She may have led National to the second-worst defeat in its history, but Judith Collins insists she’s still enjoying the job. As part of a year in review series, Collins spoke to Newsroom about working with former leaders, policy plans, and listening to the country

When Newsroom last sat down for an interview with Judith Collins, the newly anointed National leader had only been in the job a month and was waxing lyrical about its unexpected delights.

“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,” Collins gushed.

After a bruising campaign in which Collins failed to halt National’s slide, the party dropped to just 25.6 percent of the vote and saw its caucus cut by 23 MPs – a dire result only trumped by the abysmal 2002 election which brought her into Parliament.

Still having fun? Very much so, the Papakura MP insists.

“I’m definitely not a negative Nelly, I’m definitely a positive pixie, and I look at it and think well you know,’ wow fancy that, imagine that I’m in that role…’

“I sleep very well at night – I hope I don’t show any stress because I don’t feel any, I feel very relaxed.”

In a personal sense, 2020 was fairly rewarding. Collins wrote her first book, Pull No Punches – “number one on the New Zealand bestseller [list] for six weeks in a row,” she happily adds – while her unexpected rise to the top of National was accompanied with a graduate diploma in occupational health and safety for herself, and a diploma in software development for her son.

On the professional front, there is no sugar-coating just how bad things went, as Collins took on the leadership in far from ideal circumstances.

“It was an opportunity to show character – a bit too much opportunity to show character in my opinion, but there we go. It’s hard. It was hard. It was physically very hard, very tiring. And it was just, it was hard.  But you know, I didn’t die.”

“Hardest…was coming into a campaign that had already been set up, already organised, third leader in four months, with just really no control over what was going to happen because we had loads of public meetings organised that were going well, all of a sudden, boom, comes a lockdown again…

“It was an opportunity to show character – a bit too much opportunity to show character in my opinion, but there we go. It’s hard. It was hard. It was physically very hard, very tiring. And it was just, it was hard.  But you know, I didn’t die.”

The mood within National’s diminished caucus is “as good it could be in the circumstances”, she says, with the lack of resources offset by the greater opportunities on offer for those who did survive the election.

“There are some MPs who will be surprising you in a really positive way, and I just think sometimes people just need opportunities.”

Collins says she makes a point of letting caucus members “have a good turn and at the same time, move things on”, while she has repeatedly talked about the importance of not dwelling on the past.

Yet in a recent interview with Magic Talk, she talked about Simon Bridges’ poor internal numbers during his leadership reign and criticised successor Todd Muller’s decision to throw out the party’s policy work when he took over.

That might seem unhelpful to say the least, but Collins says she’s simply a straight shooter: “I was being asked questions and I was answering honestly, and I guess it’s always been part of my style that if I can, I answer honestly.”

Having not just one but two recent ex-leaders lurking behind you on the backbenches might seem disconcerting, but she insists that’s not the case.

“In fact, often, they’ll be the first people to say, ‘It’s easy to say x but I know what it’s like doing that’ because they’ve been there.”

Shaking up policy plans

That experience could be useful as National takes stock and develops its plans for the next three years.

Collins has asked senior MP Nick Smith to again take on some work developing the party’s policies, while she wants some bold new ideas – one of the reasons she created and took on the technology, manufacturing and artificial intelligence portfolio.

“We have to hold the Government to account and we can do that, I think we’re doing a good job with it, but our big focus has to be on looking to the future for interesting and new [policies] and understanding that we’re not just going to bring back all the policy we did in the last term.”

She has also talked about ensuring National is not oppositional for opposition’s sake – commitments also made, with minimal levels of success, by previous opposition leaders Bridges and Labour’s Andrew Little.

“I think it’s important to understand that it’s called Leader of the Opposition for a reason that in a democracy, you do need to actually have someone who’s not just going to say, ‘Well, if the Prime Minister said it that must be right’.

“You do actually have to have people who are going to say, ‘well, hang on, let’s look at this’. But where there’s areas where we can agree, then we will agree.”

She cites Resource Management Act reform as an area where National is keen to be collaborative. Even though Labour has no need to build cross-party consensus given its parliamentary majority, Collins believes it is best for the country if the potentially significant reforms can be guaranteed to endure a change of power.

“It’s important for us to listen to what people are saying to us, and also listening to people who obviously vote National or have voted National in the past, but also understanding that we also have to be able to reach out and encompass a modern view of things.”

“My view is the most sensible thing for them to do is to talk to us, so I don’t think those people who are trying to get houses built want to have governments changing the rules every five minutes.”

Climate change is also an area where National may reconsider its approach, she says, with at least some evidence to suggest the party is falling behind the wider public when it comes to the issue.

“That’s why I think it’s important for us to listen to what people are saying to us, and also listening to people who obviously vote National or have voted National in the past, but also understanding that we also have to be able to reach out and encompass a modern view of things, so I’m very keen for us to explore that more.”

Three years may seem like a long time, she says, but the 2023 election will come around soon enough – and she is keen to be leading the party into it.

“I expect to and and, obviously, I’d like to. I’ve been through a hell of an election campaign, and you’d have to say, could you think of worse circumstances? Pretty hard to. I just think it’s going to get better.”

For now though, Collins is looking forward to summer – and a chance to get working on her next book, potentially a thriller novel.

She has to hope there is not a whodunnit in National’s caucus room come 2021.

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

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