11 Dec 2020

Judith Collins reflects on 'really weird' 2020 and looks to the future

11:28 am on 11 December 2020

Judith Collins still manages a laugh when asked to sum up 2020: "Moments of lightness, followed by lots of really tough times ... it's been one of those years that people will look back and say, I remember 2020! It's been a really weird year."

Judith Collins

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

This year has been for tough for everyone alright, but the National Party has been a particular casualty.

Starting the year the main opposition party had Simon Bridges at the helm, then Covid struck, the public turned and there followed a well-documented series of leadership changes and self-inflicted disasters.

The year ends with Judith Collins at the helm, a decimated caucus and a momentous task ahead to rebuild the party.

RNZ sat down with National leader Judith Collins to reflect on the year that's been, and the one that lies ahead.

Politicians often talk about "lessons learned" and there have been plenty for Collins.

After years of making her leadership ambitions well known Collins has the job; not quite a "poisoned chalice" but still not "a golden ticket", she says.

Firstly - farewelling colleagues and dealing with the realities of a much smaller caucus "really does help to focus everyone on what is important ... the National Party not talking about itself but getting on and doing the job".

Second - "you can't ever win if you're having seeds of disunity in the party; you can't get policy out if the first question being asked is 'how come someone's leaked?' there can be no tolerance for that".

But has the caucus received the strong message about the need for unity, I asked. "I think you could probably tell me better than anyone", Collins replied.

"People just have to focus on their job ... it's twofold: one is to hold the government to account, particularly for the promises or lack of delivery, but the other one is to propose better policies, but also to refresh the way that we think about things.

There are still resentments and factional loyalties among the MPs, but for now, everyone is hunkering down, allowing Collins to do the hard yards after the election defeat. But as she knows only too well herself, there are some who are biding their time, awaiting the right moment.

She is "entirely unfazed by the thought that there are people in the caucus who one day might like to be leader".

Part of her job, Collins says, is to develop a succession plan because "no leader is ever there forever".

"But at the same time, I'm feeling I'm making a difference.

"I feel that the caucus is coming together well, and I feel that people know that they can contact me they can come in here, there's no barriers up and the culture that I'm trying to build within that caucus is one where people can trust the leadership."

Leadership from here

Will she be leader come 2023? "That's always up to the caucus and I expect I will be," she says.

"I've been obviously kept in the role unanimously and I think that that is something that the party particularly wants as well; they want us to focus on our work, and not to go around looking for the prize.

"Because if anybody seriously thinks that being leader of the Opposition is the political prize that they desperately want, they're probably the last person should get the job.

"This is a job of responsibility and it's a job that needs a focus on how to build a team and to bring it together. It's an entirely different job in terms of meeting people's expectations - it's actually a team leader, not just being the star of the show."

Being Opposition leader is inherently to be critical and we saw how damaging that can be if the public does not think the tone is right.

Just part of the job, Collins says.

"It's why leader of the Opposition is not the job that people should desperately, desperately want - I actually think it's, it's a tough job.

"But if we don't do it, then it's not actually viable to be the Opposition. I mean, why bother if you're not going to actually do your job? We're called Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition for a reason," she says.

"Our job is to critique the government, as is media's actually, and that's all part of being in a functioning democracy. A liberal democracy requires that and if people don't like a liberal democracy, there's plenty of other countries that don't have them."

Should the members have more say?

Collins says there's been talk from "various people", but not from the caucus, about allowing party members to have some say in the election of a new leader, more along the lines of Labour and the Greens, whose membership have varying degrees of influence.

At the moment for National it is a straight caucus vote, with little detail in the party's rules about how a leadership contest should be held.

National is in the middle of an election post mortem and Collins says the way the leader is elected may well come up, but it will not be driven by her.

"It's not for me to choose to do that, that would I think be wrong and people might feel that I had a vested interest and that I don't want to be involved in any of those discussions."

"I don't want to get involved in any of that," says Collins, "because the moment I do, it would be seen as being an issue ... and I think that's really up to the party to decide."

However, she believes it is important parties continue to consider their rules, and that selections could also come in for a bit of attention.