Collins readies National for NZ parly year

Ben McKay
·4-min read

Judith Collins is in a bind.

Like Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese, New Zealand's opposition leader faces a perilous path to popularity in the COVID age.

Ms Collins, a veteran MP of two decades experience, leads her party back to Wellington on Tuesday for the start of the parliamentary year.

There, she'll confront re-elected prime minister Jacinda Ardern, still riding high with once-in-a-generation popularity earned through careful management of the pandemic.

Ms Collins knows the national mood is not one in favour of sniping or navel-gazing or being overly critical.

After bottoming out in the October poll, Ms Collins is charged with rebuilding National's stock in the most difficult of political circumstances.

Her prescription: unity and maturity.

"We have to act like adults," Ms Collins told Australian Associated Press.

"COVID was one of those things that came along, where people were genuinely fearful for themselves and for their families, and they wanted everyone to work together.

"It's like in times of war and times of national emergency. That's what they saw it as.

"They wanted a very constructive approach.

"But the role of the opposition in a liberal democracy is not just to be a cheerleader for the government ... like the media, it's to actually question and to probe and ask, and to hold to account.

"So we will continue to do that where we see it needs to be done."

National spent 2020 understanding the damage disunity can do.

Last April, then-leader Simon Bridges mildly criticised the government's readiness to leave lockdown on Facebook and attracted a torrent of abuse.

The post and 29,000 mostly angry comments are still online, a time capsule of Kiwi sentiment for national unity during the time of trial.

Mr Bridges was gone as leader the next month, with Todd Muller executing an Australian-style coup to take the top job.

On assuming the leadership, Mr Muller suffered debilitating mental health, departing after less than two months.

The party turned to Ms Collins, a previous leadership aspirant who thought her chances had sailed and instead had turned to writing an autobiography.

The Papakura MP isn't to everyone's liking, given her history of take-no-prisoners scrapping and a ministerial resignation in the lead-up to the 2014 election.

Perhaps that's why one of her MPs anonymously leaked an internal policy debate during the 2020 election, making the 61-year-old's party look divided.

Ms Collins says the combination of COVID and the party's disunity - with three leaders in four months and campaign infighting - left her in a near-unwinnable campaign position.

"There were opportunities. Particularly before the second lockdown," she said.

"We were starting to get some traction and that just killed us.

"Fear came back. It was fear.

"I don't think it was a repudiation of me and National.

"COVID (was big) all the way through. Everything was COVID.

"But I think also that people didn't like what they perceived as leaking and any sense of infighting."

Ms Collins is hoping that having endured two leadership changes in their terrible 2020, her reduced caucus will continue to back her in 2021.

"I feel a tremendous amount of support from the caucus and the party and volunteers," she said.

"Everybody realises that (at the election) were in a very difficult situation.

"When I came in at least I was able to bring some stability. Not instantly but we're very much working on that."

Speaking in warm Waitangi, after a well-earned summer holidays, Ms Collins looks refreshed.

And there may also be a refreshed approach from National, which has started the year with something of an olive branch.

Ms Collins' first announcement was to offer to work with the government - which does not need National's numbers in parliament - on housing, an increasingly top-of-mind issue for Kiwis.

Ms Ardern said she would take the offer in good faith.

"(We will be constructive) where we can, yes, if we can see a path through," Ms Collins said.

"The public is wanting us to be adult and professional in our behaviours and what we say."

But there will also be a return of the political rough and tumble.

Ms Collins is eager to hold the Labour government accountable for a promise made both before and after the election that New Zealand would be "at the front of the queue" for the COVID-19 vaccine.

New Zealand is yet to receive any doses of the vaccine and may not for weeks.

"Don't make promises you're not going to keep," she said.

"That wasn't helpful. They need to be far more upfront on things like that; where it is, what's the problem, are we being pushed around by big pharma or different countries?

"Those frontline staff working in border facilities and the health professionals, they shouldn't be left like that. They should be protected."

Whether Kiwis are ready to hear those critical messages or to trust National again remains to be seen.