scrupulous media will keep circling and thus lend weight to a rumour by “just happening to have” stories about the besieged personality at the ready in case someone else is able to stand up an allegation.

Let’s hope an increasingly media-savvy public can spot the pattern and discount nasty stories unless facts are produced.

It’s not as if politicians don’t give their rivals enough ammo for legitimate attack. No one needs to make stuff up.

This article was first published in the May 12, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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