16 Jul 2020

The many sides of Judith Collins

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 16 July 2020

National Party leader Judith Collins addresses media alongside deputy leader Gerry Brownlee following the emergency caucus meeting on 14 July.

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

When The Detail asked young voters what questions they needed answered about the September election, one of them was, ‘who is Todd Muller?’.

That question’s now redundant … and 18-year-olds might well be asking ‘who is Judith Collins?’

But anyone with any political memory already knows. The new leader of the Opposition has an 18-year political career dotted with controversy, combat, and quick quips.

“She’s a warrior queen,” says a political columnist for BusinessDesk, Jane Clifton. “She’s got a terrific sense of humour and you’ve only got to look at her to know that she’s full of mischief.” But – “I don’t think she’s quite as strategically brilliant as she thinks she is.”

“She’s feisty,” says NewstalkZB’s political editor Barry Soper. “She knows her own mind ... she’s a politician through and through.”

“She’s certainly someone who’s learnt how to operate – and operate well, and cope well as a politician,” says a former political rival, Green Party MP Sue Bradford. “She’s … ruthless.” Although – “she can be incredibly charming and pleasant.”

On The Detail today, Sharon Brettkelly talks to all three about the ‘indomitable’ Judith Collins, and the pressure of politics that led to Muller standing down and handing her the job.

Collins’ colourful history includes temporary political disgrace, slipping information to her right-wing blogging friend, and sniping at rivals and journalists. She dubbed Jacinda Arden as “My Little Pony”. But she also got stuck into her leader John Key for pony-tail pulling – when her National colleagues wrote it off as ‘horseplay’.  

The lawyer who grew up on a Waikato farm is married to a Samoan-Chinese businessman and has one son.

Media surround Judith Collins before she enters the debating chamber..

Media surround Judith Collins before she enters the debating chamber.. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Soper says she’s polarising, and abrasive – but in the wider National Party she’s a very popular figure. She’s also made a lot of friends on the back benches during her time there, and those friends have come to the fore now.

“There will be a certain element I would imagine that would say, ‘look she’s been tainted by dirty politics’, but politics isn’t a pure game, and it’s not for the fainthearted. And people in politics do things that ordinarily maybe they wouldn’t do to gain power. Let’s remember most people who come into politics don’t come in wringing their hands and saying ‘how can we damage the country’. They come in with the best of intentions to make the country a better place,” says Soper.

“I would certainly put not only Jacinda Ardern in that role, but Judith Collins as well.”

Collins says she’s not keen on the “Crusher Collins” moniker but Soper says it gives her that attack dog image which she’s become well known for in the debating chamber, and she’ll push it to one side when it doesn’t suit.

“A strong leader is a popular leader,” he says. “To succeed in politics you’ve got to be tough … and Judith Collins has a rhinoceros hide.”

Jane Clifton says one of the things we’re discovering about politics is you don’t really know if you’ve got the chops for it until you come into it.

“Even journalism – you know we think we’re pretty scrappy and resilient – and really most journalists who’ve gone into politics have not done very well because they’ve found it too tough and too bruising.”

Clifton tells Sharon Brettkelly today that Todd Muller, after all, did not have the temperament to endure it. “This is the only time I’ve seen a leader topple, and people are not kicking him while he’s down. Everybody’s very sorry about it.” 

Does she think Judith Collins will last longer? Find out on today’s podcast.