WHOEVER E-MAILED MARK RICHARDSON on Wednesday morning’s AM Show was right: Judith Collins scares me. For the first time since National’s caucus replaced Don Brash with John Key, the party has chosen a leader who can win. The new Leader of the Opposition is a clear-sighted defender of the neoliberal order who is prepared to give when she needs to give, and takes no prisoners when she doesn’t. Collins is articulate, shrewd and possesses a disarming (if somewhat cruel) sense of humour. Those on the left who dismiss her as a major electoral turn-off will, almost certainly, be proved wrong. She has what it takes to manoeuvre Jacinda and Labour onto the defensive. And, as everybody knows: explaining is losing.
Like Act’s current collection of strategists, Collins understands that delivering neoliberalism straight leaves voters with a sour taste in their mouths. It goes down much better when fizzed-up with lashings of law-and-order rhetoric – along with generous splashes of “culture wars” liqueur. That Collins, herself, happily owns up to being a “social liberal”, only adds an extra kick to her political cocktail.
It’s this political ambiguity that makes National’s new leader so dangerous. Collins does not belong to the crazy Christian Right faction of her caucus, but neither is she a member of the Nikki Kaye, Amy Adams, Chris Bishop “soppy liberal” wing of the party. (Although she may, from time-to-time, be found voting alongside them.) For a long while now this ambiguity has constituted an unhelpful obstacle to her advancement. With the right rejecting her as too left, and the left dismissing her as too right, she has fallen repeatedly between the two stools. But now, with both factions severely discredited, being a little bit country and a little bit rock-n-roll has proved to be no bad thing at all.
When pitted against Jacinda, however, it’s Collins’ neoliberalism which is likely to prove most deadly. Labour’s leader has never been that strong on economic issues, and of late she has taken to including a few anti-neoliberal flourishes in her keynote speeches. Collins and her propaganda team will seize upon these as proof of Labour’s reversion to type, and will do everything they can to cast Jacinda as an old-fashioned borrow-and-spend socialist. That the Prime Minister has never been anything of the kind will only make it harder for her to present a clear alternative to Collins’ orthodox economic prescriptions.
In debating terms, governments are required to present the affirmative case. It’s their job to sell an argument to the audience. Opposition parties have it a lot easier. As the negative team, all they have to do is rip the government’s case apart. If that case isn’t a strong one to begin with, and if the person making it fails the passionate commitment test, then guess who wins the debate? (Hat-tip to Prof. Wayne Hope for this analogy.)
Up until now, Labour’s strategists have thought it wisest to offer only the broadest of policy commitments. While National was led by Simon Bridges and Todd Muller this was a sound strategy. Jacinda’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has elevated her to the status of national saviour, and with Bridges and Muller idiotically concentrating their fire on Covid-19-related glitches for which the Government could hardly be held responsible, Labour’s lead over National in the polls remained substantial. In the glow of Jacinda’s success, a detailed manifesto seemed unnecessary.
The election of Collins as National’s leader renders Labour’s broad-brush strategy politically untenable. She is far too clever to repeat Bridges’ and Muller’s mistakes. Labour and its leader will not be faulted for their handling of the public health emergency precipitated by Covid-19’s arrival in New Zealand. Instead, Collins will concentrate her fire on Jacinda’s alleged failure to present a coherent and detailed recovery plan for a New Zealand economy devastated by the impact of the virus. She will attribute this “failure” to the weakness of Labour’s team, contrasting the Ardern-led Government’s paucity of talent with what she will insist is her own stronger and more competent government-in-waiting. All of Collins’ cruel humour will be unleashed on Labour’s lesser vessels. Social media will be flooded with painfully funny memes and attack videos.
Jacinda and Labour can counter Collins in one (or both) of two ways. The first relies upon the Prime Minister’s superlative communication skills. If the Prime Minister can parry Collins’ attacks by making the voters laugh at her, then the Opposition’s strategy will fail. Rather than become angry or defensive in the face of Collins’ jibes, Jacinda needs to make fun of the thinking behind her criticisms. If she can expose the emptiness of National’s claims of superior competence and strength, for example, or make a joke out of her own government’s failures (KiwiBuild!) then the Leader of the Opposition will herself become an object of mirth and scorn. If Jacinda is able to embarrass her opponent severely, then there is every chance Collins will reveal her dark side. That would be “Game Over”.
The second way to counter Collins’ attack-lines is for Labour to give Jacinda a comprehensive and popular recovery package to defend. The Prime Minister is a quick study and, as she demonstrated during the Level 4 Lockdown, has an impressive ability to master voluminous and complex detail. Properly briefed, and personally committed to the message she has been asked to deliver, Jacinda performs magnificently. Indeed, those occasions when her performances have tended towards the less magnificent, are those occasions when she has been given too few details to work her magic with.
Of course, if Jacinda was able to laugh Collins off the stage and argue passionately for a Jeremy Corbyn-style “For the Many, Not the Few” election manifesto, then Labour’s leader would be unstoppable.
Herein lies the problem which Collins (who has already demonstrated her leadership qualities by doing what Todd Muller lacked the guts and gumption to do – sack Michael Woodhouse and replace him with Dr Shane Reti) is bound to exploit throughout the election campaign. Confronted with a whole host of critical policy choices (most particularly on the future shape and direction of the New Zealand economy) Labour has proved itself woefully indecisive. In almost every circumstance, the party simply defaults to the orthodox Treasury line. Boldness and imagination is not to be expected from this government – and Judith Collins knows it.
Throughout its term, Labour has failed to do what Michael Joseph Savage’s government did: introduce radical and comprehensive changes and then spend every waking political hour for the next three years explaining to the voters why they were worth keeping. It’s a bloody big ask to set Jacinda the task of selling even a mildly radical recovery plan in just 6 weeks – although if anybody can do it, she can. With considerable justification, however, Collins is betting that such a recovery plan is beyond the capacity of the 2020Labour Party. Presumably, that is why she told RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan that National has some “mildly radical” plans of its own.
You can bet your bottom dollar they will not be mildly radical left-wing plans! Which is why we should all be scared of a Judith Collins-led National Party – very scared.