28 Nov 2021

Judith Collins: 20 years of the Crusher in Parliament

1:08 pm on 28 November 2021

Colourful and controversial, with a killer eyebrow raise - she may be best known as "Crusher" but Judith Collins' nearly 20 years in politics cannot be summed up so succinctly.

No caption

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Her 499-day reign as National's leader came to an end yesterday after a vote of no confidence from her caucus. She will stay on as Papakura's MP in the next chapter of a colourful career in politics.

She has previously been the minister for ACC, Corrections, energy and resources, ethnic affairs, ethnic communities, justice, police, revenue and veterans' affairs.

Getting started in politics

Collins was first elected to Parliament in July 2002 as MP for Clevedon, later switching to the Papakura electorate in 2008. A lawyer by profession, she saw the halls of power as a place to shape good laws that could in turn shape good attitudes.

She believed in law and order, and this shapes her legacy - the nickname Crusher Collins sprang from a crackdown on boyracers when she was Police Minister in 2009.

The crusher resigned as minister heading into the 2014 election after a series of scandals that year. The final blow was the Dirty Politics allegations that she was involved in a campaign to discredit then-Serious Fraud Office boss Adam Feeley.

  • Oravida: In March 2014, Collins visited the Shanghai offices of Oravida, of which her husband is a director, while on a taxpayer-funded trip. Oravida had requested help from the government on Chinese border control issues just weeks earlier. Collins later admitted to having dinner with the company's bosses. She had claimed the visit was "on the way to the airport" but the offices are 30km in the opposite direction. The company later used her image for promotional purposes, without her consent. Then-Prime Minister John Key gave her a "final warning".
  • Wetlands comments: It emerged swamp kauri had been stockpiled in Northland under the name Oravida Kauri, another business linked to Oravida and Collins' husband. She outraged environmentalists by telling a reporter she did not care, saying, "Am I the Minister of Wetlands?"
  • Dirty Politics: Collins was accused of leaking information to her friend and right-wing blogger Cameron Slater in Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics, released in August 2014 about a month before the election. She resigned from Cabinet after allegations she tried to undermine the Serious Fraud Office director. She was cleared after an investigation by a High Court judge, but the political damage was done.

Collins is not one to give up however, and just a year later John Key somewhat controversially had her reinstated to the Police and Corrections portfolios in 2015.

National leadership

Collins has long had her eye on the top job in the National Party, and finally got the gig just 10 weeks out from the 2020 election after Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller rolled Simon Bridges - then resigned just 53 days later over mental health concerns.

The role at that point was considered something of a poisoned chalice and a hospital pass - the party was down in the polls after continued criticism of the Labour government as it grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic - and she later revealed she considered rejecting the role.

Muller had also just been dealing with the fallout of the leaking of confidential Covid-19 patient information to National MPs by acting chief of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust Michelle Boag, who was on the party's board.

What followed Collins' elevation, with Gerry Brownlee as her deputy, was a tumultuous race with self-inflicted disasters and distractions culminating in National's worst defeat in many years.

Judith Collins in Hamilton on 14 October

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Muller's demolition of Bridges had also swept aside some of the party's preparations for the election campaign, and Brownlee made yet more changes when he took over campaign management, which Collins later admitted.

"Covid-19 lockdowns and two leadership changes meant we were not as well organised or prepared for an election as we had been in the past ... there were also issues with our policy platform, campaign management, themes, messaging, discipline and of course distractions and scandals of our own making."

A fraught campaign:

National party leader Judith Collins prays at St Thomas Church in Tāmaki before casting her early vote for the election.

National party leader Judith Collins prays at St Thomas Church in Tāmaki before casting her early vote for the election. Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

Collins may have prayed for success, but if she did it was not answered. National secured just 26.8 percent of the vote, conceding defeat well before it was called on election night.

National has consistently polled in the low 20s, and recent chatter about a leadership change prompted her to make one thing clear - she would never resign.

Brownlee took the flak for the loss, resigning as deputy, but Collins stuck it out as leader, taking the government to task over its handling of the pandemic.

No caption

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The focus kept straying back to National's internal politics though, including more sex scandal accusations against former Upper Harbour candidate Jake Bezzant.

The departure of long-time MP Nick Smith also brought her leadership style into question, and some of those questions - about exactly what she said to Smith about a Parliamentary Service investigation into him, and whether it was an attempt to remove him - remain unanswered.

More recently, an extraordinary interview with TVNZ's Breakfast host Indira Stewart, who asked Collins if she had a Covid test before leaving Auckland in alert level 4.

A crushing halt

Yesterday was about Collins and her shock demotion of Simon Bridges the day before, a move and an approach which quickly ended her own leadership.

The reason behind it was apparently a lewd comment some five years previous in the presence of Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean, and while Collins claimed to have the unanimous backing of the party board, the board itself disputed that, saying they supported an investigation with a right of reply for Bridges and no more.

Bridges later said he had apologised repeatedly to Dean, and criticised Collins' approach as lacking any due process.

He and his brother-in-law MP Simon O'Connor came out swinging before the caucus meeting yesterday morning, saying Collins' approach was desperate and she must be replaced.

Less than four hours later she was gone, after a vote of no confidence.

She never showed up for the media briefing she had scheduled for 10am alongside her deputy Shane Reti and Dean, with Reti left holding the reins, promising to shepherd the party until it voted in a new leader at a caucus meeting next Tuesday.

Collins had promised never to resign from the role, and she kept that promise. Her exit from Parliament was a quick one yesterday - her final goodbye cheery as she hopped into a cab.

No caption

Judith Collins in her final few weeks as leader. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"It's a hard job and I've done everything I possibly could and I just wish everyone well."

She said she would never regret the statement demoting Bridges, and she stood by the decision.

She's not gone forever though. Collins' time as leader may be over, but she's staying in Parliament. As she announced on social media yesterday, she's happy to be "just the MP for Papakura again".

"It has taken huge stamina and resolve, & has been particularly difficult because of a variety of factors. I knew when I was confided in by a female colleague regarding her allegation of serious misconduct against a senior colleague, that I would likely lose the leadership by taking the matter so seriously. If I hadn't, then I felt that I wouldn't deserve the role. I didn't ask for the allegation to be given to me. I am proud of the support I received from Dr Shane Reti, a man of principle, and I will continue to advocate, not only for Papakura, but for those who have no voice."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs