Lachlan Mitchell investigates the impact of Judith ‘Crusher’ Collins’ rise to party leadership, just 58 days out from the increasingly dramatic 2020 election.
If nothing else, the ascension of Judith Collins to the leadership of the National Party will be entertaining. Regardless of faction or level of interest in politics, local or otherwise, that appears to be a unifying thought. It is hard to disagree – she is built for clickbait, to say the least. She is far and away the most controversial member of the National Party’s surviving old guard. Only Winston Peters beats her in her capacity to sell a persona to a salivating media.
The temptation is to immediately buy into the carefully cultivated propaganda that Judith Collins has built over nearly two decades, and sell her rise to (relative) power as though it was a prophecy written on an Orc’s ribcage and buried within Taupo’s Craters of the Moon, only bubbling through to the surface when the moon bled red and Yog-Sothoth woke from his dream. Finally, we witness The Crusher with the Mace of Sovereign Malice in her hand. What shall she do with it? Our temptation is to see her newest success as inevitable, as something destined to happen. Our inclination is to view her solely through the lens she has provided for us.
The other temptation is to write Judith Collins off, due to the assumption that the country would simply see such a thing as off-putting, especially in an era where Jacinda Ardern seems to be the most popular leader in the West (even if domestically there is much else to say about the government she has lead). It is tempting to tell ourselves that our devoutly centrist country would turn their votes away from someone so controversial, with a storied past that seems to embody all we wish to purge from our projections to the increasingly curious outside world – we think we are empathetic, incorruptible, resistant to the outside troubles we so emphatically mock in America and the United Kingdom. Judith Collins is surely the antithesis of all this, we say. Never would we elect such a change to our way of life. But we’re not as immune as we like to think we are.
We have to carefully evaluate Judith in a way that doesn’t give in to her Megatron Lite persona, while simultaneously not deluding ourselves by thinking we’re a country that doesn’t respond to the reactionary bait Judith is so famous for. We are a country that seemingly prides itself on how much it wants people on the dole to straight up die, remember. If Jean Valjean were to steal some KFC at 1 pm, we’d bring back the death penalty in time for One News at 6.
With that in mind, it’s time to talk about Judith, instead of just talking around her. Anecdotally, the consensus around all who have met her is that The Crusher is far, far more intelligent than she lets on. You might be surprised to learn that some of her recent social issue votes are far more ‘moderate’ – in a National party sense – than you might expect. While her sincerity on the topic could certainly be questioned, she did vote for marriage equality in the end, unlike deputy Gerry Brownlee, who has not indicated any change in his views on the topic. She is similarly liberal on abortion and euthanasia rights, with the latter view having evolved over time. But her record when in control is far more revealing – she is well-known for her dismissal of climate change, encouraged the increased abusive practices by the private prison operators Serco during her time as Minister for Corrections and Minister for Police, is famed for her focus on punitive ‘deterrents’ as Minister for Justice, is a strong advocate for draconian controls over welfare recipients, and has tendencies to retweet the recently-banned QAnon conspiracy theories, just to cap things off.
And yet, it’s not her policies that draw attention to Judith Collins. It’s not even her abrasive personality that is first and foremost in the minds of Kiwis. Quite simply, it’s her total embrace of corruption, or the perception of it, more than practically any surviving political figure in any current party. This ranges from nepotism, plans to oust the head of the Serious Fraud Office, destruction of protected environmental spaces for personal profit, and more. It is the sheer breadth of her activities, implicit or otherwise, which makes her so controversial to even the Two Ticks Blue voter, one who would vote for the Black Smoke Monster from LOST if it preached about personal responsibility and threw out little dog whistles about South Auckland. Her status as chief deity to WhaleOil & associates, attack dogs laid bare by Nicky Hager in Dirty Politics, further pollutes the air of corruption that swirls around her. The sheer level of private information, both of the voting public and internal government correspondence, that she has leaked through her connections is staggering. Many careers, political or otherwise, have been slain to advance the ambitions of Collins, even if she does enjoy simply being the fall woman for the party at large.
Whatever you believe about her culpability, there is no indication of any shame, or any signalling that she would avoid doing these actions again. Part of the Crusher persona is gleefully playing the villain, raising her famous Jafar eyebrows at the mere suggestion of impropriety, while smirking and slyly suggesting the idea that it’s not really a crime if she did it, not that she did the act, of course. After all, her survival seems to suggest that within the party, and to voters, her actions aren’t disqualifying of a political career. And to her credit, there doesn’t seem to be a single figure capable of manoeuvring the political minefield better, even if that is a question of morality itself.
National’s future is possible to predict, but to what degree? You cannot just tell the voters that you are not going to win. And indeed, it would be premature to rule out someone as competent as Judith Collins. But winning the battle is not the goal of this election – not in a year where Jacinda and Ashley Bloomfield seem to have won the hearts of the voters, at least until the inevitable economic downturn we will see when the artificially resuscitated economy goes into cardiac arrest in the final quarter of the year. But while National’s future is hard to pin down, this election is simpler. Above all, it’s about cleaning house; National’s own.
Already, we have started to see members of the losing factions within the party signal their intent to become private citizens again; Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams are just some of the more high-profile ones. This was expected, as Kaye was tarred with perceptions of weakness and not being ‘up to it’, and Adams only re-entered the political game to unseat Bridges from his position as party leader. Only Winston Peters seems to have the luxury of being able to turn a place in the losing faction into a long-term career. While recent departures are obviously varied and can’t entirely be pinned down to intra-party politics, currently 13 National MPs have withdrawn their bids for re-election. Even within the party members that are staying on, there is a slow but sure realignment towards the more openly conservative crowd, or more overtly right-wing benefactors, getting higher positions or more prominent public-facing roles. Even with the perhaps immature presumption of a crushing loss for National, it appears clear that the more socially conservative members have consolidated their power, and are not afraid to flex their slow control over the party. This is something that has been happening since the departure of John Key, with the religious conservative faction gaining a stronger foothold under Bridges – New Zealand is not immune to the rightward shifts in what passes for Western democracy these days. The key to Judith’s future is how National suffers a loss in September, and how many figures lose their jobs; too many, and the panic might cause the party to split. Too little, and Judith could be subjected to another coup – even with her increasing control over the party, she is incredibly unpopular within the caucus because of how controversial she is. By limiting the loss to a Goldilocks Zone, she could transform National into a party that is a lot closer to the right section of centre-right.
Whatever you think about Judith Collins, she is not a force to take lightly. She stands a chance in this election. She is an entirely corrupt demagogue, but fiercely competent, and with dirt Rolodexes and intelligence that few in our political system can compare to, much less withstand. We deserve better than this, but for the meantime, the debates will certainly be must-see TV. Jacinda Ardern, for all her charms, is going to face a tough opponent in the woman who is only a couple of percentage points away from monologuing about what should she break first; Batman’s spirit, or his body.