Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: The political comeback of the year

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Judith Collins on the political comeback trail.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

The Political comeback of the year

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

Outspoken backbench National MP Judith Collins has made the year in politics much more interesting. It is fitting, therefore, that she should end the year with a high-profile and contentious promotion.

Most commentators are endorsing Judith Collins’ political comeback, albeit for very different reasons. For the best explanation for why John Key was very smart to bring the disgraced politician back into the fold, see Tracy Watkins’ column, Why John Key opened the door again to Judith Collins.

Watkins paints a picture of a highly pragmatic decision by the PM: “John Key fixes two problems with his spring reshuffle.  He removes a potential thorn in his side by reinstating Judith Collins to Cabinet where she will be effectively gagged by Cabinet collective responsibility. And he puts a firm hand back on the Corrections tiller which is important and not just because Key needs the private prison fiasco fixed.  National’s plan to put the private sector front and centre in the delivery of other social services has been put at risk by the unfolding disaster in the Serco-run Mt Eden private prison.”

Today’s Dominion Post editorial also praises Key’s smarts: “Judith Collins was starting to become a nuisance. So she has been promoted to Cabinet, where collective responsibility and a mountain or hard work will help keep her quiet. John Key’s first rule of leadership – put out every fire before it grows too large – is once again at work” – see: Key puts Collins back in Cabinet to keep her busy and quiet.

The editorial goes on to say, “The beauty of bringing Collins back to do this is that if it ends in tears, which it may well do, the blame falls first on Collins… This is a gamble of Key’s, but it could be a win whichever way it turns out. If Collins can fix Serco, it will be a victory for a flagship party policy. If she can’t, it will be primarily a blot on her record.”

Although most political journalists and commentators have generally seen the reinstatement as a smart move, Audrey Young goes a step further and argues in her column that “it would have been grossly unfair of the Prime Minister not to reinstate her” – see: Judith Collins’ return to Cabinet: John Key had no choice but to reinstate ‘the Crusher’. Young points to some of the arguments against Collins’ return, but dismisses them all and makes the point: “Collins was a senior and competent minister. Not reinstating her would have sent a very poor signal about Key’s ability to cope with strong, competent women.”

Unsurprisingly, Cameron Slater has endorsed Key’s decision, suggesting that, left where she was, Collins would have only grown in strength compared to her supposed rivals for the post-Key leadership: “He knew the longer he left Collins on the back bench the stronger she got. She would have been helping out all the back benchers, going to all the functions, assisting them in electorates” – see: Tracy Watkins: Other Ministers will resent the return of Judith Collins.

Exonerated and reputation restored?

Earlier in the year Collins declared she was rebuilding her reputation, with a return to Cabinet being the most important part of restoring it. Certainly the many media reports covering her return to Cabinet are stating that Collins was “cleared” of the allegations against her last year. But is this really the case? Martyn Bradbury puts forward The 3 reasons why Collins report was a whitewash and why she shouldn’t be back in Cabinet. See also, Anthony Robins’ Hey Tracy Watkins – Judith Collins was not “cleared” of dirty politics.

Public service integrity commentator Beith Atkinson discusses Collins’ exoneration and return in his blog post, Tora, tora, tora. He explains that although Collins was found to have leaked material to Cameron Slater, and that might be “unethical and unacceptable” for public servants, “The Cabinet Manual is less explicit about equivalent limitations on the activities of Ministers”. He also discusses the irony of where the leaks about yesterday’s Cabinet announcement must have come from.

Is Collins still part of the so-called Dirty Politics gang? Jo Moir reports that “When asked by Radio NZ if she was still in contact with Slater, Collins dodged the question.  ‘I really don’t want to go down that track. Frankly, I talk to a lot of people and my view is focussed on doing the best job I can for the people of New Zealand’.” – see: Judith Collins says she never thought about giving up because she wasn’t guilty. According to this article, Collins believes that the hatred directed at her is simply “the price of getting things done in some portfolios.”

Another old friend, Rachel Glucina, declared yesterday that “the news of the day is Crusher’s back, people!” – see her Scout publication, 8 best tweets on Judith ‘The Crushinator’ Collins’ return.

Will Collins work out in Cabinet?

Duncan Garner has published his advice for Collins, explaining that she needs to change as previously “She looked evil, sounded evil and had become unlikable” – see: Key needs attack dog Collins back in Cabinet.

Here’s Garners advice: “She must show some humility, she must not get nasty towards the wrong people and she must show she has learned from her mistakes.  She must work hard again at making friends in the National Party and the caucus.  My advice, stay clear of invites from Oravida and Whaleoil and focus on your day job and get some runs back on the board.  Don’t openly bag press gallery journalists as tempting as it is and deal to Serco and Corrections, in the public interest.”

According to Rob Hosking, Collins has a powerful quality: “She makes the opposition lose their rag.  It is always a useful talent in politics, to drive your opponents so batty with rage they make mistake after mistake… Every government needs a few senior ministers who set their opponents’ baying mindlessly” – see: Collins back as Minister for Trolling (paywalled).

Hosking warns that although Collins feeds off such opposition, if her reaction is uncontrolled it will end badly for her: “But so long as Mrs Collins draws that sort of fire from her opponents, and does so in a controlled way, she will be fine.  But if she overdoes things – and restraint has not exactly been part of her modus operandi over the years – or, worse, she starts making her own colleagues lose their rag, it will be a very different story.”

