Jacinda Ardern’s shock resignation on January 19 completely obliterated a caucus reshuffle announced that morning by National leader Christopher Luxon, and obscured an astounding decision by the first-term leader.

Comment: Christopher Luxon’s decision to rehabilitate his predecessor Judith Collins to his front bench after just 13 months in the wilderness represents a concerning lack of judgment.

Collins isn’t just any ousted leader.

She is a minister previously sacked from Cabinet by John Key, the Opposition leader who took the party to catastrophic defeat in 2020 and who then self-combusted in a fit of implausible vengeance against colleague Simon Bridges for which her colleagues summarily ousted her. 

Luxon’s strange decision to say all is forgiven almost went without notice when announced on the morning of January 19 because, within hours, the woman who won that 2020 election in a landslide, Jacinda Ardern, revealed an even bigger shock. The National reshuffle was forgotten.

Auckland floods and votes grab attention of Hipkins and Luxon
Hipkins takes his lead from Aussies

But Collins had not been. She is now Luxon’s number 10 MP. Up from 18 in the small caucus of 34 that she bequeathed him. 

His decision to accelerate Collins back to prominence must astonish loyal National Party people who witnessed Collins put their party at risk in her bizarre move against Bridges in November 2021.

It must, surely, raise eyebrows among the party’s board members. At the time, they could only watch as their parliamentary leader claimed to have their approval to publicly suspend former leader Bridges. Her allegations against Bridges proved risible. And board sources later made it clear no such approval had been given. Has there been an act of caucus and party skulduggery as profound and malign in living memory?

The recall would likely also stun some voters, who after a good hard look at Collins during that 2020 campaign, turned away in their hundreds of thousands, taking National from a 2017 nationwide party vote of 44.4 percent to a Collins number of 25.6 percent, second only to the wipeout in 2002 under Bill English version 1.

As the dust settles on Labour’s political upheaval, and the waters recede from the disaster of Cyclone Gabrielle, the reality of Judith Collins, frontbencher and likely Cabinet minister if National-ACT can succeed in October, comes back into focus.

On Tuesday, after Chris Hipkins presented his Prime Ministerial Statement on the first day of Parliament for 2023, who was it who was given the prominent slot of being National’s number two speaker after Luxon? None other than Collins, the caucus spokesperson for, er, foreign direct investment and digitising government. 

Collins was National’s second cab off the rank on a day initiating a new Prime Minister. In election year. In a time of national disaster and biting economic hardship.

Collins speaking in Parliament on Tuesday. Screenshot from Parliament TV

National deputy leader and finance spokesperson Nicola Willis spoke the next day, those ranked between two and nine melting away into insignificance. When Collins spoke, National’s front bench was entirely empty. They could well have had urgent public business to attend to.

Collins’ speech was neither here nor there. Like Luxon’s and Hipkins’, it roamed across Cyclone Gabrielle, the cost of living and the election year ahead, providing little focus or clarity.

This is a time, Collins said, when “we all need to come together” and National had been encouraged under the “excellent leadership of Christopher Luxon … to assist the Government because the Government definitely needs some help”.

She said of the newly minted PM Hipkins “obviously we all want to wish him well in his short tenure” before dropping any niceties and barrelling into him personally for his stewardship of the education portfolio (truancy issues and the polytechnics merger into Te Pukenga), as Covid response minister (MIQ shutting out a pregnant journalist) and his brief time last year as minister of police.

“It is him, it is his fault. It is him who let that happen.”

Collins added: “It’s important to remember that this Government has not changed. Its face might have changed. But he shares a brilliant quality of Jacinda Ardern’s and that is the ability to smile and say whatever is needed to be said but actually to deliver nothing.”

She conflated Hipkins’ claim that increased crime in flooded Hawkes Bay is “an unsubstantiated rumour” with ram raids in her own electorate. “I think some of them might want to tell him where to stick his unsubstantiated rumour, and it might not be very polite.”

Quite why she was addressing the House and the nation at such a primetime moment, or why foreign direct investment and digitising government require her to be at number 10 in National’s caucus and on its front bench, remain puzzling.

It might say something about National’s talent pool. Retreading a scandalising former leader – when National is on the cusp of returning to government – is not a sign of confidence in the rest. 

It might say something about the need for National to present better gender balance in its upper echelons (with Collins, there are four women in the top 10).

It might say something about Collins’ remaining clutch of supporters in the caucus, urging her reward.

It might say something about Luxon’s magnanimity in being willing to forgive and forget the self-immolation that burned his party – but brought him to the top job.

In all likelihood, if Collins is used for the big moments as she was this week, it will remind voters of a former National, one that didn’t have the fresh veneer of the Luxon-Willis leadership duo, didn’t have a new president and board members and candidate selection procedures. But was a party of internal tensions and a bleaker spirit.

As Jacinda Ardern exited stage left, a blast from the past entered from stage right. Labour seemed to give itself a fresh start, National a mis-step.

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

Leave a comment