Judith Collins has just three words, to sum up the past year; “disunity is death.”
Maybe that is why she seems so cautious about getting out in front of her Caucus with “captain’s calls” on policy.
Some of her 33-person team would prefer that she took a stronger stand on some issues. But the truth is the Nats don’t seem to quite know where they fit into the political landscape. So caution and consensus are the watchwords.
To that end, Collins has been bringing in outside speakers to talk to the Caucus and after a meeting this week with the Climate Change Commission she has decided to invite its chair, Rod Carr along early in the new year.
But even by doing that she is indirectly raising the question of National’s continuing support for the Zero Carbon Bill and particularly its 2050 net-zero targets.
Collins is believed to have led the initial opposition within the Caucus to supporting the Bill.
She lost but went down fighting with the opponents tabling nine substantial amendments to it, all of which were lost, but which the party is committed to legislating for whenever it gets back to power.
Perhaps the most important was one that would specifically require the Commission to consider economic impacts when providing advice on targets and emissions reductions.
That may turn out to be the lever that Collins could use to pull the support.
Because National in 2019 when the Bill was passed thought it had a fighting chance of regaining power at this year’s election, the party did not spell out what would happen if Labour retained power and the Commission came back with tough targets.
After her meeting with the Commission, that is now what Collins is expecting it to do.
“We’re expecting that it will actually put some very big numbers around, some very big promises,” she told POLITIK.
“People are going to need to start thinking that there is a price to everything and are they prepared to pay that price?
“And the answer might be yes, but I’ve got a feeling the answers more likely to be, didn’t know it was going to be that much.”
Collins will not allow herself to be tired down on a response until the Caucus has discussed the targets which will be published on February 1 next year. Shortly after that, the Caucus is scheduled to hold a two-day retreat.
But is it conceivable that National’s Caucus Caucus could withdraw its support for the Zero Carbon Bill’s 2050 targets?
“Caucus could change,” she said.
“Caucuses can make decisions based on new information that we didn’t have at the time, but there’s no reason to presume it’s changed.”
That sound remarkably like someone keeping their options open.
If the Caucus were to back off the targets, then that would position National more to the right of New Zealand politics.
But Collins is equally ambiguous about where she sees the party sitting overall. She herself is a complex mixture. Though she is popularly considered to be on the right she has tended to vote with the liberals on conscience votes; is less wedded to hardline free-market economics than Paul Goldsmith and favours the party standing candidates in Maori seats and wants to see a more diverse caucus.
But at the same time, she holds hardline views on law and order and is already talking of opposing any move by the Government in the wake of the Royal Commission into the Mosque shootings to criminalise hate speech.
“There are certain things that we can be very concerned about, and those concerns will be issues around human rights, freedom of speech, issues around that,” she said.
“And we have since received letters from the Minister of Justice, Chris Faafoi and Andrew Little, the minister, put in charge of the response, on that and they’ve asked to meet with us and to discuss what they’re proposing.
“So I’ll be happy to listen to them.
“I’m not going to rule it out, but they will be obviously looking to see what we can agree on.
“But there are certain things that I don’t want to see happen, and that is things that are going to impinge further on people’s human rights in this country.”
Is she talking about hate speech?
Taken together, any move to oppose the hate speech proposals along with any move to back off the 2050 climate change targets would seem to pull National away from the centre and push it much closer to ACT.
Collins rejects this argument.
“Things are moving in society, but also the principles of the National Party are very, very solid,” she said.
“I’ve made it very clear, that if we stick to those principles and we put policies and actions up against those; we are generally going to be on the right track.
“We are not the Labour Party, and we should never try to be the Labour Party.
“And we’ve seen in the past what happens when we are seen as trying to be the Labor Party.
“But at the same time, we are a centrist centre-right party.
“We have to represent the National Party, we are not a particular group party, and we need to be able to reach out across the whole country.”
Interestingly Collins is proposing that the Caucus retreat devote some time to discussing foreign policy.
China will top that agenda, and she is plainly uncomfortable with the recent statement issued by National MP, Simon O’Connor, attacking China over Hong Kong.
Instead, she emphasises the importance of China as a trading partner.
Meanwhile the party is reviewing its performance over the past three years leading up to the election loss and then the campaign and loss itself.
Collins is particularly focused on selections; she wants to stand candidates In the Maori seats, and she also wants to see ethnic candidates standing in winnable electorates.
“The selection process itself is going to be looked at as part of that review,” she said.
“And I think that’s a good thing.
“No party can say, oh, it’s worked well for so many years, so we never need to look at it again, because that’s just the way to become moribund.”
Obviously, the big issue the review will have to contend with will be the events surrounding the leadership of both Simon Bridges and Todd Muller.
Bridges (or his supporters) would be likely to blame Collins for some of the disruption within the Caucus leading up to his overthrow and those who backed Muller’s coup who are still in Caucus (particularly Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop) might also have to accept some criticism.
This sort of background noise is hardly conducive to settling the Caucusdown after the leadership coups and the defeat.
She has a unique solution to propose to that.
“I think what I would really like to do is for us to start the year with a great looking forward from our caucus, but also to have some fun together as a caucus,” she said.
“We seem to be having quite a bit of fun recently and in terms of positive fun and learn to like each other and accept that everyone makes mistakes.
“We are all human, and we all try to do the right thing.”