There are some signs that a more humble Collins is unlikely to eventuate. She spoke yesterday about how her time in exile has actually only increased her confidence – see Audrey Young’s Judith Collins on her return to Cabinet: I’ll be bringing a firm hand.

But Collins does say she’s learnt some lessons. She told Morning Report that “I think one of the things is that I just got too caught up in a lot of things, particularly my work, and I think it’s sometimes good to keep things in perspective” – see RNZ’s Collins got too ‘caught up in’ her work.

There are other signs that Collins is not about to moderate her behaviour. For instance, in the weekend she spoke at an Act regional conference, making some typically outspoken points, including calling for the abolition of Auckland’s Independent Maori Statutory Board – see Audrey Young’s Judith Collins on the Auckland mayoralty.

Rob Hosking commented on the speech, saying it “did not sound like someone who expected to be back in cabinet any time soon.  Rather, it sounded like a speech of someone preparing to rock the boat, in one way or other” – see: Cabinet reshuffle: how do you solve a problem like Judith? (paywalled).

Will Collins conquer the Serco issue? Certainly John Key has made it clear that he’s expecting that of her. But John Palethorpe argues we should be wary: “It’s an easy narrative, the tough, no-nonsense and slightly morally dubious politician brought in from the cold to fix a problem created by a generally less hard-edged, more conciliatory politician in Lotu-Iiga.  Except that’s bollocks, isn’t it? Sam Lotu-iiga was thrown a grenade by his predecessor, Anne Tolley, but the pin on that grenade was pulled by The Honourable Judith Collins MP back in 2009. It was Collins who put the Mt Eden contract out to tender and of the three bids for it, chose Serco. it was Collins who exuberantly praised the UK company” – see: Judith Collins and the hand-grenade handover.

The return of Collins to Cabinet gives some idea about the future of the National Government and Party. It will certainly revive discussion about her potential as a replacement for John Key, should he depart the leadership in the next few years. This might be why some National ministers are said to have opposed her return. According to Tracy Watkins, “It is no secret that some ministers made it known to Key that they didn’t want her back. It is said they included two of Key’s most influential women ministers, Paula Bennett and Amy Adams” – see: Why John Key opened the door again to Judith Collins.

Rachel Smalley says that the Dirty Politics scandal “has tarnished her — I can’t see how she can ever lead the National Party now, nor hope to become Prime Minister one day.  It’s unfortunate. She’s a very competent minister but as the saying goes, if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas” – see: Tarnished Collins shows she’s a survivor.

To get an idea of where Collins thinks National should be going, note the report on her by Richard Harman: “she believes the party in the future needs to look at more public private partnerships, particularly in transport, as a way of getting capital into the country.  And she wants to see the Government get tough with the public sector and make individual public servants more accountable” – see: Judith Collins says it’s time for politicians to stand for something.

The Conviction politician of the year

I named Judith Collins as one of the political champions of the year in The Spinoff’s 2015 in Review – 24 Politics Watchers Pick their Star Performers.

Collins deserves her place amongst this group because she’s been one of the most interesting and high-profile politicians of the year. Even back in June she was creating waves, which is very well captured in Claire Trevett’s feature on her: The return of Judith Collins. According to Trevett, “She’s been getting more personal coverage than any minister, let alone a Government backbencher.”

And to get a further sense of her chutzpah and ability to gain media coverage, see last night’s four-minute video by Kim Vinnell on TV3’s Story: Collins back from the cold.

But perhaps the main reason Collins should be seen as one of the “politicians of the year” is her strong display of convictions. Regardless of whether you agree with her ideology or not, it’s good to have politicians who are going off script and leaving the spin-doctors behind.

Back in June, I was quoted as saying “You do need polarising politicians in politics and Judith Collins’ boldness makes her an attractive politician for those on the right of the spectrum, especially when compared to some of the other bland National party MPs. And she is a very good politician” – see Nick Grant’s No clear path back to cabinet for divisive Collins.

Then in September, Collins published her best newspaper column of the year: Centre voters just the core, the action is on the fringes. In this must-read piece, the MP complained about “hearing from pundits, commentators and ‘political strategists’ these days… that elections are won and lost in the centre.” In contrast, Collins saluted the British Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn for revitalising politics there with his idealistic and authentic campaign for the leadership: “For them, Jeremy Corbyn is a breath of fresh air offering an alternative viewpoint, even if he is deluded. And that’s what politics should be about – a contest of ideas, policies and views – even crazy ones.”

She spoke out about the demise of principles and ideology in New Zealand politics: “I remember when people used to passionately discuss politics over their BBQs and around work watercoolers.  People had differing ideas and opinions, people cared. These days it is rare anyone really has an opinion on anything except MasterChef. Certainly politicians are too afraid to have opinions lest they ‘upset the centre voter’.”

Likewise, in an interview with Richard Harman, Collins stated: “People actually want to hear what politicians stand for and that they will say what they think not what they think you want them to say to get you to vote for them” – see: Judith Collins says it’s time for politicians to stand for something.

Finally, for some recent cartoons about Judith Collins, especially about her reinstatement to Cabinet, see my blogpost, Cartoons about the comeback of Judith Collins.

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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