Two safe media “events” in Christchurch, and a re-heated policy announcement. Is National out of steam? David Williams reports.

If a week is a long time in politics, six years is an eternity.

In 2014, National leader John Key, an enormously popular prime minister, headed to Christchurch company Tait Communications in the last week of that year’s election campaign. At his media “stand up” outside the factory he took aim at the Green Party.

“If you think Labour at about $16 billion worth of additional debt over the next four years was bad, wait until you see what the Greens are racking up.”

National ended up with 47 percent of the party vote, with a final total of 1.13 million votes, while Labour got 24.7 percent and the Greens 10.7 percent.

Fast-forward to this year’s election and National, on their third party leader this year, are behind in the polls, and on the back foot because of in-fighting, and MP Alfred Ngaro spreading disinformation about his Te Atatu rival Phil Twyford.

The perfect time, then, for National leader Judith Collins to take a campaign-calming stop at Tait Communications. While touring the factory she donned a blue lab coat to protect the company’s machines from static, but Collins would have been hoping a quiet day would take the charge out of last week’s negative headlines.

Speaking inside the factory, the National leader revisited Key’s theme – that a Labour-Green cocktail is a bad mix. She suggests, with a straight face, its secret spirit is tax, relying on a splash of comments from Labour Minister Peeni Henare and Greens co-leader James Shaw, despite Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson being straight up, and ruling out both a wealth tax and capital gains tax.

“I don’t believe for a moment that these guys aren’t going to come after everyone’s money, come after New Zealanders’ money that’s been hard worked-for, and they want to take it off them.”

Ardern said earlier that day it wouldn’t make the negotiating table. Collins retorted: “I think she’s wrong.”

She adds later: “We know that Jacinda Ardern wants a capital gains tax. She said that at the last election that’s her personal view and we know that it is Grant Robertson’s. It doesn’t matter what she calls it, that’s what she’s bringing in because they’ve got no plan to bring New Zealand back to surplus that we can see in the foreseeable future.

“They will do anything to get into government. Of course they will give in to the Greens.”

If National’s attacking Ardern’s Government on trust, they seem on shaky ground.

It was her coalition that ushered the country through a global pandemic – the very reason Collins can move around the country and campaign. Contrast that with the United States, which is also in the midst of an election.

A more effective criticism, potentially, is extra costs for small businesses, like more sick leave and a higher minimum wage. But to convince voters that Ardern will do a U-turn on something she has ruled out while prime minister defies logic. It would be political suicide.

Is it Labour that’s desperate, getting ready to bend over backwards to do a deal with the Greens (which “bullied” the coalition over the Green School, by Collins’ telling)? Given the polls and last week’s disasters, it is National that seems desperate – to change the conversation, at least.

It’s telling that the National leader starts the final week of campaigning with two media stops – one at a factory in Christchurch’s north-west, and one, in Sydenham, just south of the city, making calls with her National Party colleagues. The news hook is a re-heated policy announcement.

It shrieks of staying safe, of not rocking the ship, when it’s widely thought National needs stellar policy announcements to get close to Labour, and not lose a swag of its MPs. From within a factory, wearing a blue lab coat, with machines hissing in the background, Collins says, jarringly: “We’re just getting out there with the people, going [and] shaking hands, talking to people, listening to them.”

The ace up Collins’ sleeve? “We just out-work, out-compete and basically be far more fabulous than anything on the other side.”

The National leader hopes it’s two more ticks for blue. Photo: David Williams

Much of today’s contrived campaign stops involve the usual patter.

National Party faithful telling their leader she’s doing a great job. Collins having slightly awkward conversations with introverted engineers about their work, their workplace, and asking if they studied locally.

One sticky moment was list MP Nicky Wagner, who will retire at the election, trying to put up a National placard on the wall of a room occupied by a group of Young Nats. The placard wouldn’t stay up but was later brandished for a group shot.

Downstairs from the National Party’s Sydenham “phone bank” office, Jay McGregor is having a scone and trim flat white in The Colombo boutique shopping centre while her car’s being fixed.

She also fixed Collins with a smile, and a clap, as she wandered past.

McGregor, who lives in Ilam, the safe seat occupied by deputy leader Gerry Brownlee, admits she’s not normally a National voter, but likes Collins’ direct style.

“She’s had a hard road to come into and I think she’s doing really well and I wish her all the best. And I look forward to a strong economy.”

She hasn’t voted yet. Unusually for her, she’s leaving it till the last minute, so she can do more research. “I do feel endeared towards her policies, which is a shift for me.”

