National leader Judith Collins’ scorched earth approach has ended her own time atop the party – and others may yet follow as the party takes stock of the problems which have bedevilled it, Sam Sachdeva writes
By now, National MPs are all too familiar with the trauma of failed opposition leaders – but Judith Collins’ spectacular self-immolation seemed to startle even them.
A late-night email announcing the demotion of Simon Bridges, over comments directed at an unnamed MP later identified as Jacqui Dean, clearly sparked unease and anger among much of the caucus, even though many were tight-lipped on their way into Parliament on Thursday morning.
Deputy turned interim leader Dr Shane Reti provided a masterclass in understatement when he concluded: “This is not our best day.”
Reti’s belated appearance came more than three hours after the promised start time of a press conference where Collins and Dean would discuss the allegations against Bridges, with the Papakura MP’s fate becoming increasingly clear as each minute ticked by.
The delay at least provided some rest for journalists who had chased National MPs up and down Parliament’s forecourt, with reporters and photographers slumped on couches or against walls as they waited for someone to show.
That patience was not rewarded with great candour, Reti dead-batting questions about Collins’ conduct and the coming leadership battle by saying he would not speak about internal discussions.
Yet it eventually became clear that Collins’ description of an “allegation of serious misconduct” did not mesh entirely well with how both Bridges and Dean outlined the incident: an inappropriate comment heard by, but not directed at, the Waitaki MP roughly five years ago.
Bridges spoke of “engaging in some old wives’ tales” about how to conceive a girl while at a caucus event, remarks which Dean (understandably) described in a statement as “inappropriate and not something I wanted to hear”.
The 2019 Francis review into bullying and harassment at Parliament and National’s own culture review has put the spotlight on bad behaviour by MPs – something which Dean said brought the incident back into her mind – and the remarks clearly cross the line of acceptable workplace conversation.
But given Bridges was spoken to at the time by Deputy Prime Minister Bill English and apologised to Dean, it is not clear why Collins felt the need to deliver such a severe punishment now without involving the caucus in that decision.
Likewise, Dean’s statement does not spell out whether she wished for her concerns to be aired in such a public manner, or if Collins made a ‘captain’s call’ – something which may have been the case, albeit in a fairly different scenario, when Barbara Kuriger had outed Todd Muller as the source of critical remarks about incoming MP Harete Hipango and provided the grounds for Collins to strip him of his portfolios.
The botched knifing bears more than a few similarities to former MP Jami-Lee Ross’ own failed effort to bring down Bridges in 2018.
Both Ross and Collins took a scorched earth approach, seeming not to care if they razed their own party to the ground as long as their target was inside the building.
In both cases, the aggression seemed to be sparked by a sense of feeling cornered: for Ross, by Bridges identifying him as the leaker of travel expenses, and for Collins, the never-ending stream of media stories on her inevitable demise, coupled with soundbites of the Tauranga MP demurely stating his lack of intent (but not desire) to become leader again.
And of course, both politicians failed to deliver a mortal blow to their rival’s career, instead killing off their own. It is Ross, not Bridges, facing trial over allegedly fraudulent donations, while Collins has torpedoed her chances of ever holding the leadership again, and maybe even a senior role in a party whose MPs have little reason to trust her.
It may be little coincidence that each politician has been known to keep close counsel with former Whaleoil blogger and Dirty Politics figure Cameron Slater, who declared to Bridges on Wednesday night via social media: “Reap what you sow little fella.”
Instead, it was Collins who met the Reaper the following day – and others in the party seem almost certain to follow.
Most obviously, there are questions to be answered by National Party president Peter Goodfellow and the wider board about exactly what role it played in the attempted demotion of Bridges.
By most accounts, Collins’ claim to have enjoyed the board’s “unanimous support” in her actions was wide of the mark, yet Reti confirmed it had been “engaged” several times on Wednesday, and when pushed for further information put the onus on the board to respond.
It is not as if Goodfellow has an overflowing reservoir of goodwill at his disposal, with concerns about his judgement over candidate selection and vetting behind a failed attempt to depose him at the party’s annual conference in August.
Bridges did not shy away from the matter when asked, saying: “It is true that in terms of the president…we’ve repeated mistakes a number of times.”
While the next leader may not have the direct ability to remove Goodfellow or others, whoever does take over could send a signal to the board and wider membership that a further refresh was needed.
There is also the issue of what Collins’ successor will do with the caucus loyalists such as Andrew Bayly and David Bennett who she promoted to roles arguably well beyond their capabilities.
Collins’ fate an open question
The division of the finance portfolio between ‘shadow treasurer’ Bayly and Michael Woodhouse was sold as a triumph of innovative thinking but neither has left a meaningful mark on Finance Minister Grant Robertson.
The finance role seems highly likely to be made whole again in the hands of someone other than that duo, while Bayly may end up in freefall from third spot in the caucus rankings and others like Bennett, Maureen Pugh and Harete Hipango could also fall.
Exactly where Collins ends up, as well as what portfolios she holds, is an open question.
On the one hand, she is a seasoned politician able to handle media well and prosecute the poor performance of government ministers, as seen in her endless torment of Phil Twyford last term.
On the other, there is every chance she could prove a destructive rather than constructive presence, with little left to lose given her dream of becoming Prime Minister has been extinguished.
Then there are the typical considerations of balancing the claims of the party’s liberal MPs with its (larger) contingent of conservatives – not an unusual issue for a political leader to face, but one which must be navigated nonetheless.
Taken as a whole, it suggests something resembling National’s “best day” may be some weeks, months or even years away.