National MPs must avoid their own spin and put away the pretence

Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

Auckland, October 29, 2020

       Judith Collins delivered her concession speech to chants of ‘Judith, Judith, Judith’ and a whooping guard of honour as she left (Photo by Tim Murphy)


Publicly, the National Party claims that it did all that it could in the election campaign and is silent about the Leader in the room. But it is time to put away the blue-tinted spectacles.

Who among the 34 National MPs gathering from October 28 at Parliament will tell their Leader Judith Collins that the Empress has no clothes?

They meet as a Caucus on Wednesday and reportedly begin one-on-one sessions with the National Leader to review the Party’s calamitous election result – gaining 26.9% of the vote and losing 19 seats – and its almost slapstick campaign.

Legion of acolytes

Since that result, however, the excuses emanating from Collins and her acolytes have been legion: it was Covid, stupid; taking the leadership 13 weeks out was a ‘huge hospital pass’; the second Auckland lockdown disrupted campaign plans; ACT; National voters switching to Labour to block the Greens; caucus indiscipline; leaks; Jami-Lee Ross; Simon Bridges; Todd Muller; Matthew Hooton; Denise Lee’s email; Jacinda being an Act of God.

Conversely, there have been attempts to make themselves and the public believe Collins’ own efforts were exemplary, committed, upbeat and hardworking; that it would all have been a lot worse without her; that seats were saved, not lost by the campaign run by her and her Deputy Gerry Brownlee; that everyone tried their best and that is all you can ask.

It has been a bit of an out-of-body-experience, and worse, seems to be more than bluster contrived to keep a brave face before the public.

Might National’s team on the bridge really believe it was the iceberg’s fault?

No reality check

It was Matthew Hooton who wrote after the election that National’s big caucus of the last term, having won 44% of the vote in 2017, never really accepted it had been rejected by voters and fell back on blaming New Zealand First for robbing it of its due when it teamed with Labour.

There was no reality check, Hooton suggested, but a belief things would return to their natural state within one term.

Now, having been hammered, the Party accepts the need for a ‘review’ of its performance and processes, but its cascade of excuses so far does not inspire confidence that it will be what is needed, a kind of truth and reconciliation commission.

For professional politicians to keep a straight face while claiming Collins campaigned well, Brownlee’s campaign was communicating effectively internally and that everyone did their best is delusional.

No retail political appeal

Collins always carried too much political baggage into the role – the dark and disloyal stuff that is now claimed (by her about others) to be at the heart of voter rejection of her Party.

She did not have the retail political appeal to make people like her and National enough to listen to them. She dissed the Party’s most popular figure for decades, John Key, in her book just months before the election.

She strangely mis-paced herself and was low energy and low impact for many of her 13 weeks in charge before election day – Ardern had just eight weeks as Leader before seizing victory in 2017, lifting her Party by 13 percentage points from the mid-20s in the process.

Collins and her supporters celebrated old-fashioned ‘wins’ like, for example, disrupting and over-talking Ardern in the first debate. Labour watched its focus groups and analytics the next day, and after every debate, and saw the people’s view that told them the real ‘win’ was theirs.

“It is time to ditch the massed caucus ‘optics’ standing awkwardly behind Collins at press conferences and start delivering some home truths,” says Tim Murphy. (Photo for Newsroom by Lynn Grieveson)

Bizarre commentary

Collins quipped, raised her eyebrow and appeared increasingly flailing on the nightly television news. At campaign rock-bottom, she called Ardern a liar over the claim Labour would still introduce a Greens policy of a wealth tax – with a taunt that the PM should sue.

And she lost the large persons’ vote with a bizarre commentary on fat people needing some personal responsibility.

In the final days of the campaign, as an inevitable defeat loomed, Collins intimated National had been in the mid-20s in internal polling before she took over but still, on election eve, told the AM Show she hoped to reach the late 30s. The. Day. Before.

After the defeat, she suggested that National could have been “in the teens” had it carried on the pre-Collins trajectory. There is a fair bit of re-casting of history going on there.

A leader gets the best out of her team. In this campaign, the leading three in the Caucus, Collins, Brownlee (an ‘interesting series of facts’) and Paul Goldsmith ($4 billion) had shockers. Their team played accordingly.

The leaked email

Collins claims that National took a five-point hit in its internal polls after the Denise Lee email criticising Collins and her captain’s call announcing a review of Auckland Council was leaked to Newshub. The leader blames the act of leaking, the indiscipline that prompted one MP to leak another’s criticisms of Collins, for the damage. Not the content of that devastating email by Lee.

Remember, Lee targeted not just Collins’ capricious announcement but, importantly, widened the dissatisfaction to slam Collins’ action as “incredibly poor form and displays a shockingly bad example of poor culture”.

In the heat of campaign battle, MPs looked the other way, prepared to go along with Collins’ ad hocery rather than hear what turned out to be a pertinent criticism from a colleague.

The poor culture that Lee noted, rather than how it was leaked, might have given National the hit in the polls, but that is too uncomfortable a narrative for what is being framed over these past 10 days.

Inability to decide

On a broader scale, National still cannot decide whether Ardern’s Labour gained public backing from its Covid-19 response or not. National MPs have spent six months claiming Labour has been asleep at the wheel, reckless, hopeless and deficient. Now, staring around their over-large caucus room, they seem to believe the pandemic won the election for Labour, with the public happy with where the country is at. You cannot have it both ways.

As for Covid disrupting its public campaigning, does anyone seriously suggest Collins was going to attract big crowds? She is not, and was not, that kind of politician.

While Labour, ACT and others deployed finely honed digital campaign answers, National and NZ First brooded over not holding imaginary Wiri wool store public meetings from the Muldoon age.

On election night, Collins tried to convince herself and her cheerleaders that National had the most comprehensive policy package of any opposition she had seen.

It was a big claim. But many of its bigger policies were either flawed (the Goldsmith fiscal hole in the tax policy) or deeply incomplete (the weird, un-costed multibillion dollar and geologically unlikely promise to build tunnels under both the Brynderwyn and Kaimai ranges – an answer to a question no one was asking).

National was always up against it, with the electorate’s historic aversion to tossing out a first-term government. But it is very likely it made its situation worse, not better, by ditching leaders, in-fighting and choosing the wrong person in the end to carry its flag. 

Collins will see out this year, of course, and probably next. No one wants to take over until the smouldering ruins have been cleared and the foundations for a new structure are in place. 

But, internally at least, as the MPs regather this week without the diversions of farewelling former colleagues with silver platters, it is probably time to put away the pretence.

Ditch the massed caucus ‘optics’ standing awkwardly behind Collins at press conferences. Someone – Denise? – needs to start delivering some home truths about the failed experiment that was the past 14 weeks. 

Tim Murphy is Co-Editor and Co-Founder of Newsroom. The above article and pictures have been published under a Special Agreement.

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