As part of Newsroom’s election-year coverage, Sam Sachdeva speaks to National leader Judith Collins about building a reputation for roads, the team members closest to her, and her plans should she fail to topple Jacinda Ardern

“When you smile, you just feel happy, and if you feel happy you can make other people happy.”

Words of wisdom from a somewhat unlikely source – but Judith Collins wants you to know that she is Having Fun.

It’s not a sentiment either of her predecessors would likely use to describe their 2020, nor a natural fit for an opposition leader staring down the barrel of a double-digit deficit in the polls.

But sipping coffee in her office after a long day of policy work, trying to restore her energy levels ahead of yet more valedictory speeches for her caucus colleagues that evening, the National leader is unequivocal.

“I knew it would be extraordinarily busy, I’ve seen opposition leaders in the past and the level of work that’s required and the hours that are required – but I didn’t realise it would be so much fun.

“I have found it exciting and exhilarating and I’ve just so enjoyed all the public meetings, which I wasn’t quite sure about how that would all go, and I’ve just really enjoyed the enthusiasm I’m receiving – it’s becoming almost evangelical.”

That would come as music to the ears of National MPs who finally turned to Collins to lead their party, a Hail Mary of sorts after Todd Muller’s ill-fated usurping of Simon Bridges.

The Papakura MP has long been a favourite of the party’s core supporters, but she insists her appeal is broader than some claim.

“I’m getting tremendous support from people who haven’t necessarily always voted National and may not have been considered our base, and that’s partly because I think they can see that whatever I say I mean it, and I’m not going to just change my views depending on my audience, and people quite like that, and they want to see things get done.”

As a leader, Collins says she trusts her instincts – honed through roughly 18 years in Parliament and almost evenly split between opposition and government – favouring a hands-off approach to her team over micromanagement.

Strong team?

But the strength of that team has been increasingly called into question. More than a third of the 56-strong caucus will have left National by the time September 19 rolls around, an extraordinarily high number even for a party coming out of three terms in power.

“I wouldn’t worry about that – I think there’s always a good opportunity for others coming in,” Collins responds.

“We’ve got people basically crawling over each other to get into this place for the National Party…so from my point of view, it’s an opportunity, and the opportunity is to bring in not only new faces but new ideas, and new experience.”

As a new MP, Collins says she benefited from Tony Ryall’s mentorship – but which senior colleagues does she turn to now?

“It’s so nice to be in the Kitchen Cabinet, isn’t it?”, Collins remarks, a mischievous glint in her eye accompanying the thinly-veiled dig at being shut out of the inner circle of former National prime ministers John Key and Bill English.

Deputy leader Gerry Brownlee is anointed as a member of her own Kitchen Cabinet, along with finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith and former leader turned justice and foreign affairs spokesman Simon Bridges. 

But her senior staffers play a vital role too, not least Julie Johnston – a former share broker who has worked with Collins in both opposition and as a minister.

“She’s deputy chief of staff, so she’s very valuable to me because she’s someone who understands me, the way I work, and understands my tolerance when it comes to things like policy in terms of what I think is a flashpoint, what my concerns are going to be.”

While National has been mocked by some as the party of roads, Judith Collins says transport is the number one issue for voters across much of the country. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Some fresh ideas would seem useful now, with well over half of the party’s policy announcements before Parliament’s dissolution relating to transport, and roading in particular – not that she resiles from the emphasis on asphalt.

“One of the pillars of our economic plan is infrastructure build, and the number one issue in my electorate is transport, the number one issue in my electorate at the last election was transport…

“That is the number one issue in most of our Auckland seats, it’s the number one biggest issue in a lot of the Wellington seats – it is huge, and it’s because people are stuck in congestion…and they’ve seen a stunningly inept ministerial performance from both Phil Twyford and Julie Anne Genter.”

But there is policy beyond transport: the party’s discussion documents, put together under Bridges then unceremoniously junked by Muller, have been taken out of the bin and put back on the shelf.

While they were devised in a pre-Covid world, Collins does not foresee much change to the plans, with the social investment approach devised by Bill English during National’s last term of government particularly ripe for revival.

“It’s really simply saying if you’ve got people who come from dysfunctional and difficult families, you’re going to end up spending more money on them, so put that effort in early on to try and keep them out of trouble later on, and also end up with better health and social outcomes.”

Making that investment might be difficult if National sticks to finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith’s plan to reduce debt to 30 percent of GDP by 2030/31, a target which Labour and others have claimed would require up to $80 billion of spending cuts over the next decade.

Collins says the party would provide some wriggle room instead of a hard deadline, while the pre-election fiscal update later this month will provide a better idea of the state of the Government’s books.

“If you’re going to borrow, you need to do it now while the interest rates are low, and you’ve got things to do it with, but you can’t be so crazy that you end up leaving your children and grandchildren with debt to deal with, you’ve got to be able to pay it back.”

“I’m not someone who is driven by a need to be the Leader of the Opposition or the Prime Minister. This is not my driving force: my driving force is, you know, what can I do best? And I love doing what I do.”

To be in a position to pay down that debt, National will have to defy the odds and turf out a first-term government led by an incredibly popular Prime Minister in Jacinda Ardern, all at a time of global crisis.

Labour has also turned around a traditional trust deficit on the topic of economic management, but Collins is confident voters will change their minds “when people start to see there’s no economic plan from the government that makes any difference at all”.

Then there are the polls themselves, rogue or otherwise: “Remember Scott Morrison? Remember Brexit? Remember BoJo? We can do this.”

But should the worst happen and National remain consigned to the opposition benches, would she try to defy the recent trend of failed leaders falling on their sword? It takes some cajoling, but Collins eventually answers the hypothetical.

“If we didn’t form government, you know, the caucus gets to choose, do they want me or not? If they don’t, that’s fine. I’m still the Papakura MP, happy to do my work – and, you know, bestselling author,” she quickly adds.

“I’m not someone who is driven by a need to be the Leader of the Opposition or the Prime Minister. This is not my driving force: my driving force is, you know, what can I do best? And I love doing what I do.

“My husband’s often said to me, ‘Why don’t you get a proper job?’, because he knows I have so much fun, and I just give everything to it.

“So when I finally leave this place, in another decade or so, it will be knowing that I’ve done my utter best for the country, and for the party I think and know should be leading the government.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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