Much was outstanding and historic about the 2020 New Zealand general election. For only the second time in the nation’s history, two women leaders vied for their nation’s prime ministership. The polls were postponed from 19 September to check a minor cluster of COVID-19, an unprecedented but widely supported decision. Polling day, 17 October, gave Aotearoa a unitary government for the first time under the MMP system; a thumping Labour victory, the biggest since Norman Kirk stormed into office in 1972. More significantly, 48 per cent of the new Parliament would be women, who accounted for 55 per cent of Labour’s sixty-four seats—numbers Helen Clark and Annette King could only have dreamed of when they began their parliamentary careers in the 1980s.
The campaign, though, seemed dull by the measure of New Zealand elections. Months of lockdowns and Alert Levels, and the looming shadow of the coronavirus had left Kiwis ambivalent about run-of-the-mill political issues. It was, as veteran political commentator Jack Vowles would later say, a ‘COVID election’. In the war against the virus, security and stability mattered most; with even dyed-in-the-wool National Party voters at ease having Aunty Jacinda in the Beehive, the election’s result was a fait accompli. Labour’s campaign slogan, ‘Let’s keep moving’, might as well have been ‘Don’t change horses midstream’. Kiwis seemed to want the election over with, to regroup and rebuild, to get on with their lives.
The year started with some doubts, however. Discontent from the left over the slow progress in housing, welfare and alleviating poverty—due mostly to the restraints of the coalition—gave cause for worry in Labour. But while COVID-19 forced the nation onto a war footing and Ardern’s able leadership tilted the contest firmly towards Labour, woes in the opposition also helped the government.
Leadership coups diminished the National Party in the months before the election. Though intelligent and well presented, National Party leader Simon Bridges, Ardern’s old television and parliamentary sparring partner, never quite connected with the public. Party backrooms hummed with intrigue as Bridges’ approval ratings slumped in the first months of 2020. He soon had enough of it, bringing matters to a head in a leadership ballot on 22 May. He was narrowly defeated, reportedly by a single vote. Bridges and his deputy, Paula Bennett, were replaced by Todd Muller and Ardern’s former opponent Nikki Kaye.
This was just the beginning of bloodletting in the National Party’s ranks, and women fared worst—senior, talented women, at that. Bennett resigned, along with Anne Tolley, a veteran who had also held several portfolios.
In any event, Muller never seemed comfortable in his new role. With his leadership marred by trouble reining in a restive caucus, he abandoned the leadership on 14 July. It later emerged Muller had suffered from severe anxiety soon after taking up the post. He served just fifty-three days in post, a record short term as party leader.
Kaye’s unexpected announcement on 16 July that she would leave politics only worsened matters for the party. She was followed that very day by Amy Adams, another National Party stalwart. Kaye was a formidable campaigner, one of the party’s young leadership hopes, a former minister with a promising future. Suffering from breast cancer, which caused her to take sick leave in September 2016, gave her a different perspective, she says: ‘There’s always been a calculation of the greatest amount of contribution I can make versus being able to live and have a life.’1 She chose a life over the bruising world of politics.
Her resignation was a blow her party could ill afford. The National Party had lost four respected women parliamentarians in a couple of months. And in a curious mirroring of Ardern’s situation heading into the 2017 general election, Judith Collins had risen to the leadership, her party well behind in the polls, just two months before the election.
Pitting Collins against Ardern would have made for an interesting match under normal circumstances. Tempting though it might be to cast this as a contest between absolute opposites—young versus old, left versus right, a tough slugger taking on the popular champion—the truth about Judith Collins is far more intriguing.
There’s no doubt she has cultivated the ‘iron woman’ persona of ‘Crusher’ Collins throughout her career. Nicky Hager’s 2014 book Dirty Politics showed how Collins revelled in the Machiavellian cut-and-thrust of political life. One of her leaked emails read, ‘If you can’t be loved, then best to be feared’, a clear nod to the Renaissance thinker. Her instruction to the right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, ‘always reward with Double ’—that is, retaliate with twice the force—sounds more like advice from a feudal lord than a government minister.
One can guess that Collins’s ‘Crusher’ behaviour is a means of coping in the rough-and-tumble of New Zealand politics. She seems to have made Crusher a career persona—like a professional wrestling ‘villain’ alter-ego, if you will. She was known for having shooting-range terrorist targets peppered with bullet holes hung in her office, just to make a point. She didn’t shoot them herself: she wasn’t into violence, she said.
Excerpted with permission from “Jacinda Ardern: Leading With Empathy” by HarperCollins Publishers India. Authored by Supriya Vani & Carl A Harte. Price Rs 499/-
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)