Politics / Comment & Analysis

Collins as National leader: Country needs constructive approach, not aggression and negativity

12:06 pm on 15 July 2020

By Cat MacLennan*.

Opinion - New National Party leader Judith Collins showed in her first public remarks after becoming leader that she means to continue on in the same way she has always operated as a politician.

Judith Collins after being elected as the National Party leader. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

There will be no softening of her combativeness, and the "Crusher Collins" persona will not be retired. Moments after being elected leader, she used the word "fight" repeatedly and actually said that National's aim was to "crush" the government.

That is a pity.

What the country needs at present is a constructive approach, not aggression and negativity.

Aotearoa has been a world leader in its response to Covid-19. As a result, we are now among a handful of nations who are in the most fortunate positions on the planet.

It is 74 days since the last case of community transmission was identified in this country. Our economy has reopened, active cases of coronavirus are identified at the border and quarantined, and the rest of the population can move around freely.

We achieved this by relying on science, having good leadership and working together.

We should also aspire to lead the way internationally in showing how constructive politics can be done. At present, negative, dirty politics are corroding trust in governments from the United States to the United Kingdom, to Hungary, to Russia and beyond.

It is fashionable to say that political parties use negativity and attack advertisements because they work, and that any other view is hopelessly naïve. But dishonest leaders such as United States President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who are in politics solely for self-advancement, have brought their respective nations to their knees.

Tens of thousands of people have died unnecessarily and economic devastation is - as usual - falling on those who are most vulnerable and least able to withstand it.

Politics does not have to be like that, and nor should it be.

We need better and we should demand it from our political parties.

What this country needs are constructive policies and strategies to address massive, long-term challenges. These include continuing to keep Kiwis safe from Covid-19, staving off the still-worsening economic downturn, poverty, a huge housing shortage, addressing the ongoing blight of colonisation, and climate change.

Dirty politics focuses on the short-termism of political parties winning elections at all costs, while ignoring and distracting from the real issues nations face.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has adopted the mantra of positivity as a hallmark of her leadership.

Collins should do the same.

Here are five ways in which she could lead

First, National's incoming leader could adopt a relentless focus on what is good for the country, not what is good for the National Party, or the leader's political career.

Secondly, National should shut down the unit set up under Muller to dig up dirt on political opponents in the run-up to the 2020 election. Behaviour such as the merciless targeting of outgoing Labour MP Clare Curran should never occur again.

Thirdly, opposition for the sake of opposition should stop. Former National Party leader Simon Bridges' negativity failed to resonate with the public. Most-recently-departed leader Todd Muller said he would not be oppositional for the sake of opposition, but rapidly descended to being exactly that. There is no point in giving media interviews and taking public positions if it is actually turning voters off you and your party.

Fourthly, National should decide what it stands for and communicate that clearly. That requires a coherent and consistent approach. Muller repeatedly called for Aotearoa's borders to be opened, but failed to explain in any way how this could possibly be done safely as Covid-19 continued to extend its grip globally. Muller also said that National would reduce debt at the same time as not increasing taxes and not cutting spending, but did not explain how that would be achieved.

Fifthly, if the party really believes that diversity is important, it must do more than pay lip service to it. The lack of Māori on Muller's front bench did not reflect Aotearoa in 2020.

And that came on top of former National MP Jami-Lee Ross's secret recording of comments by Bridges about the relative values of Indian and Chinese New Zealanders as National MPs, and retiring National MP Hamish Walker's claim that people from "India, Pakistan and Korea" could be quarantined in the lower South Island.

Parties put the MPs they believe are their best politicians in their top spots. The whiteness of National's front bench tells voters where it thinks merit really lies.

However, the omens for Collins doing anything differently on this front are not good. Her response to the lack of front bench diversity was "Is there something wrong with me being white?" And asked about increased diversity in her first public comments after becoming leader, she said that major changes to rankings were unlikely.

This country faces huge challenges and all MPs can contribute constructively to helping to deal with them.

National could choose to work with the government for the good of the country, while playing a valuable role in - constructively - pointing out weaknesses in policies.

The Epidemic Response Committee set up to scrutinise the government's actions while Parliament was in recess during alert level 4 provided a good model of how to do this. It played a positive role in highlighting flaws in the country's response to Covid-19, enabling action to be taken to remedy them and helping to keep New Zealanders safe.

National has in the past been the party of smaller government. That approach seems out of tune with a time of massive government spending to protect jobs and family incomes. Constructive politics means accepting defeat if you do not win by engaging in a fair fight, not using negative tactics to triumph at all costs.

Ardern is successful because she makes New Zealanders proud of how the government responds to events.

Collins needs to focus on what National's vision is for an alternative path to making the country proud.

Her political career to date does not give cause for optimism that this will actually happen. And that is a shame for the sake of our country in one of its toughest times.

* Cat MacLennan is a journalist, lawyer and researcher and former political reporter.