Scribblings from a Conversation with Judith Collins

Last week I emailed the office of Judith Collins seeking an interview for my radio show. I wasn’t  confident there would even be a reply, but the next day I received a response saying that Judith was interested. A flurry of emails went back and forth and a date and time was set, so today I donned a suit (dress for the job you want) and drove to Wellington to meet and talk to one of the most fascinating political figures of our time.

As a word of warning I said in my email that I was not interested in dredging up the Oravida issue, or the connections between Collins and Cameron Slater. If that is what you want to read about you can stop here. If you possess real political curiosity and the desire to delve into the multi-dimensions of a political heavyweight, read on.

Wellington is a tough city to wheel about, and Parliament is bizarrely unsuited to the physically disabled. Collins Executive Assistant met me in the Beehive foyer, apologising for the labyrinthine interior of our government buildings. It took some time to get to Judith Collins office, no longer having ministerial status she has been banished from the Beehive to a distant corner of the main Parliament building, her previous permanent staff of six having been culled to one.

The rooms are handsome though, as it is an open secret that the offices in the main Parliament building (the grey one) are much nicer than those in the Beehive, or nearby Bowen House. Nervous though I am, I chat with Ashleigh the EA until Collins herself, disturbed by my curiously resonant voice, opens her door. In person she is exactly as she appears on TV, but as the interview progresses and she warms up, more personable qualities, particularly humour, emerge. At this late stage of a very hard year, Judith Collins is able to take a step back and relish her achievements while looking forward to what’s next.

She is not one to wallow in misfortune. After her resignation as a minister during the election campaign, she took two days to feel sorry for herself and then went straight back to doorknocking in Papakura. Getting on with the job obviously helped since she was re-elected for the fifth time with a majority of nearly five thousand votes. The former minister is objective about the lows she has encountered this year, but is very definitely looking forward to her next challenge.

Coy on precisely what is next, Collins tells me that she has a couple of projects she is working on, ones that she will refine over the summer. She’s not going to wait for John Key to hand her a portfolio (he’s very coy on when that might happen), but will instead work on reducing crime in her electorate of Papakura, and furthering the reforms she made as Minister of Justice to the family court concerning children. The latter is something that has been of great concern to Judith Collins since well before she became an MP, and was a lawyer in Auckland. In her words, it is about changing the family court process so it is not simply ‘formalising relationship management.’

The media has become extremely intrusive. Collins did try up until this year to have a good relationship with the media, but found that inviting journalists into her home did not make them any nicer, and they abused her hospitality by turning up on her doorstep uninvited and hounding her. So her courtesy has been rescinded (thank goodness I am not technically a journalist). Collins says that she has continually infuriated parts of the media by never leaking against colleagues, and never leaking against the government. As the media is more about the daily ‘kill’, rather than pursuing larger stories, they pine for inside information from government members.

The nickname ‘Crusher’ was applied by the opposition back when Judith Collins was Minister of Police and she passed legislation empowering the cops to confiscate and crush boyracer’s cars. It hurt a little at first, but Collins press secretary assured her that it was actually a positive title. Collins does believe that the title does allow her critics to misrepresent her as being a machine, something not human. It also allows lazy journalists to deploy clichés, but at the same time intimidates some critics and enemies.

On the subject of friends in politics, it has been helpful to know who Judith’s real friends are, and who are simply fair-weather friends. This adds further weight to the case that Judith Collins is concentrating on the positives of her position, and spotting the silver linings in what have been very dark clouds. While another spell in cabinet is definitely a goal, Collins knows it is all up to the Prime Minister and she won’t be trying to win his favour through anything other than her proven work record.

‘I’m not going to start making cookies for him or something like that.’

The fact that Collins resigned on the basis of an email by someone else alleging that she was trying to undermine the CEO of the Serious Fraud Office, means that there is no case for ministerial incompetence. She was always on top of her work, a relentless reader of cabinet papers and briefing notes, and had been very high up in government seniority for what is quite a long time. To a degree i get the feeling that Judith may never be broadly liked, in the sense that John Key is, but most people will think of her as someone they can trust in a crisis. That kind of respect is worth a lot, it is what made Helen Clark so successful, and it means that Judith Collins should not be discounted as a relevant politician.

The picture I am getting of Judith is profoundly different from the one I’ve got through the media. This perhaps explains the fact that by far the most hurtful and vile things said of her have been by people she has never met. It is regrettably easy to dehumanise and dissect someone removed from your every day experience, especially so when the medium for transacting such abuse is the internet.

Twitter trolls and bullies are swiftly blocked, and though Judith had a bad episode on twitter earlier in the year, she rebounded by tweeting selfies of her and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Such a cyber comeback could well be mirrored on the political stage in the near future. Clearly Judith Collins still has the energy and drive to re-climb the ladder, now too she has the experience of learning hard lessons. I ask her about the political hard ball she is known for playing, which she says is not limited to just her. I counter by saying ‘ah, but you play it better than most.’ She smiles and replies; ‘I am better than most.’

Many thanks to Judith Collins and her assistant Ashleigh for allowing me to come in and conduct the interview, especially at a time when Collins is not doing many media interviews, and did not inflict any caveats on me. I hope to do another interview in some time and see the progress on her projects. You can listen to the full interview after it is broadcast on Access Manawatu at 1pm on Wednesday 29 October, on this website.

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