The National Party phone room, adorned with a massive, blue “National Team” poster, is stacked with wannabe MPs, including Wigram candidate Hamish Campbell, who’s up against incumbent Megan Woods.

Campbell says the group is ringing around the electorate encouraging people to vote. (He didn’t know where they got the phone numbers from. A press secretary later clarifies: “We collate the phone numbers from a number of different sources, like through the White Pages but also through our outreach work like petitions and surveys.”)

What is he hearing during his door knocking and phone calling? “There’s a lot of support out in Wigram,” he says, adding there’s concern about the country’s post-coronavirus debt and jobs.

And what about support for him? “There’s a lot of support out there for me, and for the National Party.”

His pitch to a Labour voter? “I’m introducing myself, because I am a new candidate,” he says. “And really kind of talking about the way forward and what our vision is for the country and for the recovery.”

It’s an economic argument, then? “I’ll talk to them about anything.”

His chances this election? Campbell laughs. “There’s a lot support out there. I think it is going to be a close race.”

In 2017, Woods won the seat by almost 4600 votes, from National’s David Hiatt. But the party vote genuinely was close, with Labour edging National 13,827 votes to 13,767.

Judith Collins is shown around by Tait Communications CEO Garry Diack. Photo: David Williams

Collins stays true to her strong brand during her Tait Communications factory visit.

While taking in the history of the company and its founder Sir Angus Tait, who died in 2007, she remarks: “Giving up’s for wusses.” Addressing a bunch of Tait employees in the main foyer (to whom she admits today’s announcement is a re-heat), she quips: “I don’t bite – but the media do. So feel free to be aware of them.”

The media does its best to prise answers on issues such as the Canterbury District Health Board crisis (Collins defers to Brownlee, who says it seems to be caused by underfunding and the census debacle), and internal leaks. (Collins: “Everybody’s focused on the fact that we’re here for the people of New Zealand and we’re focused on the economy.”)

Covid-19 lockdowns, and the proposed border protection agency, barely feature. On the art of the (coalition) deal, she says: “I’m not someone who takes the chocolate biscuits to the bargaining table.”

A good read of how the day has been received is by the tone of media questions.

1 News’s Maiki Sherman kicks off the Collins ‘stand up’ with: “National already announced its tech sector policy a couple of weeks ago, why are you regurgitating it today?”

Collins: “We’re doing it here because it’s Christchurch, and Christchurch is special.”

Sherman’s follow-up: “Are you running out of things to talk about?”

Collins, strangely: “No, very happy to talk about it.”

Derek Cheng, of NZ Herald, asked if the party had a new policy coming this week. “Our main policy this week is to win the election.”

Newsroom shifts the conversation to climate change. When she was Energy Minister, Collins was briefed by officials that it would cost the country $14.2 billion to meet its Paris Agreement target, through having to buy international carbon credits.

Collins tries to parry. “Do you have it there? Because I can’t recall that one.”

It did happen while she was minister, we assure her. Given the country will have a large debt to pay to meet our Paris targets if greenhouse emissions don’t drop, would a National government put billions of dollars aside to pay for that?

The credibility-stretching answer from Collins: “We won’t have to do it because we’re using science to actually bring the emissions down.”

It would be surprising if any objective analysis agreed with her.

Collins mentions National’s electric vehicles push, then attacks the Government, rightly, for its woeful progress on making the Government’s light vehicle fleet emissions-free. (As Newsroom reported last month, just 108 of the Government’s 15,870 vehicles are EVs.)

“No, don’t worry, we’ll be doing our bit.”

So National’s policies will reduce greenhouse gas emissions? “By using science, obviously, electric vehicles, all these things are good.”

Will she answer the question? No.

“I’ll tell you what, go back to that Paris Agreement it also said that we wouldn’t be doing anything that affected the production of food. So that was one of the caveats. I’m sure you know about that.”

The media pack pounces, and the topic shifts.

It’s been a tough week, right? “I’ve actually loved it,” Collins says. “I’m really looking at that finish line and I’m loving it.” She playfully pokes a Newstalk ZB reporter for asking a “silly question” about National’s ratio of advanced votes.

If she’s so energised, why not do a walkabout? Because she’s going back to Auckland in the afternoon, she says, pointing out, defensively, she’s done two media interviews this morning, and will do another when she’s home.

“I think I want to actually get home tonight before 7pm. That would be probably the first time in a while, and I think that’d be quite cool.”

After all, a week is a long time in politics.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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