8 Oct 2020

Collins & Peters on thin ice as Ardern finds her feet

From Caucus, 2:00 pm on 8 October 2020

National's not having the week Judith Collins would have prayed for.

After a couple of strong debate performances and some solid policy releases, some National MPs were starting to dare to hope that there might be a hint of a shadow of an outside chance for some kind of upset this election. Labour leader Jacinda Ardern was looking flat and two polls shifted things just a smidge to the centre-right. Then Denise Lee sent an email and Collins went for a walk.

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As voters have started advance voting in large numbers, they have been reminded that National has been a party divided this past term and a couple of debates don't heal all wounds. In Caucus this week, the consensus was that National at the worst possible time has reminded voters there are real questions about its readiness to govern. And the damage was entirely self-inflicted.

Someone in National leaked an angry email from Maungakiekie MP and the party's Auckland spokeswoman, Denise Lee, criticising Judith Collins' announcement of a review of Auckland Council, 10 years after the super city was created. It was a pretty tepid policy - a review, something much like another 'working party' that National has been loudly critical of this past term - but it was a chance for Collins to kick into Auckland Council. A pretty safe target. Lee, however, hadn't been consulted on the policy and thought that "a shockingly bad example of poor culture". The review plan, she wrote, was "problematic".

Judith Collins and Denise Lee at a scrap metal yard in Onehunga, Auckland.

Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

She should have felt safe to vent amongst trusted colleagues, but instead one of them forwarded the email to media. As discussed in the podcast, it's not unusual for leaders to make policy on the hoof during a campaign. Collins and Ardern both promised a review of Pharmac off the cuff on the Newshub leaders' debate, for example.

It's especially predictable given Collins took on the job at the last minute, tasked with "saving the furniture", as Mike Moore once put it. Collins took the risk to save her party and deserves the licence to wing it now and then. But the leak is a clear reminder that some in her own caucus don't want her to get too comfortable in the job or boost the party's vote too much. Save the furniture, but don't get too comfortable in the big chair, you might say.

Then came her now infamous walk down Ponsonby Rd in Auckland Central, where an array of National Party supporters just happened to be lined up waiting to praise her. Even long-time party activist Hamish Price was there, not giving his name to journalists and claiming he just happened to be passing. The sloppy stage management was all in stark and slightly pathetic contrast to the crowds and queues the Labour leader has been drawing around the country. 

National campaign consultant Hamish Price on One News, Ponsonby, Auckland October 2020. Screenshot TVNZ.

National campaign consultant Hamish Price on One News, Ponsonby, Auckland October 2020. Screenshot TVNZ. Photo: RNZ

It didn't help that these two SNAFUs involved National candidates - Lee and Emma Mellow - in tight seat races.

As Espiner put it, Collins has been playing out of her skin this campaign. But she has been skating on thin ice and this week she couldn't sustain the level of performance any more, and put her foot right in it.

The impression National is stretched thin at the moment was also on display at The Press debate - aka the graveyard of Opposition leaders. While Collins didn't crash and burn in the way Phil Goff and David Cunliffe have before her, she struggled. Ardern for once criticised her opponent and drew a stark contrast between them. As Lisa Owen said, Collins got the tone wrong, responding to the town hall vibe in the theatre rather than the key TV audience at home. 

In one telling moment, Ardern said National's three leaders this year had all had different positions on Covid-19 and all of them had been wrong. Ouch. Collins denied her claims that previous national leaders had wanted New Zealand to open "the borders to Australia and China early. That we should have lifted our restrictions early". "We did not," Collins said.

Except, they kinda did. In April, Simon Bridges was critical of the time the country was spending at level 4, saying lockdown had to be lifted "as soon as possible. We have to let people get back to work". In May Todd Muller mused, "I think we need to push on beyond the New Zealand-Australia bubble. We need to start thinking now about what would be the next sensible country to open. How can we move into other countries, like China, in due course in a way that keep our people safe but allow us to capture the opportunity of getting up there first."

So National's position has changed through the year, although it's fair to say that Ardern left out a few key facts. National's push to open up was always qualified by phrases such as 'as soon as it's safe'. Bridges was quite explicit that moving out of lockdown was dependent on good PPE use, mandatory quarantine (which Labour hadn't introduced then) and careful contact tracing.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern looks on as National leader Judith Collins speaks at The Press debate in Christchurch.  06/10/20

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern looks on as National leader Judith Collins speaks at The Press debate in Christchurch. Photo: Pool / Stuff

In the Maori seats, the one to watch seems to be Waiariki. The fact Labour's Maori caucus turned up there en masse this week shows they are nervous. Te Pati Maori candidate Rawiri Waititi is pushing incumbent Tamati Coffey hard. Scott Campbell, who lives in the electorate, said people knew and liked "the man in the hat". While they may be laying the ground for 2023 rather than pulling off an upset this time, they stand a chance. With Coffey looking safe on Labour's list, te Pati Maori has the chance to run the two-for-one argument Hone Harawira used so effectively in Te Tai Tokerau. 

With nine days to go Ardern seems to be finding her feet, while Collins is a bit like Wylie E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, running in mid-air, looking for traction, hoping for the ground to catch up with her as time ticks by. 


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