JUDITH COLLINS, remember her? She’s the woman who led the National Party to its second-worst defeat in 85-years. In a normal political party, leadership of that quality would have left the politician responsible with only one option: resignation. But, National hasn’t been a normal party for quite some time. Not since the departure of its last credible leader, Bill English, in 2018.
State-of-the-Nation speeches are opportunities for those charged with their delivery to demonstrate renewed political credibility. Those hoping that Collins’ SOTN address to the Auckland Rotary Club on Tuesday, 26 January would constitute a significant step towards restoring her credibility must be feeling disappointed. Certainly, National’s normality hasn’t been reclaimed.
A political party trounced as badly as National in 2020 owes the electorate two gestures – at the very least. The first is an apology to the voters for so egregiously misreading their mood and intent. The second is a promise to move beyond its clearly inadequate diagnosis of the nation’s ills and towards a whole new suite of remedies.
Collins’ speech did neither of these things. For the most part it was content to rehash the promises made to the electorate last October. The balance consisted of all the usual bromides of lazy conservatism.
The worst of these was Collins’ reflexive rejection of the Government’s plan to lift the minimum wage:
“Labour’s intentions are laudable but they are focused on alleviating the symptoms of stretched working families struggling to make ends meet rather than on the root causes of prosperity – supporting businesses to be more productive, investing in new capital, taking on new staff and lifting wages.”
We have heard it all before. The only way to lift wages is not to lift wages.
What would really make New Zealanders sit up and pay attention is an admission from National that it is precisely its own and the business community’s ingrained opposition to lifting wages that keeps New Zealand’s productivity so low. Recognition by Collins that only by winnowing-out our weakest businesses – i.e. removing the crutch of low wages – will this country’s long-delayed investment in skills, innovation and new technology become unavoidable. A brave declaration that low-wage economies are low-productivity economies. Now, that would have shaken the nation out of its Covid fever-dreams!
Another of those lazy conservative bromides holds that households and economies are subject to exactly the same constraints. That living beyond one’s means is as disastrous for countries as it is for individuals. Save all we can, reduce our debts as quickly as possible, keep the government’s nose out of our businesses’ business: these are National’s new remedies – same as the old remedies.
For the homeless, the solution is equally traditional – and facile. Make a bonfire of as many regulations as possible. Collins has promised her party’s support for emergency legislation designed to strip away what’s left of New Zealand’s social and physical environmental protections. It would be open-slather for property investors and developers.
“We need to reform our planning and RMA processes with one goal: freeing up land and getting more houses built”, Collins told the Rotarians. “And if councils won’t do it, we will do it for them.” (Some forms of state intervention, it would seem, cannot be done without.)
So far, so “same-old, same-old” from the Collins-led National Party. That familiar conflating of the particular interests of farmers and businessmen with the general interest of the whole nation.
“[W]e had a strong sense of community”, confided Collins, recalling her childhood in the Waikato. “We were surrounded by farming families who got stuck in and helped each other out, particularly when times were tough. It wasn’t something to be remarked on or exclaimed over, it was just the way things were – as a Collins, as a farmer, as a Kiwi.”
As if working-class families, a layer of New Zealand society considerably more familiar with tough times than Collins’ comfortable cockies, wouldn’t know how to get stuck in and help their neighbours.
It has always been there: National’s profoundly objectionable assumption that the only real Kiwis are people like themselves. That the rest of the nation are either parasites or problems. Probably both.
Collins has yet to learn the lessons of Holyoake, Bolger, Key and English. That National only regains credibility electorally by opening its arms wider – not to crush voters, but to comfort them.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 January 2021.