Fran O’Sullivan: Judith Collins is flailing closer to politics’ death zone

OPINION:

Judith Collins is inching herself ever closerto the political leadership death zone with a series of ill-considered and intemperate performances.

Collins embarrassed herself when she over-reacted to firm — but on-point — questions on TVNZ’s Breakfast show over her decision to leave level 4 lockdown and fly down to Parliament in Wellington for a session that would have better served democracy if all MPs could have joined a Zoom meeting — not justa handful of MPs thundering away in an virtually empty debating Chamber.

Democracy was hardly under attack as the National Leader intimated.

Yes, the Prime Minister had played some politics. Surprise.

But holding a virtual Parliament is little different to holding a company AGM on Zoom, or a body corporate one for that matter, such as the one I attended on Tuesday.

It doesn’t take weeks of practice to master Zoom meetings — even for 120 MPs. We had close to that number of people at our AGM. The new Zoom voting software works like a dream. It is fast and efficient. Why wouldn’t legislatures just pick it up and run with it during those pandemic times when it is best to stay home?

Message to the National leader: that is how democracy is best served. Getting the legislative programme progressed and questions put to all ministers, not just a couple.

And a reminder for those banging on about democracy being under attack. This is not 1918, when Parliament could not sit unless MPs were present in the Chamber. I would have expected an on-form Collins to have said: “We have the tools. Use them.”

She is an intelligent woman who has held multiple Cabinet portfolios and has a stellar private sector career and can do far better than this.

As Ardern later disclosed, the Zoom Parliament had been earlier agreed as an option in discussions between Labour and National. But Collins rejected this sensible option after she replaced Chris Bishop — her shadow Leader of the House — with Michael Woodhouse, who then stepped in as National’s representative on Parliament’s business committee.

Ironically, while Collins made a big play out of her call for the PM to abide by democracy, she is proving remarkably small-minded when it comes to practising free and open discussions within her own caucus, holding MPs to a ridiculously strong whip.

Stripping Bishop of his shadow Leader of the House position simply looked vindictive.

His sin was not to toe the party line when the caucus decided to vote against a ban on conversion therapy — something he injudiciously railed against in a conversation that later leaked.

She said the changewould allow him to focus solely on his “critical role” as National spokesperson for the Covid-19 response.

As one wit put it on Twitter: “Bishop to Queen’s pawn”.

Bishop has been a careful and competent player on Covid. He impressed on TVNZ’s Q&A programme when interviewed by Jack Tame on proposals to reconnect New Zealand to the world next year.

Nicola Willis — like Bishop a liberal on the conversion therapy issue — also found herself dumped from Parliament’s powerfulfinance and expenditure committee. This is absurd given that this committee is also considering the unit titles reform legislation that Willis introduced and Collins earlier sponsored.

Collins’ increasingly authoritarian approach might be tolerated if she was herself performing well.

But a leader who has to bring talent to heel in such a fashion is in truth a weak one.

The polls show that National’s support skews toward males. Collins herself polarises and does not attract a strong female vote.

The leadership of the party is perceived as being increasingly out of touch with its liberal and youth wings. It did not take the opportunity for wholesale renewal at its recent conference.

The National caucus is not exactly brimming with talent.

But who’s waiting in the wings if National MPs do decide to rid themselves of their increasing turbulent priestess?

It’s got to the point where some key National Party members — former and current — are speculating on potential leadership prospects.

Erica Stanford — who has been making great inroads on immigration against Minister Kris Faafoi’s lacklustre performance — proved herself engaging and on point in a recent interview on Newshub’s Nation programme.

Articulate, good-looking and smart enough not to let herself be dragged down into a rabbit hole by questions inviting her to comment on Collins demanding a referendum on the use of the name Aotearoa for New Zealand, Stanford impressed.

Stanford and Christopher Luxon have been talked about as a potential future leadership combo (not necessarily in that order) in North Shore circles.

So too, Luxon and Willis.

Or Stanford and former leader Simon Bridges.

Luxon’s time has not come. But if not the leadership, he could usefully be considered as a future Finance spokesman. The current incumbents — Woodhouse (Finance) and Andrew Bayly (Treasurer — are not landing serious blows.

Maybe that is because Collins is not giving them the breathing space to do so.

Whatever the reason, the reality is that the caucus takes its cue from their leader’s performance.

As Bridges found out, the pandemic is unforgiving.

New Zealanders were turned off by his style.

But Bridges’ style was underpinned by substance.

Collins’ bombastic flailing about is just simply absurd.

She needs to bring her serious side, tempered with good humour.

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