Less than 14 hours after Todd Muller announced his surprise resignation as National Party leader, Judith Collins has taken the helm of the Opposition. Here’s what you need to know.
One of the National Party’s longest-serving MPs and frequent leadership hopeful, Judith Collins, has finally seized the top job.
The MP for Papakura was elected leader by National’s caucus late on Tuesday evening after a day of whirlwind speculation about who would take the reins from Todd Muller, who resigned as leader of the Opposition that morning after 53 days in the job.
“My focus as leader will be helping rebuild our communities and dealing with the economic and jobs crisis by getting Kiwis back to work,” Collins said in a statement.
Collins a long-time leadership hopeful
While Muller had long held a desire to serve as leader of the National Party, he was a relatively unknown figure when elected from the back benches. Collins, by contrast, has served in Parliament since 2002, was a minister under John Key and Bill English and made two previous tilts at the leadership.
After Key’s resignation in 2016 and English’s in 2017, Collins ran unsuccessfully for the top spot. At the time, her political baggage – including a 16-month stint in the backbenches after she was accused of leaking information about a public servant to right-wing blogger Cameron Slater – was recent enough to hamper her chances.
Now, however, Collins has had three years in Opposition to remake herself as one of National’s most effective MPs, regularly demolishing embattled then-Housing Minister Phil Twyford in Question Time over the Government’s bungling of KiwiBuild. She has also further bolstered her skills at knotty policy issues, perhaps best exemplified by her taking on the thorny Resource Management Act portfolio.
She will be joined by Gerry Brownlee in the deputy leader role. The MP for Ilam joined Parliament in 1996 and was seen as a rising star and a threat to then-leader Bill English in the early 2000s. In 2003, he ousted Nick Smith from the deputy leader role and held onto it until the duo of Key and English took over in 2006.
Under Key, Brownlee served in a variety of roles including Minister of Transport, Defence and Energy and Resources. He was put in charge of the government’s response to the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, but the faux pas-prone MP was disliked by many residents for his wartime approach to the crisis, as well as his dismissal of critics as “carpers and moaners”.
After English took over as Prime Minister, Brownlee was made Minister of Foreign Affairs and continued to hold that portfolio through much of his time in opposition. After Muller was elected leader, Brownlee gave up the foreign affairs portfolio to Simon Bridges.
Through her first six years in Parliament, during National’s dark days in the shadow of Helen Clark, Collins received generally positive reviews. Once National came to power in 2008, Collins took on the mantle of the party’s tough-on-crime, car-crushing crusader as Minister for Police, Corrections and Veterans’ Affairs. It was her stint as police minister that earned her the long-lasting nickname ‘Crusher’ Collins, after she passed a law that would enable police to crush the vehicles of boy racers as a third strike measure.
Her appointment as Minister of Justice after the 2011 election further burnished her tough-on-crime credentials and she quickly rose to become the highest-ranked woman in National’s Cabinet – an arena she recently described as a “boy’s club”.
Collins’ swift but temporary downfall came in 2014 as scandals piled up. First, she received a scolding from Key in March for endorsing New Zealand milk exported to China by a company where her husband, David Wong Tung, was serving as director.
In August, Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics revealed Collins had fed Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater information about a public servant in the Department of Internal Affairs. Later that month, Collins’ own third strike came when a leaked email from Slater indicated she had attempted to undermine the director of the Serious Fraud Office, the government’s corruption watchdog, while she was responsible for the agency as Minister of Justice.
Collins resigned her Cabinet positions on August 30, 2014 but was brought back as Police and Corrections Minister in December 2015. After Key resigned in December 2016, Collins briefly contested the leadership before dropping out of the race to let Bill English take the top spot unopposed.
English’s subsequent Cabinet reshuffle saw Collins lose her police and prisons portfolios in favour of becoming Minister for Energy and Resources, Revenue and Ethnic Communities.
Twyford’s nightmare in opposition
After the 2017 election and English’s own resignation, Collins was the first National MP to announce a tilt at the leadership. She failed to gain the role in the first round of voting and failed at a subsequent effort to be deputy leader as well.
Under Bridges, Collins was ranked fourth on the shadow cabinet rankings and given the housing and urban development and RMA reform portfolios. She regularly took advantage of the opportunity to assail former Housing Minister Phil Twyford during Question Time and gained a high profile for her continual criticism of the Government’s performance on its flagship KiwiBuild housing programme.
After Muller was made leader in May, Collins took on the economic development portfolio, allowing her to return to her weekly engagement across the aisle with Twyford.
Throughout Bridges’ often tenuous time on the helm, Collins lurked as a potential replacement. Opinion polling often found Collins was neck-and-neck with Bridges in the preferred Prime Minister stakes – though both were behind ever-popular Jacinda Ardern by double digits.
Collins is widely liked by the National Party base but has less universal appeal within the caucus of parliamentarians. Her tough-on-crime bona fides and a tendency to align with the conservative end of the party on social issues could bolster the party’s wavering base.
Her own approach to politics could perhaps be summed up by her response to the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour Party in 2015.
“At its best, politics is the contest of ideas. It shouldn’t be about playing the game. It shouldn’t be about doing anything to win,” she wrote.
“It’s only by galvanising the base, by giving people a reason to care, that those more centrist will give the party a chance. If a party’s base doesn’t see why they’re bothering, then why should anyone else. No matter what side of politics people are, it’s always easiest to sell policies that you believe in.”