NZ PM Jacinda Ardern and NZ Nationals leader Judith Collins (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas, AAP/David Rowland)

New Zealand’s election is just nine weeks away, and the competing parties are in chaos.

The Nationals have lost their leader and three MPs in less than two weeks, with the party’s shortest-serving leader, Todd Muller, stepping down after just 53 days.

Muller has been replaced by tough-talking Judith Collins, who has to deal with a cabinet reshuffle, a COVID-19 data leak by members of her party, and taking on the most popular PM in New Zealand’s history.

New Zealand is currently governed by Labour and New Zealand First, led by Labour’s Jacinda Ardern.

A brief history of controversy

Muller stepped down on Tuesday, saying he was “not the best person to be leader of the opposition,” adding the role had taken a heavy toll on him, his family, and his health. Muller had replaced Simon Bridges in May.

His resignation came a week after the party’s former president Michelle Boag leaked the names, dates of birth and locations of New Zealand’s then-18 active COVID-19 cases to National MP Hamish Walker, who sent out a press release warning New Zealanders 11,000 people were headed for Southland from “India, Pakistan, Korea”. 

Walker then sent the list of COVID-19 cases to the media to bolster his claim (though the data didn’t prove people were rushing in from Asia). Both Walker and Boag have resigned from their roles. 

Just a few days after Walker received criticism for his racist scare-mongering, National MP Amy Adams wrongly claimed a party candidate, Catherine Chu, was Chinese and represented Chinese community. Chu’s parents are Korean (though Chu did say her ancestors immigrated from China to Korea “a few hundred years ago”).

Collins organised a cabinet reshuffle. She demoted shadow health minister Michael Woodhouse after he didn’t advise the party leader he, too, had received the leaked COVID-19 data. 

But before she could plan who goes where, two other MPs had resigned: Adams, who had previously planned to retire but stayed on for Muller, and Nikki Kaye.

Kaye’s retirement is an issue for the Nationals for two reasons. Firstly, she twice-defeated Ardern in the Auckland Central seat. Secondly, because her seat could be snapped up by the Greens, further bolstering the Labour-Greens coalition’s numbers. 

According to Massey University politics professor Richard Shaw, the move “pissed a lot of people in the National party off”. 

Who is the National’s newly-minted leader?

Collins is an experienced, divisive politician, says Shaw. “She’s been around since the early 2000s and has a fair amount of political baggage. She’s supported by some on the right and vilified by the left.”

Divisive is right. The party’s front bench has already been criticised for its lack of diversity, with Collins defending the white lineup as having “diversity of thought”. Deputy Leader Gerry Brownlee echoed her claims, saying balancing competence and diversity “is not easy”. 

“Within 48 hours of becoming leader there had been a series of exchanges in which the politics of whiteness came up in weird kinds of ways,” Shaw said. “She quite often asked why she should apologise for being white — when no one asks.” 

The party has an economic focus, with Collins saying her party’s policy would be “mildly radical” with a focus on COVID-19 recovery. 

Do the Nationals have a chance? 

Polling from last month found support for Labour was 54.5%, more than double the support for the Nationals at 27%. Labour is in for an easy win if it joins either New Zealand First or the Greens as another coalition government.

Collins is also unlikely to swing voters from the other side, Shaw said, thanks to her divisive nature. 

But this doesn’t mean the Nationals are “dog tucker”, Shaw said. “They’re so far behind, though Collins might stop the party from hemorrhaging too many positions.” 

Core support for the party hasn’t swayed too much over the years, and Collins has been careful not to be overly critical of New Zealand First — unlike her predecessors — so there’s still a chance of the parties joining up. 

“Collins will go after Ardern in ways men couldn’t. She’ll lead with her chin and try to conflate in people’s minds that Ardern’s support for modelling language of empathy, kindness and compassion is political weakness,” he said. 

Labour also didn’t deliver a lot of their promises. “There’s the accusation that they’ve come in and preached the gospel of transformation, but not much has happened.”

The election will be held in mid-September.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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