National Party leader Judith Collins has “loads” of regrets from this year but isn’t about to dwell on them.
“I’m not someone who sits around thinking about them. My view is things happen, people make mistakes. I’m not someone who as a leader condemns someone for making a mistake.
“Do I regret putting my hand up and saying I’d run for this, I’ll do this, I’ll take on this job? Absolutely not. I would have felt bad that I let my colleagues down if I hadn’t taken the role,” Collins said in an end-of-year interview with the Herald.
“I would have felt bad that I let down my party and the principles that I believe very, very deeply.”
It’s been a Very Big Year for Collins which started with something she counts among her personal highlights – using the last summer break to finish her autobiography and get it sent to the printers.
Then the world started to fall apart.
Covid-19 hit and by the end of March Parliament was suspended and the country was forced into lockdown.
Collins, at the time National’s spokeswoman for housing and infrastructure, spent it at home in her Papakura electorate with her husband and son and remembers it as being a quieter time.
Like so many others, she tried her hand at sourdough which requires the laborious chore halving and feeding the “starter” at least once a day with a mixture of flour and water.
Her starter was turned into bread only about three times before alert level 1 became “lockdown with KFC” and Collins could throw the demanding concoction in the bin and pick up a fresh loaf from the local bakery.
Collins’ starter wasn’t the only thing tossed out after lockdown.
A week after New Zealand moved into alert level 2, National rolled then leader Simon Bridges in favour of Todd Muller, who lasted 53 days in the role before standing down amid various scandals.
Collins said the night Muller resigned she was called and offered the leadership – a job she’d always wanted and put her hand up for twice before – but turned it down.
“At the start I said no but the colleagues who rang me were very insistent and I slept on the issue. I thought, ‘Look I’ve just got to do it’.
“Having told them over the years that I should be the leader [and] when I’m having people support me … who I won’t name, who hadn’t supported me before. Obviously we were in a pretty dire situation and part of leadership is to step up when things are tough.
“Anyone can be the leader when everything’s going well.”
And things did not go well for Collins.
Senior National MPs Amy Adams and Nikki Kaye – who were Muller’s confidants – announced in the days after she was elected leader that they wouldn’t be seeking re-election, though both said that fact didn’t influence their decisions.
And within a week Rangitata MP Andrew Falloon suddenly and mysteriously stood down without explanation, citing mental health reasons.
It quickly emerged he’d sent pornographic images to a teenage girl.
Sending harmful content was one of Collin’s zero-tolerance issues. When she was Minister of Justice she put up the harmful digital communications legislation, which primarily targeted cyber-bullying and covered the sending of objectionable material.
At the start of August, the House rose and the campaign kicked off. Labour launched its re-election bid at an Auckland Town Hall event packed with its party faithful. National’s campaign launch was planned for the next weekend but that week Covid-19 re-emerged and forced the Super City back into lockdown. National cancelled its launch.
The election was pushed back from September until October, with Collins leading the call for it to be delayed.
National was finally able to kickstart its campaign in late September with a virtual event but it was overshadowed by news of an $8 billion fiscal hole in the party’s alternative budget, damaging the Nats’ reputation as a safe pair of hands on the economy.
The numbers were checked by independent economic advisory firm NZIER. The reputational bruising had been “dealt with” by their former chief of staff and the firm but Collins refused to detail what that entailed.
But she counts the fiscal hole as one of the failings which led to National’s disastrous and historic loss which saw the party win just 25.6 per cent of the vote, awarding it 33 seats.
The election loss meant 23 MPs were culled, which cut into the diversity in the party’s caucus.
National has just two Māori MPs – Simon Bridges and Shane Reti – in a caucus of 35, one Asian MP in Melissa Lee and 11 women. Otherwise, it is mostly made up of European males. The party has no Pasifika MPs.
Collins defended the loss of diversity in her caucus, saying that in a “normal year” National’s women and minority MPs would have been high enough on the list and polling numbers at the start of the campaign meant the party was expecting them to get back in.
“We have felt that loss and it’s something that we need to work really hard on so that we can actually make sure our MPs better represent the communities they actually represent,” she said.
“I think there’s some real opportunities for some of those to rejoin us at the next election.”
Collins said she was prepared to hold on to what’s notoriously the hardest job in politics – the Leader of the Opposition – for a further three years, or even six.
And she believes she will be the one to lead National into the next election though she has scrapped her own sacking point. In 2018 as a leadership contender she set herself a performance threshold of 35 per cent in the polls for when a leader runs into trouble.
“No, absolutely not,” Collins said after being asked if she had a bottom number before she’d stand down.
“I think it’s really clear that while the caucus has confidence in me that that’s my role, to be that leader. I’m not focused on worrying about things like that; we’ve been through a devastating loss.”
As if her year hasn’t been thrilling enough, to recharge over the summer Collins’ plan is to plot out her next book – this time a work of fiction.
“I think people know enough about me for a while,” she said.
“I’ve previously taken a course for thriller writing so I’m quite interested in doing that. I like to keep learning all the time and I’m someone who really loves writing. So [it will be a] political thriller.”
Besides writing, Collins said, she’ll be mapping out work for her caucus ahead of their two-day meeting, drafting her State of the Nation speech and preparing to lead her party through three more years in Opposition.
“I’ve been in Parliament for some time. I’ve been through tough times and good times.
“Leadership requires us to keep going when times are tough and not to run away. I’m not a quitter.”
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