Election 2020: Can Judith Collins keep a lid on it?

1:53 pm on 6 October 2020

Power Play - The ability of Judith Collins to think on her feet in the heat of the campaign has been a great advantage, but could also prove to be a great risk, including for relations with her caucus.

National Party leader Judith Collins campaigning in Gisborne on 24 September, 2020.

National Party leader Judith Collins. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Unhappy with the performance of the Auckland Council, Collins announced her intention to initiate a full-scale review of its operations, if elected, on breakfast radio, causing upset within the ranks, as evidenced by an email from MP Denise Lee to caucus colleagues.

Lee, a former Auckland City councillor, described it as a "highly problematic idea", a "nightmare" and "another working group". More damaging to Collins were her comments about being bypassed: "Incredibly poor form and displays a shockingly bad example of poor culture".

Another MP has told RNZ there's a distinct lack of internal communications, with caucus not being shown internal polling for "months". They also referred to "sh*t getting announced chaotically - other than that [things are going] great!".

When Collins was elected leader, it was the last desperate move of the caucus with no choice but to pin their hopes on her to at least hold up the vote. She's long been a polarising figure and now is not the time to be inflaming old feelings of distrust or internal hostilities.

She's kept a lid on any caucus discontent so far, largely because all involved are hyper alert to the damage that could inflict on the party and its chances at the election.

With the "strong team" cauterised from its hoardings and campaign material, no-one would be wanting to draw attention to the past months of political horror.

By all accounts the party's internal planning and institutional knowledge about running a well-oiled opposition machine was gutted when Simon Bridges and his team was ousted. Not only did senior politicians walk out the door, but experienced staffers, including the chief of staff and the chief press secretary. It was a bitter transition and there was no great desire from those departing to give the next team - at that point headed by Todd Muller - any advantage from the work already done over the past term. Collins brought some experience and decisiveness back to the leadership but that loss is still evident.

Collins' natural tendency to speak her mind, and more recently on policy positions she decides she likes, needs careful management; which this week has been lacking.

Speaking to reporters today she denied making up policy on the hoof (despite admitting to that very thing last week over the wage subsidy) but said "leaders do make decisions ... it's part of leadership ... during campaigns leaders have to go out and make announcements".

The "campaign team" had signed off on the Auckland Council policy, Collins told reporters, but it was not run past the front bench of the party's most senior MPs. She put Lee's reaction down to her inexperience in national politics, as her "first time campaigning as an MP".

"I'm sure he's apologised," she said when asked about comments from another MP, but wouldn't elaborate.

"The issue has been dealt with ... I'm very aware of the stress some people get under election campaigns - personally I don't."

Another MP told RNZ campaign teams making the calls is not necessarily that unusual at this stage of the game, but Covid and the disjointed and prolonged nature of the election campaign means the caucus hasn't had the opportunity to meet in person for at least two months. The MP said that means however some "have gone a bit funny" and others are "roaming around the paddock", none of which helps actual caucus cohesion, or the public's image of the team.

Another said you "can't decide everything by committee, a successful campaign is about having a small group of people making decisions at pace and being reactive".

It must be galling for Collins to be standing as leader, facing the same questions that have dogged National for years about caucus unity, leaks and her leadership at such a crucial time. The caucus "is united" she insists, and RNZ has been told there is a general feeling the party's on the right track with the polls starting to tighten up. However, the real test is whether she can keep a lid on it in the last two frantic weeks of the campaign, when slip-ups can prove fatal.