• Game On

    The advent of Judith Collins as leader of the National Party has, whatever else one may think about it, restored some semblance of normal order to New Zealand politics. The National party at last has a leader who relishes the job and who is happy and confident in taking it on.

    However disappointed she may have been in her earlier quests for the job, Judith Collins has so far demonstrated that she is at last in her happy place. She has manifestly enjoyed the process of sorting out her front bench (perhaps taking the odd opportunity to settle an old score or two), she has looked comfortable in handling the press, and – while her policy statements have involved nothing more so far than reading out a speech on infrastructure written for Todd Muller – she has done so competently enough.

    This means that the voter now has something approaching a real choice. The next election will no longer be a cake walk for Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party. So how do the rivals shape up?

    In purely personal terms, the advantage must surely lie with our current Prime Minister. She does not carry the baggage – in terms of Judith Collins’ image as a “crusher”, her past association wth “dirty politics”, and the occasional past misdemeanour as a minister – that are inevitably part of the burden that the new National leader must carry.

    Jacinda Ardern, by contrast, has distinguished herself throughout her term as Prime Minister by virtue of her empathy, kindness and ability to unite and inspire us all in a great national campaign to defeat the coronavirus pandemic. So, in personal terms, advantage to Ardern.

    But what about the policy front? It is here, surely, that Judith Collins will seek to establish an advantage. As her predecessors, Simon Bridges and Todd Muller both incessantly claimed, and indeed all National party leaders have always claimed, it is in managing the economy that National governments come into their own.

    And Winston Peters, worried no doubt about NZ First’s poll ratings, has weighed in, claiming that National’s nine-year stint in government from 2008 to 2017 meant that they alone had the necessary experience.

    But how well do these claims stand up to proper examination? Would a new National government, at this time of great economic risk, extend the legacy bequeathed to us by earlier National governments?

    That legacy, let us remind ourselves, included a run-down health service, with underpaid nursing and midwifery staff, rotting hospital buildings, and struggling GPs. It included under-funded schools and underpaid teachers. And it included the deterioration of our environment, so that we can no longer swim safely in our rivers or trust our drinking water.

    And, in macro-economic terms, it has included perennial trade deficits and record levels of debt. It has included selling off state houses and allowing overseas interests to buy up some of our most valuable assets, and allowing others to blackmail us by demanding continuing subsidies as the price for keeping their businesses going.

    “Managing the economy” under National governments, in other words, has usually meant sacrificing everything for the sake of producing a government surplus, even if that has meant running down our essential public services and abusing our public servants by failing to pay them properly.

    So, the contest between Ardern and Collins may not quite follow the usually expected course. It may not be quite as simple as Ardern’s personal qualities versus Collins’ hard-headed approach to running the economy.

    Judith Collins will at least make a fight of it, but the balance of advantage may still weigh – in both personal and policy terms – in the Prime Minister’s favour. Game on.

    Bryan Gould
    23 July 2020