Judith Collins, leader of New Zealand’s opposition National party, has been toppled after months of poor polling and a shock move to strip a political rival of his portfolios.
MPs voted to end Collins’ leadership at a crisis caucus meeting on Thursday. The meeting was prompted after Collins demoted Simon Bridges, a former party leader and one of her rivals. Late on Wednesday night, she stripped Bridges of all of his portfolios, citing an inappropriate comment made by Bridges in 2017 in front of a female colleague. Collins described the comment as “serious misconduct”.
Collins confirmed her resignation via social media. “I am pleased to say that I am just the MP for Papakura again. It’s been a privilege to take over the leadership of [the National party] during the worst of times and to do so for 16 months. It has taken huge stamina and resolve, & has been particularly difficult because of a variety of factors,” she said in a statement. MP Dr Shane Reti will take the helm of the party as interim leader, with a replacement to be chosen next week.
While the conflict with Bridges sparked Thursday’s vote, Collins’ leadership has been troubled for some time, and the last few months have brought a series of disastrous leadership polls. Known as the “Crusher” for both her tough style of politics and for proposing legislation that the cars of boy racers should be physically crushed, Collins struggled to win over New Zealand voters.
Support for the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour party has been dropping over several months, as the country grapples with a Covid outbreak – but Collins failed to capitalise on that, with many votes instead redistributing to the libertarian Act party. While support for Labour has slipped in recent months to around 41-47%, support for National has languished at 21-28%. In a 1 News Colmar Brunton poll released in November, Judith Collins was sitting at just 5% in the preferred prime minister stakes, compared to Ardern’s 39%.
The difficulty for the party has been a lack of viable alternatives: no other National MPs surpassed Collins’ popularity, and Simon Bridges was sitting at just 1% in that poll. National’s stiffest competition has come from its right flank: David Seymour, leader of the right-wing libertarian party, typically a small player in New Zealand’s parliament, was at 11%. Chris Luxon, a former chief executive of Air New Zealand, will be in the mix as a possible Collins replacement, polling at 4%. But he has spent only one year as an MP and has not yet built a high public profile. Another possible candidate is Whangaparāoa MP Mark Mitchell.
The precise nature of Bridges’ alleged comment is not yet clear. MP Jacqui Dean had made the original complaint: Bridges is reported to have made a crude remark in front of Dean at a function around four years ago. Bridges was spoken to by party leadership and reportedly apologised at the time.
Collins said in a statement: “I knew when I was confided in by a female colleague 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 hadn’t, then I felt that I wouldn’t deserve the role.
“I didn’t ask for the allegation to be given to me. I am proud of the support I received from Dr Shane Reti, a man of principle, and I will continue to advocate, not only for Papakura, but for those who have no voice,” she said.
Earlier on Thursday morning, Bridges had told the media: “What we saw yesterday was truly desperate stuff from Judith Collins. I think it shows that she’ll go to any length to hold on to her leadership of the National party.”
“There’s a huge amount I want to say about what happened yesterday and how wrong it was and I assure you I will – but I want to talk to my caucus first and be very clear with them about what I think, and what I think should happen for the National party,” Bridges said.
But late night Wednesday drama has brought rumblings of discontent within the party to the fore. Collins’ announcement of his demotion blindsided many National MPs, with a number complaining about how the situation had been handled. It came at a moment when the government is under increasing pressure for its Covid response – and prominent National supporters expressed irritation at the party once again becoming embroiled in internal politics rather than focusing on its policy platform.
MP Simon O’Connor said Collins must resign and there ought to be an immediate change of leadership. He told RNZ he could no longer work for her, and had handed over his portfolios. “The way that this has been handled is outright appalling.” He said Collin’s leadership was no-longer sustainable. “This is ongoing dirty politics.”