Former National MP Andrew Falloon’s hopes of hanging on until the election were quickly dashed as the scale of his offences became clear. Now, party leader Judith Collins faces questions about her response and the environment within the caucus.
The morning after assuming leadership of the National Party, and just hours after Amy Adams and Nikki Kaye joined the exodus of MPs, Judith Collins was asked whether she expected any further departures before the September 19 election.
“You never know, people can make their own choices,” she replied.
It proved accurate foreshadowing: certainly, Collins could not have known then that Andrew Falloon’s terrible choices would explode so spectacularly less than a week into her reign.
The Rangitata MP’s fate was sealed when Collins became aware, via Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office, that he had sent explicit, unsolicited images to a teenager.
But by presenting the matter as an isolated incident, and citing mental health problems worsened by the suicide of a friend, Falloon seemed to hope he could at least keep his job for a few more months and “retire” come September 19.
That became untenable – as he surely should have known it would – as other women came forward to share their own unpleasant exchanges, with one accusing Falloon of “gaslighting” by repeatedly sending inappropriate pictures then acting as if there was nothing amiss.
Collins said the MP had lied to her, and that police believed he had also lied to them during their investigation into the first incident (their decision not to charge Falloon is now being revisited in light of the new, numerous allegations).
The National caucus certainly seemed blindsided by the extent of their former colleague’s behaviour, and in seeking Falloon’s immediate resignation as more came to light, Collins was a step ahead of how former National leader Todd Muller had handled the Hamish Walker saga.
But she still faced difficult questions about her handling of the affair, on two fronts.
The first was her delay in acting on the first allegations about Falloon: they were passed to her office on Friday evening, but Collins did not speak to Falloon about them until Monday.
Her defence – that she wanted to speak to the MP face to face, rather than sacking him via text message or email – had some logic, although given the severity of the issue she could have chosen to make an exception.
But the bigger problem is whether Falloon and Collins, in their initial statements announcing his resignation, placed too much emphasis on his mental health problems and not enough on his actual actions.
It seems clear that mental health issues may explain some of his explicit messages, but they certainly do not excuse it – and that the MP and his leader chose to focus on that aspect while only vaguely alluding to his wrongdoing raises real issues of judgment.
The Falloon furore partly explained the lack of spark in the first Question Time clash between Collins and Ardern.
The National leader’s backers had argued she would bring a new dynamic to parliamentary and campaign-trail exchanges with the Prime Minister, but there was little evidence of that at the first time of asking.
Instead, Collins borrowed from her predecessors: namely, Simon Bridges’ tendency to put … dramatic …. pauses … between …words, and Muller’s avoidance of ‘gotcha’ questions in favour of a more specific opening (in this case, on the Government’s transport projects).
That did allow her to get in some jabs at Ardern’s failure to deliver on her promise of light rail, but it also gave the Prime Minister a chance to reel off a laundry list of projects started, funded or completed under the coalition.
And Ardern did have a couple of pokes at Collins too: she accused National of “planning to raid” the Government’s Covid-19 response fund to bankroll its infrastructure promises, and had the line of the afternoon when she anticipated an attack over the light rail failure.
“I would say to the member that, as she will well know, sometimes it takes a little longer than you would like to get what you want.”
Ardern’s MPs dutifully roared with laughter, and the government side of the debating chamber appeared more cheery overall than those across the floor.
That is understandable given the circumstances: National now has to find yet another replacement candidate at short notice, and while the Rangitata electorate is fairly blue, it is not as safe as the Southland seat vacated by Walker.
At a higher level, the party’s claims to having a stronger team are being steadily eroded day by day, and with Collins expecting further women to come forward against Falloon, there will be tough questions about how the party did not know about his behaviour sooner.