THE REACTION to Judith Collins’ speech to National’s Northern Regional Conference (1/5/21) was always going to be instructive. It would signal just how seriously National’s opponents took both Collins and her race-based politicking. A flat line on the political seismograph would indicate complete indifference: proof that the National Party leader’s strategy was out of time, and that she, as Leader, was running out of luck. Were the seismograph’s needle to flutter, however, National would know that it was on to something.
And flutter it did. Not wildly, admittedly, but enough to register something large and dangerous shifting deep underground. To give the Prime Minister credit, she was careful to let Collins’ speech pass without comment. While undoubtedly registering the seismic shock, her instincts told her to pretend that she hadn’t. Prime Ministers have surrogates to do that for them. Dutiful as ever, Kelvin Davis let loose the necessary slings and arrows – as did Jacinda’s Pavlovian poodles in the Press Gallery. Given the quality of Collins’ speech, they really had no choice.
Because that was the “problem” with Collins’ address: its totally unexpected moderation. This was no bilious outpouring of racial hate – quite the reverse. With a degree of political subtlety and tactical agility that did both Collins and her speechwriter, Michael Forbes, credit, the speech left Labour with nothing but questions to answer. Difficult questions about the contents of He Puapua, the report of the secretive, Cabinet-appointed working group established to develop a plan for bringing New Zealand’s state institutions into conformity with both te Tiriti o Waitangi and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“The Prime Minister needs to explain why Labour has been busy implementing He Puapua’s recommendations one by one”, Collins stated in a follow-up media release, “without sharing this wider plan with New Zealanders.”
This is clever politics. We live in an age of mistrust. Fewer and fewer citizens have much faith in their country’s political institutions anymore. Fewer still have faith in the reliability of the nation’s news media – as a study released last week by AUT’s Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy makes clear. Plant a seed of doubt in the voters’ minds about the Labour Government’s secretive “wider plan” for New Zealanders and watch it grow into a thornbush of paranoia.
Collins knows that Jacinda’s only hope of preventing that seed from sprouting is to dismiss He Puapua as just another of Labour’s many, many working party reports; and to reassure New Zealanders that any changes to New Zealand’s core constitutional structures will only ever be undertaken after they’ve been endorsed by a binding referendum. Except, even these undertakings offer Labour only the most fragile of defences. It was, after all, Helen Clark and Margaret Wilson who abolished appeals to the Privy Council and established the Supreme Court of New Zealand without holding a referendum. Moreover, it was precisely because referenda kept quashing attempts to set up Maori wards, that Jacinda’s government rushed through legislation denying local voters that option. On these matters, the public has every right to be sceptical.
Collins also knows, or, at the very least, suspects, that throwing He Puapua over the side of Labour’s waka might prove to be a great deal harder than it sounds. If Labour’s Maori Caucus’s “Plan A” was a full-scale assault on the homelessness, joblessness, ill-health, incarceration-rates and general despair of so many of their people, then it has failed. Both Jacinda and her right-hand man, Finance Minister Grant Robertson, made it clear, very early on, that the rapid “transformational” effort required to move the dial on Maori deprivation was a fiscal bridge too far for them to contemplate. That made the slower, but much deeper, transformations set out in He Puapua, the Maori caucus’ “Plan B”. If Jacinda, bowing to pressure from National and Act, tosses He Puapua overboard, then Te Paati Maori will invite the Maori electorate to, once again, draw their own conclusions about the wisdom of expecting a Pakeha party to prioritise Maori concerns.
The truth is that Labour, just like Saint Peter, does not wish to be caught denying the messianic He Puapua, just as David Seymour and Judith Collins commence crowing.
If anybody knows this, then it’s Jacinda’s former Chief-of-Staff, and the current Director of the lobbying firm Capital Government Relations, Neale Jones. Sitting alongside his fellow Wellington insider, Brigette Morten, on this morning’s (3/5/21) Nine-to-Noon “Political Panel”, it was Neale who finally indicated exactly where on the Richter Scale, Collins’ political earthquake registered. And it was high. High enough, in fact, to thoroughly rattle Mr Jones who, unlike the identically named hero of Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man, knows exactly what’s going on here.
Which is why, presumably, from the moment host Kathryn Ryan asked him for his take on Collins’s speech, Neale started throwing bombs. The Leader of the Opposition, he insisted, was guilty of “racist fearmongering”; engaging in a “toxic form of politics”; and had concocted her very own “conspiracy theory”. This is not the sort of language your average capital city insider generally uses to describe a political event of no impact or importance. On this occasion, I think it’s fair to say that the man licenced to kill Labour’s foes (at least rhetorically) was both shaken and stirred.
Perhaps the most disturbing element of Neale’s critique was his characterisation of any attempt to critique the rangatiratanga agenda of He Puapua and its ilk as illegitimate and sinister. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that if Neale had his way this kind of “toxic” politics would be impermissible: a form of “hate speech”. As a line of argument, it is chilling: conveying the impression that some kinds of politics – most particularly the politics of Maori-Pakeha relations – should be considered “out-of-bounds” and strictly controlled.
Listening to this morning’s “Political Panel”, I found it impossible not to imagine Brigette Morten sitting in the RNZ studio with a grin as wide as a Cheshire Cat’s. Seeing, as we, the listeners, were hearing, Neale’s discomfort, Morten must have recognised just what a winner Collins has picked.
The National Party leader’s May Day address, unlike Brash’s Orewa Speech, will not be a sky-rocket – hauling National’s poll numbers up into the electoral stratosphere. No, He Puapua and all it stands for will be a slow-burner, spreading underground like a peat fire until, finally, it surfaces in clouds of acrid, choking smoke.
In the immortal words of Rachel Hunter: “It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 4 May 2021.