Chris Trotter: Judith Collins a sop to National's base

Judith Collins gets  a congratulatory kiss from John Key after being sworn back in to Cabinet in December.
Ross Giblin

Judith Collins gets a congratulatory kiss from John Key after being sworn back in to Cabinet in December.

OPINION: Was John Key's decision to stand down his Justice Minister, Judith Collins, critical to his 2014 election victory? The National Party was hemorrhaging votes as a result of the extraordinary revelations contained in Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics. Collins featured prominently in the book, making her, in the eyes of many, a symbol of all that was wrong with the National-led Government.

The bleeding ended abruptly when, pending the outcome of an investigation into yet another spate of allegations, the Prime Minister decided to stand Collins down. (The investigation subsequently cleared Collins of any wrongdoing.) Had she remained in Key's ministry, National's numbers may well have fallen to the point where voters began writing the Government off. If Key's plurality on election night been 43 per cent rather than 48 per cent, then his ability to continue as prime minister would have been seriously – perhaps fatally – compromised.

But, if the standing down of Judith Collins played an important part in securing Key his third term, why bring her back into his Cabinet? In her new role as Minister of Police and Minister of Corrections, Collins is once again displaying all the headstrong and abrasive qualities that made her so unpopular during her first, controversial, stint in Key's cabinet.

Many political scientists would dismiss this question as naive. They would argue that Key brought Collins in from the cold in order to appease National's "base". Collins has become the poster girl for a great many of the deeply conservative National Party voters living in rural and provincial New Zealand. Many of them also belong to the Sensible Sentencing Trust, a powerful lobby group committed to securing harsher penalties for criminal offending and a more Spartan regime for prison inmates.

Presumably, National's conservative base are as much in awe of their leader's ability to win elections as the rest of the country, but they are less enthused about the price he has to pay for that success. By their reckoning, Key has flung much too sweet a sop to the socially liberal Cerberus who guards the gateway to the crucial metropolitan vote.

The persistence of Working For Families (which Key memorably described as "communism by stealth") and interest-free student loan, rankles with these voters. Similarly, they cannot understand why their government hasn't "dealt to the unions" after the fashion of Bill Birch in 1991. Nor can they comprehend why the Resource Management Act hasn't been erased from the statute books. The accusation that Key has adopted a "Labour Lite" strategy for remaining in power strikes a very resonant chord with the party's conservative base.

They are also aware that had it not been for the intervention of Collins and her fellow backbench exile, Maurice Williamson, there is every chance that farmers would have found themselves taking health and safety orders from their own employees, or, even worse, from their unions.

Indeed, it was almost certainly that back-bench intervention which persuaded Key to bring Collins back under the protective umbrella of collective cabinet responsibility. As President Lyndon Johnson crudely explained his decision to keep the intimidating FBI Chief, J Edgar Hoover, in his job: "Better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in."

Of course, the unfortunate corollary of Johnson's metaphor is that, in the situation described, it's always the long-suffering public who get wet!

But what kind of politics are we encouraging when policies unsupported by evidence, and rejected by the wider public, are accepted by the conventionally wise as the price governments must pay to keep their party's base onside?

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To hear the Minister for Corrections blithely bat away concerns about overcrowding in our prisons, with glib references to "double bunking", is chilling. Are there really people out there so bereft of empathy and compassion that they cannot imagine the acute psychological stress (and physical danger) of confining two human-beings in a tiny cell for hours on end? Even in the best relationships there are times when people must have time and space to themselves. Denying individual prisoners all hope of coping privately with the many besetting stresses of incarceration is not only cruel and inhuman, it also reduces significantly the odds of the prisoner's rehabilitation.

National's base doesn't care. For rural and provincial conservatives, the tougher the prison regime, and the longer the prison sentence, the better they like it. There is deeply punitive streak running through these voters that is apparent not only in relation to crime and punishment, but also in their expectations of welfare and housing policy.

John Key, raised by a cosmopolitan Jewish mother in New Zealand's second-largest city, and with years of residence in Singapore, London and New York, has little genuine affinity with National's traditionalist base. Judith Collins is his sour sop to the snarling Cerberus of social conservatism.

 - Stuff

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