Richard Prebble: Why Judith Collins is politically a dead leader walking


Leader of the Opposition is the toughest job in politics. The test of a successful Opposition Leader is not outpolling the PM but ensuring their party wins the next election. To do that they must persuade the voters and their MPs that they have the right stuff to be PM.

Two weeks ago Judith Collins had her best week as Leader of the Opposition. She made her most effective attack on the Government. She pointed out Australia had had a travel bubble with New Zealand since October. She cited health experts who supported a transtasman bubble.

Collins launched a travel bubble petition. National MPs in the house put the Government under real pressure.

Andrew Bayly (National—Port Waikato) to the Minister of Finance: Has he asked Treasury for advice on the economic cost to New Zealand of not opening a transtasman travel bubble? Grant Robertson; … “I have not asked for advice about not opening the transtasman bubble”.

The minister’s answer was absurd. There is no urgency or strategy to return to normal.

National forced Labour to act on a travel bubble.

The Government, to divert attention from its lack of a covid strategy, rushed out its deeply flawed housing package.

Collins could say “National has a strategy to safely re-open”. “Labour lied. My election prediction was correct that if re-elected Labour would introduce wealth taxes.” She had issues to ride all the way to the election.

Then Collins blew it.

She has survived scandals and a firing that would finish most careers. With that proviso, Collins is now a politically dead leader walking. The latest mortal wound was self-inflicted.

The issue was so trivial you may have missed it. Fluoridation of water. Not an issue in 54 per cent of the country.

There is a bill stalled in Parliament to recognise that fluoridation is a medical issue that local body politicians are not equipped to make. New Zealand First held up the bill.

During the election Leaders Debate, the doctor heading paediatric dentistry in Christchurch asked:

“Every year 8000 children need to have dental extractions that require general anaesthetic, at a cost of $4000 for each operation or $32 million a year. This is a serious health problem … Should you lead the next government, what are you going to do about the Fluoridation Amendment Bill?”

Collins pledged to support the bill.

The Government is proceeding with the bill proposing that the Director-General of Health determine whether a water supply is fluoridated.

Collins, with her deputy, took a proposal to last week’s National Caucus to oppose the bill. They want district health boards to make the decision whether to fluoridate water.

The thought of local health board elections being fought over fluoridation was too much for the National Caucus. It is foreseeable that my local DHB could end up being run by a bunch of anti-fluoridation nutters. The water in Rotorua is not fluoridated. You see children whose mouths are full of rotten teeth.

National MPs remembered Collins’ election commitment. Opposing the bill would result in the party being ridiculed.

Collins and Shane Reti’s proposal was defeated.

It is a very big deal. It was, in effect, a vote of no confidence.

Leaders do not present proposals to caucus unless they are important and they have the numbers to succeed.

Collins was not defeated over her views on fluoridation but her tactics. Her erratic captain’s calls during the election concerned National MPs. Last week confirmed their doubts about her judgment.

Labour is on the ropes on housing and how to return to normal and Collins wants to fight the government on fluoridation!

Leaders need to be politically savvy. National MPs realise Collins lacks the wisdom to be a Prime Minister.

I do not know who should be National’s leader. This I do know. Organisations that keep on a leader whose judgment is suspect because they cannot decide on a replacement, always regret their inaction.

To be an effective MP, let alone leader, as Todd Muller proved, at least six years’ parliamentary experience is required. National cannot pick those who could not hold their seats. They do have a former leader who has “hardly been used” in Simon Bridges.

Bridges will have learned from his experience. John Howard, second time around, became a very successful leader. What all the MPs now know is National will never win with Collins.

National MPs who think they have plenty of time, that the wheel will turn, need to realise this is MMP. Under MMP great parties can disappear. The once-mighty Israeli Labour Party now has just seven seats. There is in New Zealand a viable centre-right alternative with a leader who, second to Jacinda Ardern, is Parliament’s most admired MP.

Richard Prebble is a former member of Parliament. He was leader of the Act Party from 1996 to 2004.

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