National has now obviously pressed the reset button on Judith Collins campaign and decided to let her revert to being “Crusher”.
Simultaneously stung into action by lacklustre polling results on Monday night and at the same time a widespread view that she bested Jacinda Ardern in their first leaders’ debate, Collins hit the campaign trail in her home town of Matamata yesterday with a new spring in her step.
She was ready to take on Jacinda Ardnern, and she did so giving notice that “Crusher” was back.
She quoted Ardern’s comment on Tuesday night that she didn’t think debating should be a blood sport.
“Poor wee thing,” said Collins.
“What do they say about it being too hot in the kitchen.”
This marks a big change of tack by National who since Covid struck have avoided criticising Ardern directly.
Their polls told them to do so would be to risk a backlash from the electorate.
That approach is obviously now being abandoned.
However, Collins reflected the nervousness within National about their situation when she twice called on ACT to “destroy” New Zealand First.
“Their job is to take out the rest of the New Zealand First vote,” she told a party rally in Matamata.
There are fears within National that New Zealand First is on the rise at the moment and that though it is polling only around 2.4 per cent, Winston Peters has shown in the past that he can quickly lift that to five per cent.
POLITIK has been told by a senior National campaign source that National is assuming Peters is on track to make five per cent.
There is a similar view among some in the Labour campaign.
National is bargaining that ACT’s strong anti-gun-law policies will attract potential NZ First voters and thus keep Peters out of Parliament.
It is a reflection of National’s precarious position in the polls at present which saw it drop to 31 per cent in the TVOne Colmar Brunton poll on Monday night that it is focussing on issues like this.
And Collins yesterday spent her day in Matamata, just a few kilometres down Highway 27 from where she grew up in Waharoa, pitching to her party’s farmer base.
Anecdotally there have been widespread suggestions that they too have been attracted by ACT.
The New Conservatives are also pitching for the farm vote with billboards saying “Support our Farmers.”
There seems little doubt that there is a crisis of confidence in farming that the centre-right parties are seeking to address.
The chair of the national council of the Rural Support Trust, Neil Bateup, told POLITIK yesterday that though farmers had a good autumn, winter and spring in terms of grass growth, there was still a lot of uncertainty about.
“There hasn’t been any pressure from the climate perspective. But just the pressures of not knowing what is ahead of pressures around freshwater, around regulations,” he said.
“Farmers are just not feeling that they’re valued.
“There are lots of holes in the freshwater policies, and that’s putting pressure on.
“When you try and make a blanket rule for the whole country, it’s very difficult.
“Each different area has different pressures and different soil types and different rainfall patterns.
“And so, you know, every area needs to have its own particular policies.”
At one of the biggest rallies we’ve seen outside a main centre on the election campaign so far, around 200, mainly elderly, National supporters packed into the Matamata Civic Centre to welcome Collins home.
The themes outlined by Bateup were very much on the minds of people at the meeting.
And Collins knew how to respond.
“We want our farmers to know we appreciate them,” she said.
She said New Zealand would not have got through Covid without farmers.
And she told journalists earlier in the day that Ardern’s comments on farming during the TVOne Leaders’ debate had been a “massive failure.”
She was referring to an exchange with Ardern during the debate – but it didn’t go quite the way she has been reporting it.
Collins: “Farmers are feeling like they’re bagged all the time by this government. Remember dirty dairying; that was the Greens and Labour going into that.
Where I grew up, being a dairy farmers kid, I was so proud; I was as proud as Punch.
And now I’ve got dairy farmers saying — a young dairy farmer saying — I’m only a dairy farmer because they feel that they have got the weight of the world on them.
Campbell: “So how do we get this right?”
Ardern: “It feels to me like the view of a world that has passed.
“When I meet with our dairy sector, I have to say our primary producers as a sector I have probably met with more than any other because of this important work, they absolutely see the need for us to be competitive in this environment.”
But asked about high rates of mental health issues among dairy farmers at her Matamata meeting, Collins again made an oblique reference to what she believed Ardern had said.
Her audience heartily approved because she was able to imply that Ardern thought farming had had its day.
“I will always stand up for farmers and farming families,” Collins said.
“That is worth gold, frankly, because I think for far too long we’ve had this attitude towards farming because as David Lange called it in 1987, it’s a sunset industry.
“It is a fabulous industry, and until we replace it, what have we got?
“Well, we never want to replace it because nobody does a better job than our farmers.”
Not surprisingly, that got loud applause.
It is unlikely to win votes for Collins in Auckland Central, but it will shore up support for her leadership from the party’s rural electorates who have begun to feel neglected by the party hierarchy.
There is a tension within the party between those electorates and the party leadership, particularly over selections.
After this election, the party is likely to have only two “mud on the boots” farmers in its caucus; Barbara Kuriger and Ian McElvie.
That could change if Mike Butterick manages to win Wairarapa. But there will be none from the South Island electorates.
Even Tim van de Molen the MP for Waikato, the electorate she was speaking in, though he was a Young Farmer of the Year was actually a bank rural advisor.
David Bennett, the party’s agriculture spokesperson, owns a number of farms but lives in and represents the urban university electorate of Hamilton East.
So yesterday’s passionate defence of farming was an important move by Collins, both in terms of holding the rural vote but also in terms of solidifying her position with an important segment of the party membership.
At the same time, her campaign to swing New Zealand First votes over to the centre-right is intended to even up the balance between the centre-left and the centre-right.
She looks as though she is going to put quite a fight.