Week in Politics: National's 'Demand the Debate' campaign gets picked apart

7:21 pm on 16 July 2021

Analysis - Judith Collins' "Demand the Debate" campaign is picked apart by the media - what is she really up to? The first mass vaccination event is announced but some aged care residents are still waiting for theirs, and the government offers councils a $2.5 billion sweetener to join its Three Waters reform proposals.

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Judith Collins launched her new strategy last Sunday. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

After a brief hiatus, Judith Collins has resumed her campaign against what she calls the government's "separatism by stealth" agenda.

The National Party leader launched her new strategy on Sunday, and RNZ reported that large blue billboards bearing her picture and the message "He Puapua: Demand the Debate" had sprung up around the country.

She told media at the launch in Auckland the government was pushing through changes it did not campaign on.

Her first pick has been the He Puapua report but she has mentioned others including the new hate speech laws, the electric vehicle proposals which she calls a car tax, the cancellation of promised infrastructure projects, the Auckland cycle bridge and the gas exploration ban.

Collins told Morning Report many people feared being shut down by the media or "cancelled" on social media for voicing their opinions. "New Zealanders are feeling shut out from the debate."

Collins has previously used the He Puapua report to attack the government. It was drafted by a group commissioned to look for ways to achieve the objectives of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and suggests separate Māori health and justice systems, RMA rules and electoral arrangements.

Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson has described it as a collection of ideas, separate from government policy.

That hasn't deterred Collins.

"The He Puapua report contains recommendations for fundamental changes to our legal, constitutional and democratic governance arrangements," she said at the launch of her latest campaign.

"While they claim publicly it's not their policy, the Labour government has already started to implement large parts of He Puapua like Māori wards and a Māori Health Authority, without the wide-ranging public debate that these changes deserve."

Stuff revealed she had asked Don Brash, the former National Party and ACT leader, to help raise $300,000 for the campaign. It has a leaked email, headed "strictly confidential", that Brash sent to potential donors. In it Brash says Collins has asked him to raise the money for a billboard campaign on "Treaty of Waitangi issues".

"Judith believes that it is imperative that New Zealanders become better informed about what the government seems intent on delivering, while they pretend that this is not in fact their real agenda," Brash said in the email.

Despite some hard questioning on Morning Report Collins refused to confirm that she asked Brash for help.

Far from being upset about the story, however, Collins told Stuff that since it was published donations had surged in. "What happened after that Stuff story ran? We have got more people now saying they want to donate to the National Party and help us in this campaign."

Media response has been to question why Collins thinks a debate is needed and what her real intentions are.

Herald senior writer Simon Wilson said it felt like "every retrograde thing we know about the National Party, all wrapped up in one terribly tangled knot".

"What debate are we not having?" he asked. "The issues Collins has identified …. all of them are being furiously debated, in Parliament and all over the country."

Wilson quoted Collins: "Every week I'm contacted by thousands of Kiwis who are worried they just don't have a say in the future of their country anymore" and said: "What about when they vote, or when they post on Facebook, write to the paper or ring their favourite radio host? Debate is free and furious in this country."

As for Collins' intentions, Wilson said it seemed National was now focusing its appeal on disaffection and resentment. The party had "no greater ambition than to duke it out with ACT and NZ First for a share of the disaffected. It is politics as a juvenile sport and the electorate knows it. We've moved on."

Stuff political editor Luke Malpass said the He Puapua report was the one big issue Collins had grasped and turned into a supposed secret separatist agenda. Now she had launched a billboard campaign demanding debate.

"As a message it's hopeless," Malpass said. "Those unhappy with the government want an alternative, not a debate. Most voters won't care."

Whether Malpass is right about voters not caring remains to be seen, but that's actually the point of Collins's campaign. She wants them to care, and to voice their concerns about issues which National opposes. She wants to fire up debate around He Puapua and get those who are worried about it to voice their concerns.

Collins timing was spot on. With Parliament in recess, her campaign was the main political story of the week until Wednesday, when Chris Hipkins announced the first mass vaccination event.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The Covid-19 response minister must be the hardest-working member of Cabinet. It's easy to forget he's also education minister.

The event would be held in Manukau on the weekend of Friday 30 July to Sunday 1 August, and the plan was to vaccinate more than 15,000 people over the three days, he said.

That meant the vaccinators would each inject one person every minute, RNZ reported.

The original dates for the event had been 2, 3 and 4 July but that was postponed because of supply constraints.

Hipkins now seems very confident the Pfizer deliveries are going to continue on schedule, with the first big delivery of 1.5 million coming through in August.

He described the mass vaccination event as a prototype, and said he wanted to make sure all the systems were right. It will test the organisers.

The government will be anxious about that. Hipkins and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have had a hard time in recent weeks explaining their way through delays and the diminishing stockpile that came close to running out.

The mass vaccination event was a "good news" announcement, but two days later Stuff reported that some aged care residents - including at retirement villages and care facilities - were yet to receive their jabs.

And managed isolation was in the news again as RNZ reported that Kiwis anxious to return home for the first time since the pandemic began were saying it was ridiculous that they had to compete for MIQ places with people coming back from a holiday.

One woman said her daughter could not get home after two years in London but her son's friend had just secured a spot and would soon leave for an overseas holiday.

Other political news this week include

The government announced a $2.5 billion sweetener to encourage councils to join its proposed Three Waters reforms. It will be shared out to make sure councils are not worse off if they turn over their water infrastructure to four new entities. The scheme will be voluntary but that could change, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta has indicated. Collins said it was a bribe. Reaction to the reforms from the country's 67 councils has been mixed.

ACT said both the main parties had failed to address the housing crisis and set out a plan of its own. Leader David Seymour suggested creating a public-private Nation Building Agency

to fund new infrastructure for housing development, giving 50 percent of GST from new builds to councils to encourage them to approve consents, and a raft of other measures. "Labour was elected to fix housing but has not managed to," he said.

Judith Collins continued her ferocious attacks on the government over its decision to give $2.75 million from the Proceeds of Crime Fund to an organisation with gang connections so it could run a methamphetamine addiction programme. Police leadership backs the programme but the Police Association doesn't. Stuff quoted association president Chris Cahill as saying one officer had described it as "the most successful money laundering scheme he'd heard (of)". It's not as simple as it sounds. To find out why read RNZ's website article: "Is Labour funding the mongrel mob? What you need to know".

*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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