“I’m very aware that I’m not going to be able to come out and ‘out-Jacinda’ Jacinda Ardern,” says New Zealand’s opposition leader of her rival. “But I can be Judith Collins.”
On Saturday, New Zealanders will be given the choice not only between parties but also between two very different women vying for the prime ministership.
Collins is a larger-than-life, veteran politician and a known quantity at home – simply “Judith” to those who like her, and “Crusher”, a long-time moniker, to those who don’t – with both supporters and detractors painting her as an almost-cartoonish opposite to Ardern.
Ardern is feted globally for her politics of kindness. Collins – who took over the centre-right National party, its third leader in a year – spoke dismissively last week of the prime minister’s offer of what Collins called “love and a hug” to her constituents. Collins would provide, she said, “hope and a job”.
“I can be someone who people know has a very wicked and naughty sense of humour and it sometimes gets me into trouble,” Collins told the Guardian at a sit-down interview in the capital, Wellington, in August. “Actually, quite a lot it gets me into trouble.”
From farm to Beehive
The daughter of farmers, she was born and grew up in a Labour household in the rural region of Waikato, a National stronghold south of Auckland. The youngest of six, she eschewed an offer from her parents to send her to private boarding school because she did not want to leave home.
She later received Masters degrees in law and taxation from the University Auckland – where she met her husband, a fellow law student – and worked as a lawyer and restaurant owner before entering parliament in 2002. The couple have an adult son.
It was when her restaurant became embroiled in a union dispute that her politics changed from Labour to National, she wrote in her autobiography. Collins rose through National’s ranks and, during its nine years in power at the “Beehive”, was given ministerial roles such as police and justice. She proved divisive – spending time in the wilderness in 2014 after being forced to resign her portfolios over claims she had been involved in a bid to undermine the director of the Serious Fraud Office. She was cleared of any wrongdoing and returned to the cabinet in 2015.
Collins’ political heroes run from Hillary Clinton – who she met and liked – and Margaret Thatcher, who she toasted at a wake in her office after her death in 2013.
“What I liked about Mrs Thatcher, never having met her, is that she revelled in dealing with adversity and she didn’t give in,” says Collins. She adds, with a lift of one famously manicured eyebrow, that Thatcher had ascended “at a time when her colleagues were desperate and all over the place”.
If Collins thinks something is the right thing to say, she says it; like Thatcher, she adds, she is a “conviction politician”. Occasionally, “I’ll get a backlash,” she says.
Collins reads political biographies – her nightstand currently holds one of a former Labour lawmaker and another about a National politician – listens to blues and soul, and for some “really serious relaxation” watches episodes of Miss Marple until she falls asleep.
‘Most days, somebody is going to be offended’
On Tuesday, Collins scandalised Twitter when she was reported to have said that seismic scanning ahead of oil and gas drilling – a practice Labour has pledged to end – was “just like an ultrasound” for pregnant women.
Hours later, another furore erupted when she told an interviewer that obesity was a matter of “personal responsibility”.
“Pretty much most days, somebody is going to be offended at something,” she told the Guardian. “It is a great stress reliever to have a sense of humour.”
The opposition leader has asked reporters if there was “something wrong” with her being white and last week decried what she calls the “woke brigade”. At the same time, she has often mentioned her husband’s Samoan and Chinese ethnicity in interviews.
When she opened remarks during a leaders’ debate against Ardern with: “My husband is Samoan, so talofa [hello],” the comment went viral among New Zealanders on social media, and she was decried as leveraging his ethnicity for votes.
That “naughty” sense of humour made an appearance at an Auckland market at the weekend, when she bought a mug emblazoned with the phrase, and posed for a picture with the artist. “That’s excellent, I love that,” Collins said.
She is not given to false modesty. When complimented on her jacket, Collins says: “Yes, it is nice, isn’t it?”
Leadership at the last minute
The quality Collins brings to her bid for prime ministership over Ardern, she claims, is “competence”. But selling that to an electorate that has praised Ardern’s leadership throughout the Covid-19 crisis, and so close to the 17 October election, is not easy.
After assuming office in July when her predecessor quit abruptly, Collins appeared at first more muted than before, but has since leaned into the persona she is best known for – the quick-quipping anti-Ardern – in an attempt to salvage votes for her party and save lawmakers’ jobs.
Behind the pugnacious Collins, 61 – who constantly declares on the campaign trail that she is having the time of her life – is the story of a woman who aspired for years to the leadership, only to be thrust into it at the eleventh hour. There are murmurings already among her MPs that she will not retain the role if her party loses the election.
Analysts said Collins – who fought her way back up the party’s ranks after a fall from grace as a cabinet minister in 2014 – has been handed a hospital pass. “It’s terrible timing for her and she didn’t want it now,” says Ben Thomas, a public relations consultant and former National government staffer. Collins had released an autobiography earlier this year and “was clearly positioning herself for post-election leadership,” he said.
When Collins first met the Guardian, New Zealand sat in a strange limbo: there had been a resurgence of Covid-19 in Auckland after the country had gone 100 days without community spread. An hour later, Ardern would announce the election would be delayed by almost a month.
That granted Collins more time to sell her vision but it is not clear whether it has helped. The coronavirus appears to have been contained for a second time and Collins’ attacks on Ardern have not always gained traction.
“I used to think the only thing that could help National was if there was another Covid-19 outbreak and another lockdown,” says Thomas. “And then it happened and nothing changed.”
Not such a ‘Crusher’?
On the campaign trail, supporters revealed that they, too, had bought into the idea of the ferocious “Crusher” Collins – until they met her. Among them were Hayden McLaren and Paul Barnes, workers at a benchtop company in Mosgiel, in the South Island.
“She’s nice, surprisingly,” said McLaren. Barnes, who planned to switch his vote back to National from ACT, a minor libertarian party, said: “She wasn’t quite as overpowering as I thought she’d be.”
One aide to the leader, who has worked with her for five-and-a-half years, said her boss was “a lot of fun”.
But to some voters, she will always be “Crusher”, after her 2009 law that allowed the crushing of boy racers’ cars as a deterrent. It remains to be seen whether her polarising style can win enough voters – and whether her leadership will stick beyond Saturday’s poll if she is unsuccessful. Collins is, as ever, upbeat about it.
“I just don’t believe the polls,” she told an interviewer on Wednesday, adding that she still believed she could win.
And she refuses to blame Ardern’s popularity for her struggles.
“I’ve never asked anyone for sympathy,” Collins told reporters last week. “I just get on and lead.”