Judith Collins went dark last night, declining media interviews and disappearing to reflect on her party’s devastating loss. Tim Murphy reports.

The scale of Judith Collins’ and National’s humiliation in the general election can be told by two statistics.

First, National’s total party vote fell from a provisional 998,000 at the last election night in 2017 by a staggering 366,000 to just 632,000 on Saturday night. A third of a million blue voters preferred something else, anything else, than what Collins was offering.

And in Collins’ own safe blue seat of Papakura, Labour took more of the party vote than National. In the leader’s seat. Labour won 40.3 percent of Papakura voters’ party support to National’s 38.7 percent. Last time, National hoovered up 51 percent of the party vote to 33.3 for Labour.

When you’re the party leader and with the highest profile you are ever likely to have, and you can’t persuade voters in your own seat to weigh in behind your party, something’s wrong.

Other statistics speak for themselves. National lost 19 of its 54 MPs, on election night results. It will bring in just 26 electorate MPs and nine from its list.

Surviving via the list are deputy leader Gerry Brownlee, who spectacularly lost his seat of Ilam that he had held since 1996, by 2200 votes, Paul Goldsmith, Chris Bishop who also lost in Hutt South, Michael Woodhouse, David Bennett, out in Hamilton East, Nicola Willis, Melissa Lee, Nick Smith who was ousted in Nelson and Maureen Pugh.

Too far down the list on provisional results would be MPs Harete Hipango, Jonathan Young, Tim Macindoe, Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, Dan Bidois, and Lawrence Yule, who all lost their seats.

Current list-only MPs not coming back would be Paulo Garcia, Parmjeet Parmar, Agnes Loheni, Alfred Ngaro, Brett Hudson and Jo Hayes. One other list place for new candidate Nancy Lu also misses out. Candidates replacing retiring National MPs who did not win the seats include Emma Mellow (Auckland Central), Tania Tapsell (East Coast), Tim Costley (Otaki), Megan Hands (Rangitata), Mike Butterick (Wairarapa), and Jake Bezzant (Upper Harbour). 

The tide went out big time on National and these are the people who paid the price.

However, the ramifications for the party will extend way beyond ousted MPs and candidates denied an opportunity to enter the House.

Collins took the party to a share of the vote, at 26.9 percent, that is National’s second worst in history – going under Jenny Shipley’s 30.5 percent in losing power in 1999, and only bettering the spectacular meltdown by Bill English’s campaign in 2002 (20.9 percent).

ACT fed off National’s leadership instability and then campaign failures, increasing its party vote by around 160,000 between elections. Labour also feasted on National’s party vote carcass, increasing its total by almost 350,000. 

Judith Collins, with husband David Wong-Tung and son James.  Photo: Tim Murphy

Collins might not have registered the public’s response to her campaign by last night. In her speech to the party’s membership at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron at Westhaven in Auckland, she said: “It was a gruelling campaign. For those who are leaving us this election, can I say that you will be missed. You’ve contributed to New Zealand and to a team with the most comprehensive platform of any opposition I have seen.”

Comprehensively rejected. 

The leader made all the noises about this defeat being the start of a comeback. “We will reflect and we will take time and we will change, we will be a stronger, disciplined and more connected party and I promise you the National Party will be a robust opposition.

“We will push on behalf of all New Zealanders for the Government to do better on behalf of all Kiwis.

“Tonight has been a a very tough night … but three years will be gone in the blink of an eye and I say to everybody: ‘We will be back’. To avoid any doubt, tonight is the start of the next campaign.”

What would have been clear to everyone in the room, and all the departing MPs and failed candidates, was that that campaign will not be run by Judith Collins.

You don’t burn that number of votes, and lose that number of colleagues, with a haphazard and ad hoc campaign that brought National embarrassment and relief in equal measure, and get to do it all again.

Phil Goff achieved a 27 percent share of the vote for Labour in 2011 and was gone, not immediately, but in time. David Cunliffe, with 25 percent one election later, also had to be relieved of his command.

But it is also clear that a party organisation that allowed the campaign to be so underpowered and capricious, whose candidate and list selections produced an unrepresentative rump of MPs, and that strategically failed to approach policies and messaging for advance voting with the nous shown by Labour and others, needs root and branch reform.

The party’s pollster, David Farrar, tweeted on Saturday night that Labour’s party vote from advance voting was 51 percent and from the election day was closer to 44 percent. National, on the other hand was 26 percent from advance votes and 30 on election day.

Tellingly, 1.98 million votes were cast in advance; just 690,000 on the day.

One party member said at the yacht squadron last night: “I’m told by people in the know that [internally] this campaign was even more of a shambles than 2002.”

Last night, Collins said nothing to waiting news media, and did not mix with and greet the assembled crowd. After her speech, she disappeared stage left, apparently to “reflect” on the night’s results with a drink upstairs, her first in three months. She emerged almost an hour later, shepherded from media to her waiting Crown car by about 14 staffers and supporters blocking journalists and cheering with great contrivance.

Collins’ reflections on what went wrong should not take her long. After all, she just needs to start by looking in the mirror.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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