Week in politics: Collins moves fast to fix National Party

2:56 pm on 17 July 2020

By Peter Wilson*

Just a few days in the job and Judith Collins is looking as though she was made for it.

National Party leader Judith Collins addresses media with support from party members following the emergency caucus meeting on 14 July.

National Party leader Judith Collins addresses media with support from party members following the emergency caucus meeting on 14 July. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

National's latest new leader is sharp, decisive, and comfortable in front of the cameras. The contrast between Collins and Todd Muller couldn't be more stark.

The party moved quickly after Muller's shock resignation, and the caucus held an emergency meeting to elect a leader. Collins had tried before and didn't have the numbers, but this time National's MPs turned to her in a time of dire need.

With Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams having decided to stand down, there doesn't appear to have been much opposition. Mark Mitchell teamed up with Louise Upston to challenge Collins, and that was it.

National has got what it most needs at the moment. Collins has been in parliament for 18 years, she was a senior cabinet minister in the last government and she knows the system inside out. So does her deputy, Gerry Brownlee.

Her job is to whip the party into shape and present it as an alternative government, and she has to do it in a matter of weeks. She must replace chaos with confidence, and she has made a fast start.

Collins' first public announcement was that she had stripped Michael Woodhouse of the health portfolio because he received confidential Covid-19 patient information from Michelle Boag and kept quiet about it. Perhaps Muller was watching her and thinking 'that's what I should have done'.

Then she reshuffled her shadow cabinet, having said after she was chosen that it would be a "fairly minor" affair. As RNZ reported, there was nothing minor about it.

Collins gave the health portfolio to Shane Reti and put him on the front bench, which went some way towards ending the diversity controversy that gave Muller problems. Former leader Simon Bridges was given justice as well as foreign affairs and ranked fourth behind deputy leader Brownlee and finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith.

Muller wasn't punished for throwing the party into crisis. Collins promoted him to the front bench with the trade portfolio.

She told RNZ on Friday she didn't like to see former leaders not being respected, and that was after Bridges admitted he had voted for Mitchell.

Mitchell had held justice, and he was demoted. Collins said that had nothing to do with him, having challenged her, she thought the portfolio fitted better with Bridges who is a former prosecutor.

Kaye and Adams explained their reasons for leaving on Morning Report, both of them endorsing Collins as the new leader. They have left big gaps, and National has to find two new election candidates. Auckland Central was held by Labour before Kaye captured it and the party will fancy its chances of regaining it. Adams' Selwyn seat is safe National.

The media focus on National's problems tended to overshadow Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's important announcement on Wednesday.

She explained what would happen if Covid-19 escaped from the isolation facilities for returnees, and if that happens everyone could be affected.

The government is hoping for the best and planning for the worst. Ardern's comments indicated it believes a community outbreak may be inevitable.

More than once, she made the point that the pandemic was exploding beyond our borders, which meant more Kiwis were likely to bring it home with them.

"When we closed our borders on the 19th of March there were 240,000 cases in the world in total. It's fifty times worse than that now," she said.

Ardern said businesses had asked the government for certainty about what would happen if there was an outbreak. They don't want another nationwide lockdown, and Ardern said that would be a last resort.

The plan deals with three scenarios: A case or a number of cases in a community, a larger number of cases or a cluster in a region, and multiple clusters that have spread nationally.

Ardern made the point that it's actually much easier to put the whole country into lockdown that it is to seal off neighbourhoods or regions, but that is what will happen under the first two scenarios.

Locking down a community or a suburb would mean setting boundaries, with roadblocks manned by police. The military would be called in if resources were stretched.

There would be intensive testing and contact tracing to eliminate the virus in the affected area, while the rest of the country would probably remain at level 1.

The third scenario would "most likely" mean a nationwide increase in the alert level.

The government still believes that going hard and early is the most effective way to deal with the virus. "Where we don't have full information, we will take a precautionary approach and scale back as needed rather than run the risk of doing too little too late," Ardern said.

Another indication of the government's concern was the repeated appeals this week from Ardern, Health Minister Chris Hipkins and the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, for people to pay more attention to keeping a record of their movements.

They all stressed the importance of fast contact tracing, and their worry that people were becoming complacent because life seemed to have returned to normal. Their point was that it might seem normal in New Zealand but it wasn't in most of the rest of the world.

Ardern was asked at her press conference whether she considered Collins would pose a threat at the election. She said she was focused on the government's response to the pandemic and only a tiny part of her mind was on politics and the election.

She said she thought that was what New Zealanders expected of her. She may continue to think that during the election campaign.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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