Publication:

Nelson Mail - 2021-11-26

Data:

WhyNational finally imploded

National News

Ben Thomas

With her ruthless attempted hit-job on former leader and rival Simon Bridges, Judith Collins’ chaotic leadership of the National Party went from untenable to intolerable. Collins practises mutually assured destruction, and she has been as good as her assurance. Interim leader Shane Reti will head – for the next week until a permanent replacement is made – a party in ruins. Bridges was in the process, with key background players from National’s golden era, of establishing an orderly transition, after Collins finally made clear beyond any doubt that her lack of discipline in her own performances and her campaign of terror against her own caucus were features, not bugs, of her tenure. The orderly transition was seen as essential to avoiding the mistakes of the haphazard Todd Muller coup that deposed Bridges last year, and the ‘‘hospital pass’’ Collins received following Muller’s sudden exit. However, he was not discreet, and with MP Jacqui Dean’s historical allegations Collins presumably saw a window, no matter how small, to cut his challenge off at the knees. It is no secret that harassment and bullying are problems in Parliament and in wider society. The allegations against Bridges, in Collins’ late-night press release, of ‘‘intimidation’’ and ‘‘harassment’’ are serious matters. If proven they would be the political career enders. But as details have seeped out it seems as if it was Collins who failed to take the subject of bullying and harassment seriously. Instead, she seems to have alighted on admittedly vulgar and baffling historical comments by Bridges as leverage against her political rival, and tried to let innuendo do her work for her. It is important in this context to note that Bridges is understood to have apologised for the comments (apparently relating to folk wisdom about conceiving daughters rather than sons) after being spoken to by Bill English. Bridges also wrote in his memoir recently that in his efforts to fit in ‘‘with the boys’’ he behaved in ways he was no longer comfortable with, and as leader he decisively dealt with multiple accusations of bullying and harassment made against his former lieutenant Jami-Lee Ross. Even if the serious tenor of her allegations could be credibly sustained, by bypassing caucus and mis-characterising the position of the National Party board, Collins destroyed any lingering trust, confidence, and finally, fear, that her MPs had. If her political kamikaze job succeeds in torpedoing Bridges’ chances, it will be one last entry on her list of confirmed kills as leader, a list that is almost farcically lopsided in favour of dispatching her own MPs rather than government ministers. Former Air NZ chief executive and first-term MP Christopher Luxon now has his own window, and the Government’s falling political fortunes as Delta runs through the country may change his calculus for when the best time to run is. However, Luxon may also see National as a distressed asset at the moment, and feel more comfortable giving Bridges the election campaign he was denied in 2020. Reti and the contenders need to take a breath to unwind the ruins of the fallen regime as they select a new leader. Collins, for all her faults, has inspired strong devotion in her employees over the years and filled National’s newly depleted staffing ranks with loyalists to her personal cause. She also promoted some of her allies far beyond their abilities, but there must be room in the new party for them. Ben Thomas is an Aucklandbased public relations consultant and political commentator. He was previously a National government press secretary.

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