Judith Collins blunders and leaves National in deep crisis

Judith Collins upset her Caucus Members with a late-night decision to demote Simon Bridges
(RNZ Picture by Angus Dreaver)

Peter Wilson
Wellington, November 27, 2021

The Week that was: Judith Collins loses the National Party leadership after disciplining her potential rival Simon Bridges; The Prime Minister sets December 3, 3021 as Freedom Day and there is a mixed reaction to the government’s plans for re-opening the international border.

Collins pays a hefty price

What was Judith Collins thinking? Did she believe she could neutralise Simon Bridges without a backlash or did she know there was going to be trouble but thought she could survive it? Or did she set aside the consequences and do what she believed to be right?

Whatever her motives, sending Bridges to the backbenches for something he said five years ago cost her the leadership of the National Party.

Her caucus voted her out, her Deputy Dr Shane Reti took over as caretaker and a new leader will be elected on Tuesday.

National MP Jacqui Dean

What the main players said:

Let the main players speak for themselves:

Judith Collins: “I knew when I was confided in by a senior colleague (Jacqui Dean) regarding her allegation of serious misconduct against a senior colleague that I would likely lose the leadership by taking the matter so seriously. If I had not, then I felt that I would not deserve the role. It is a matter of principle. Every woman and every man should feel safe in the workplace. What is really important is that you do not deal with allegations by sweeping them under the carpet.”

Simon Bridges: “It was an all-day caucus at the Premier House, five or six years ago. At lunchtime I was out talking with a number of MPs and at some point Jacqui Dean joined that (group). We discussed our wives, our children. I can remember talking about the fact that I had two boys and wanted a girl. I engaged in some old wives’ tale about that and how to have a girl, and I entirely accept that and am regretful of that day because I acknowledge that some of what I said was clearly inappropriate.”

Jacqui Dean: “Simon Bridges made remarks that upset me at the time. They were not about me but they were inappropriate and not something I wanted to hear. “At the time there was an apology, but subsequently it has continued to play on my mind and with the recent reviews that have occurred in Parliament the feelings have been brought back up.”

Bridges’ comment was about a sexual technique. Most media delicately avoided reporting his actual words but Newshub did, after broadcasting a content warning.

Dean, because her feelings had been “brought back up” by reviews of behaviour in Parliament, went to Collins and told her what Bridges said.

Collins said that was the first she knew of it.

Bill English and Bridges

At the time the comment was made, Dean went to then-Deputy Leader Bill English. He called in Bridges, who apologised and then delivered a “fulsome” apology directly to Dean, which was accepted.

Simon Bridges with Bill English (RNZ Photo by Richard Tindiller)

Collins decided the penalty should be stripping Bridges of his portfolios and demoting him to the backbenches.

She announced this in a media statement around 9.30 pm on Wednesday (November 24, 2021) totally blindsiding her Caucus.

The MPs were furious about that and suspicious about her motives. A Caucus meeting was called, there was a confidence vote and she lost.

Why did she do it? Newstalk ZB Political Editor Barry Soper said that it was “a clear play” to side-line Bridges because he posed a leadership threat.

Leadership pot stirred

Stuff Political Editor Luke Malpass said that Collins gambled that being seen to do nothing about a complaint of that nature would be untenable for the National Party, and it would have no choice but to back her even if caucus colleagues thought the way she went about it was odious.

“But in the end, an off-colour comment from years ago, which only emerged when Collins leadership was under threat, was viewed as just a bit too convenient and the way she handled it unacceptable.”

Jane Patterson, RNZ’s Political Editor, said that some MPs felt it was “a hit job on Bridges after he had once again started to stir the leadership pot.”

Collins left Parliament after the Caucus meeting, saying that she would stay on as an MP and contest the next election. She had absolutely no regrets about what she did.

The successor issue

The media began focusing on who would take over. The Herald put up six potential candidates; Bridges, Christopher Luxon, Chris Bishop, Nicola Willis, Mark Mitchell and Reti.

Stuff said Bridges had all but confirmed he would run and MPs were suggesting that other contenders could include Luxon, Mitchell and Bishop.

Media outlets were agreed on one thing; Whoever wins on Tuesday will take on the formidable task of stabilising and repairing a broken Party. A “bedraggled heap” as the Herald’s Claire Trevett put it.

National’s convulsions happened during a week of momentous announcements by the government affecting everyone.

The Traffic Lights System

Jacinda Ardern announced the Traffic Light System on Monday. 

Jacinda Ardern announcing the Traffic Lights System on November 22, 2021
(RNZ Picture by Angus Dreaver)

She had intended naming the date after a Cabinet meeting on November 29, 2021, but the government seemed to have got the message from Auckland’s business sector when Finance Minister Grant Robertson visited the city last week: no more waiting.

Ardern said that businesses “needed certainty” and that was why she was announcing the date. Lockdowns will end, businesses will open and vaccine certificates will be needed to get into most of them. The government has mandated vaccinations for the staff of those who work in businesses which restrict entry to vaccinated people, and those mandates now cover about 40% of the workforce.

Image from Covid-19 website

Vaccination Pass

The vaccination pass system worked well during the week and people were busy downloading them onto their phones. From December 3, 2021, they will have to present them when entering premises which require them.

Not a great deal of change for the vaccinated, but the impact on the unvaccinated will be far-reaching. They’re guaranteed to be able to go into supermarkets and pharmacies, and that could be about it.

“The key difference between the two systems is that vaccine passes will shortly be required at places like bars, gyms and restaurants,” Ardern said.

It is likely to spread through the hospitality sector, because businesses which do not require passes will be restricted to contactless pickups.

Restaurant Association Head Marisa Bidois said that a survey suggested that a strong majority of restaurants and cafes were looking to implement vaccine passes, Stuff reported.

Opening of international border

On Wednesday (November 24, 2021), Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced the international border would start re-opening on January 17, 2022, when fully vaccinated Kiwis in Australia will be able to fly home without going into managed isolation.

From February 14, 2022, they will be able to come in from anywhere without going into MIQ and from April 30, 2022, the border will start opening for all fully vaccinated foreigners.

Hipkins said that every traveller who did not go into MIQ would have to self-isolate for seven days. He later told RNZ that it would be monitored with a light touch because it would do not be possible or sustainable to set up the resources needed to keep tabs on thousands of people coming in every day.

His border opening announcement gained a mixed reception. There were reports of jubilant Kiwis overseas looking forward to being reunited with their families while the tourism sector was horrified by the seven-day self-isolation requirement.

Restrictions hurt says industry heads

Tourism Export Council Chief Executive Lynda Keene said it would destroy the industry.

The New Zealand Aviation Coalition, representing airlines and airports, said New Zealand was clinging to some of the tightest border restrictions in the world that no longer made sense with Covid-19 circulating domestically, Stuff reported.

The government put Parliament into urgency to pass legislation which had to be in place before 3 December. The Covid-19 Response (Vaccinations) Bill allows businesses to fire employees if they do not get vaccinated.

Workers covered by the vaccination mandates must have their first dose by December 3, 2021 and their second by January 17, 2021.

Opposition parties fought it fiercely, RNZ reported.

National said that the Bill was divisive and was being rushed through, ACT said it could have gone through a regular process with more scrutiny. The Maori Party said it was cruel.

The government’s problem was that Parliament will be in recess next week.

Peter Wilson is a Life Member of Parliament’s Press Gallery, 22 years as NZPA’s Political Editor and seven as Parliamentary Bureau Chief for NZ Newswire.

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