Richard Prebble: Boring Judith Collins won’t beat caring Jacinda Ardern

OPINION:

If the National caucus’ bloodlust has been sated,the volatility of New Zealand politics means Judith Collins could become Prime Minister. So, we should examine her state of the nation speech.

The Covid outbreak swamped any coverage. Judith should be grateful; it was a mediocre address.

Collins boasts that she wrote every word in her biography, and I suspect she wrote all of this speech too. The National leader needs a good speechwriter.

Good speeches entertain, inform and motivate. There was no humour, no stories, no memorable lines and only one substantive proposal. It was boring.

It was a mistake to try to present a new image of a caring Judith Collins. New Zealand did not vote for Helen Clark or John Key because they are kind but because they were competent. Caring Jacinda lost her first election; she headed a coalition of the losers. Caring Jacinda, heading a Government with no achievements, was on her way to losing her second election until she put the country into one of the world’s toughest lockdowns. We like strong, competent leaders.

“Crusher” is a great nickname. Collins became leader saying she was the only MP tough enough to take on the PM. This speech did not hold Jacinda to account. Anyone can close a country down. What counts is how we get up again. The way to combat spin is with substance. And what this speech lacked was substance.

Judith can never out-Pollynna Jacinda. She should not try.

The speech had the usual National Party platitudes: “empowering individual freedom, personal responsibility and the importance of caring communities to help New Zealanders own their future”. Labour makes similar claims.

A supporter of capitalism advocates the importance of property rights, free markets, the sanctity of contract and the rule of law, all absent from the address.

Collins set out her five “top priorities” for 2021.

• “Response to Covid-19”:Collins says New Zealand should be vaccinating frontline workers now. The criticism would have been more effective if shehad pointed out that even if we had early vaccines, we could not have used them. The Government failed to set up fast-track vaccine approval.

Collins should have endorsed Dr Parmjeet Parmar’s public warnings. Doctor Parmar predicted a Pullman-type covid outbreak. She warned that we do not have enough layers
of protection. Doctor Parmar has been proved correct. Unbelievably, officials took nearly a week to trace and re-test all the Pullman Hotel guests!

Parmar would be still a National MP if the party did not list its ethnic MPs so low.Collins says she wants National to be “a party for all New Zealanders”. National could be more representative today — Collins just needs to get her white, middle-aged, male, list MPs like Gerry Brownlee, who were rejected by their electorates, to resign.

Covid will dominate 2021. The Government has not secured early vaccine supply. The Covid crisis required a more substantive contribution from the Opposition Leader.

• “Economic recovery”. Collinsis correct, the Government’s economic policy is based on “spend, spend, spend”. This speech did not set out what is National’s alternative. Does National support the Reserve Bank printing a billion dollars a week for the next two years? Every recovery built on credit creation has ended badly.

• “Hardship & public safety”. This appears to have been added so Collinscould tell us how much she cares. There were no policy alternatives. Here is one. Stop taxing the poor. One reason for rising child poverty is that a packet of cigarettes now costs $35.90. Addicts will always feed their addiction first.

• “Housing, infrastructure and world-class cities”.Collins called on the Government “to introduce urgent temporary legislation to make it easier to build a house, until the permanent RMA reforms are completed”.

This is a substantive proposal. It will take three years for a new RMA to be enacted. Only more supply can reduce the rise in house prices. The PM will come to regret rejecting National’s offer of bipartisan support.

• “Technology and post-Covid opportunities”. This is just politicians picking winners. Who is going to work in Judith Collins’ tech industry? Tourist guides? In the latest International Education survey, New Zealand school pupils were ranked 40th in maths. Judith Collins’ priority should be urgently lifting education standards.

This address will not set the priorities for 2021. Covid and the Climate Change Commission report will set this year’s agenda. Collins did not mention the commission’s report. Also absent was any mention of health. Our hospitals could not handle even a mild Covid outbreak. Health has to be a priority in 2021.

What was needed from National’s leader was a substantive speech setting out an alternative vision; an address where Crusher held the Government to account. If Judith Collins does not find her mojo, her caucus will find their knives.

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

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