By Jason Walls
Judith Collins is having fun in opposition, that much is clear.
In the space of just half an hour, the senior National MP from Papakura used the word “fun” and “enjoy” 17 times.
“I really enjoy doing my job,” she tells me over a wine on a brisk Wellington evening.
“I reckon every day you’re alive is a day you’re not dead and it’s a day to have fun.”
If this was a cheesy 90s movie, this would be the part where you would hear a record scratch and a narrator saying, “you’re probably wondering how we got here.”
I was speaking to Judith Collins. A woman so formidable, so staunch and politically savvy she earned the nickname ‘Crusher’ after proposing legislation to crush the cars of boy racers.
The person sitting across from me, sharing her tips on selecting the very best Syrah, was anything but a Crusher.
I had to ask, as I sipped back a nice Hawke’s Bay red she had selected if the nickname was still applicable.
“Oh, isn’t that cruel,” she says to me, before I can finish the question.
“You know me Jason, I’m actually quite nice to deal with!” she says with a laugh.
Collins is relaxed, fun and full of smiles. She jokes with me, as we talk about her career and how she is feeling about the National Party being out of government.
In this opposition, she is a key player. Collins is number four on the party list, a nod to her skills in holding the Government to account.
And she loves it.
“Opposition is not where you want to stay, but it’s a really nice little place to remember what it’s like to be the hunter, rather than the hunted.”
And it’s in opposition where Collins earned her stripes. She entered Parliament in 2002 after a successful career as a lawyer.
A party on the brink
The National Party she joined was in tatters. It had just suffered its worst election defeat in its history, winning just 20.7% of the party vote.
“It was just dire,” she says. “Everyone was depressed and sad.”
Her first Caucus meeting doubled as a 14-way farewell party for the abundance of National MPs who had not made it back into Parliament.
It was an opposition riddled with factions and divisions, she says.
“I had come in pretty much from the outside and was like ‘what the hell have I walked into?’”
Even for the most eager and optimistic MPs, it must have been a nightmare.
But the bad dream did not last long for Collins – she was ambitious and eager to prove herself. She would not have to wait long for her first chance.
In 2004, she claimed the scalp of then Immigration Minister – now Christchurch Mayor – Lianne Dalziel.
Collins had caught Dalziel’s office leaking a letter about the deportation of a sexually abused Sri Lankan girl to the media. Dalziel resigned after the issue came to light.
Later that year, Collins forced the Government to commission an official inquiry into the effects of the Agent Orange chemical on Kiwi troops in Vietnam during the war.
The report confirmed that New Zealand soldiers were affected, despite numerous denials from government agencies.
“That would have never happened if we were in Government,” she says.
After 2004, National’s top brass seemed to notice her a lot more, she says with a smile.
Being one of the few National MPs with opposition experience, Collins has taken up a mentoring role for some of the younger, new members.
She uses her stories of opposition success to let the young-guns know how much can be done when you’re not in power.
“You don’t have to be on the front bench to do something but if you want to be on the front bench, you need to do something.”
That’s good advice. National has 56 MPs, the largest opposition in New Zealand’s history. Can you imagine the damage the party could do to the Government with a few new MPs with the ambition and drive of Collins?
“No one expects you to shut up and mind your P&Qs,” she says of opposition MPs, especially new ones. “They want you to do something – you have to fight.”
Another major part of Collins’ day-to-day for National is managing its housing responsibilities.
And – surprise, surprise – she says she is loving it.
“I love learning all sorts of new things, I love new portfolios which is why I asked for housing and urban development.”
When she was a minister, Collins held a range of portfolios. Energy and resources, revenue, justice, ACC and, of course, police and corrections.
When leader Simon Bridges approached her after winning the leadership bid this year, Collins had no interest in any of those areas.
“My view is, if I keep doing the same thing it’s boring. Boring for me and boring for everyone else I deal with,” she says, before taking another sip.
“It’s just boring.”
Instead, she asked for housing and urban development, as well as Resource Management Act reform.
“I specifically said I want something that is challenging because [they’re areas] where I know I can make a significant difference.”
So far, she has slotted into the roles well.
Up against Housing Minister Phil Twyford, she keeps the Government on its toes and has scored a few big hits when it comes to KiwiBuild.
But she has yet to recapture the glory of 2004.
“Do you think you’re doing a good job,” I gingerly ask.
“Yeah,” she says and lets out a long and loud laugh. “I do, I think it’s going great. I’m really enjoying it.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Collins is not a fan of the Government.
“For a government that’s actually quite new, they have, I think, a similar level of arrogance that we had after nine years of government.”
Although critical of Labour as a whole, she is obviously impressed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Under former leader Andrew Little, Collins says Labour were heading to where National had been in 2002 – “they were toast, she saved them. Without her, there is nothing there.”
But Collins has a three-year plan to get back into power.
The first year, she tells me, is all about listening to people. That means a lot of engagement with stakeholders and interested parties.
The second year is about formulating policy and the third year is about focusing on the 2020 election campaign.
All the while, “firing the shots that need to be fired, because you need to hold the Government to account.”
Will that be a Government she will be part of in two and a bit years’ time?
Well, that depends on one thing – you guessed it, fun and enjoyment.
“I think I will find the end point when it’s no longer fun – my view is if you’re not having fun, you shouldn’t be there.”
But at the moment, it’s clear Collins is going nowhere.
“I just have an enormous amount of enjoyment in my work and I know I’m adding value.
“Whether it’s mentoring new MPs coming through, or being a good sounding post for the leader, I’m a happy little pixy.”
So that name – Crusher Collins. She is not a fan.
If she had to have a nickname, she would prefer ‘Aunty Jude.’
So then, is it time to rebrand?
“In my business Jason, the fact anyone calls me anything is good,” she says, sipping up the last of her wine.
After all, there is nothing much worse than being anonymous when it comes to politics.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” she says.
“When I go into bat for a constituent of mine and they need some help, people generally tend to listen.”
Judith ‘Crusher’ Collins.
“Maybe that name works,” she says, with a smile.