New Zealand National party leader yearns for the star treatment

By Charlotte Graham-McLay

“I’ve been having an awfully fun time, can you tell?” Judith Collins, the leader of New Zealand’s centre-right National party enthused, to a campaign trail meeting packed with her admirers outside the South Island city of Dunedin. “I can’t stop grinning.”

It was true; she could not. Collins, the country’s opposition leader, is running in the 17 October election against one of the country’s most popular prime ministers of recent times, Jacinda Ardern, who is mobbed for selfies wherever she goes – with such large and closely packed crowds that security and Covid-19 precautions often appear to be cast aside.

Collins clearly yearns, as any leader would, for the same treatment. She is the third leader of her party since May, a veteran, flamboyant politician whose cutting turns of phrase are adored by her admirers and loathed by her detractors.

She has inherited a difficult job – especially for a politician about whom most New Zealanders already seem to have made up their minds – presenting herself as a leader with enough broad likability to save her lawmakers’ jobs in the upcoming vote. In fact, she said on Thursday, she’d go a step further: “I’ve got a country to save,” she said, grinning.

But during her day in Dunedin, Collins wasn’t taking any risks fewer than 10 days from the election, after an awkward time in Auckland on Wednesday when her staff were spotted flagging supporters into position along her walkabout route, and she and her media entourage were refused entry to a shop.

On Thursday, she preferred to preach to a choir of business audiences and fans in more rural areas – the National party’s traditional base – rather than chance spontaneous encounters.

Judith Collins speaks to a supporter at the Otago Chamber of Commerce in Dunedin
Judith Collins speaks to a supporter at the Otago Chamber of Commerce in Dunedin. Photograph: Charlotte Graham-McLay/The Guardian

Her base loves her, and for them Collins turned on a show, highly energetic and often appearing to ad lib her quips to appreciative laughter. A 1 News Colmar Brunton poll on Thursday evening showed Ardern’s Labour at 47% – one seat from being able to govern alone – with Collins’s National party slipping a point to 32%.

As many as 13% of voters in the poll were undecided, but Collins did not seek them out.

“I don’t know about you, but I just love wearing gold,” the self-professed fashion maven told a chuckling audience of business owners at the Otago Chamber of Commerce.

Earlier, when her phone rang in the middle of a campaign stop, she told reporters with a sardonic lift of her manicured eyebrows that the call had been from “one of my many friends.”

At a public meeting in a high school auditorium in Mosgiel, a service centre for rural areas – where support for her was so apparent that the audience response to her words at times took on a pantomime quality of cheers and jeers – she warmed the crowd with jokes and took aim at the “cancel culture of the woke brigade.”

She was delighted by the support from her traditional fans. But just over a week out from an election, it was not clear whether they would be enough. Ardern’s support has grown in response to the country’s apparently successful Covid-19 response strategy, with one of the world’s strictest lockdowns resulting in one of the world’s lowest death tolls.

Ardern, Collins said, would offer voters “love and a hug” in the wake of the global pandemic. The National leader would offer them “hope and a job,” she said, pledging a better economic response.

But when it came to unplanned encounters with the public, she made the unusual move, so close to polling day, of giving reporters the slip and making an unannounced stop across town to engage with the public without any cameras present.

Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins at a televised debate in September.
Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins at a televised debate in September. Photograph: Michael Bradley/EPA

Later, reporters could only take her word for it when she recounted requests for “selfie after selfie,” keen to convince that in terms of the apparent currency of the 2020 campaign, she could foot it with Ardern.

Despite an ardent crowd of admirers at the public meeting – where selfies were in indeed high demand afterwards – a few undecided voters peppered the crowd.

One was Siobhan Smith who had cast ballots for both National and Labour before. She had brought her 10-year-old daughter to watch Collins speak because it was “so positive” to see two women in leadership positions.

“It’s not simply that we have both a woman as prime minister and a woman as leader of the opposition,” she said. “It’s that they’re two very different women, both showing very different ways that women can lead.”

Certainly nothing seemed to puncture Collins’s enjoyment.

“These things happen, it’s a land of opportunity,” she breezily told the Otago Chamber of Commerce crowd, of her 11th-hour ascension to the National party leadership.

“Isn’t it fun? It’s so much fun.”