The clearest signal yet that Collins feels under leadership pressure
OPINION: In the stately wing of the Parliament Building reserved for the opposition leader’s office, it seems there must be a small see-through cabinet labelled “racial separatism”, with a sign saying “in case of low polling, break glass”.
How else to explain the dangerous lure of “one law for all” rhetoric for leaders of the opposition under pressure.
Former Labour leader Phil Goff flirted with decrying “special treatment” for Māori early on in his tenure, when the Māori Party was seen as a weakness for John Key’s Government, before being hauled back into line by his caucus.
And this week, National leader Judith Collins issued a statement about the proposed restructure of the health sector, claiming a proposed Māori Health Authority, to work alongside the centralised Health New Zealand, was “segregationist”.
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The reason this card remains so tempting to play is the dim political memory of National leader Don Brash’s 2004 Orewa speech, which led to a sudden, meteoric rise in National’s polling, based on Brash’s appeal to “one law for all”, overtaking Helen Clark’s Labour government.
Since then, and perhaps exacerbated by Brash’s shambolic subsequent public career, “one law for all” has been regarded as having almost magical power on its own, an ever-tempting get-out-of-jail-free card or a nuclear option for oppositions in the wilderness.
Collins’ deployment of it is the clearest signal yet that she feels under intense pressure for the leadership.
And so we could speculate about whether Collins is motivated by the high-risk gamble of a temporary Orewa-like sugar hit, or what Freud called the “death drive”. Because the most salient feature of Brash’s strategy is that he never became prime minister.
Labour’s polling reverted to normal within a few months. The election itself (despite the memorable “Iwi/Kiwi” billboards designed by John Ansell) was fought on largely economic policies – finance spokesman John Key’s tax cuts versus Labour’s Working for Families and interest-free student loans.
In large part, this was because Brash’s “one law for all” platform was almost entirely without substance. Nicky Hager’s The Hollow Men, although based on questionably obtained emails, details an unintentionally hilarious exchange between Brash’s lieutenants, stalling for time with journalists asking for examples of race-based privilege in law, because they hadn’t managed to find any yet.
Similarly, Collins has warned direly of “a separate education system”, but has seemingly forgotten that her party championed charter schools run by iwi authorities and Māori providers to provide tailored learning to meet (as any school should) parent and community expectations.
Collins rightly says that healthcare should be delivered by need and not race. It’s a blandly true statement that no sensible person could disagree with, as if the alternative is operating theatres turning away acute patients at the door if they fail a blood quantum test. It’s also, in the context of healthcare, largely meaningless.
Prevention is better and also cheaper than cure. Screening programmes, vaccinations and regular check-ups are better value for taxpayer money than waiting to treat terminal or chronic illnesses, and they become even better value for money the more effectively they are targeted.
Bill English’s social investment model, which aimed to direct resources to where they could be most effective, by identifying at-risk people and intervening early, was lampooned by some as a Minority Report dystopia, but operated on this exact principle.
The Whānau Ora scheme, seen as one of the great successes of targeted social assistance of Key’s time in government with the Māori Party, acts on devolution and delivering services more effectively to those who may be harder to reach through conventional means.
Primary healthcare largely operates on informal algorithms, matching symptoms to deduce likely risks and causes. This algorithm is refined – that is, improved – by adding in known predispositions and population patterns.
National succeeded in consolidating the centre-right vote under Brash. But it made no inroads into the middle voters who could deliver an election win until he was replaced by John Key, who pivoted to the centre and pointedly marked his arrival with a series of speeches about children growing up in poverty.
Collins’ media release was sent out the same day that consultation papers for National’s regional conferences were published. The recommendation that the party “incorporate the Treaty” into its constitution raised some eyebrows in light of her statements on the health reform.
It’s a false dichotomy, of course. The extra-parliamentary National party is not a partner to the Treaty.
The Crown is a partner to the Treaty, however. And if Collins was to achieve her dream of being prime minister, she would be required to lead a government for all New Zealanders.
In that light, another recommendation from National’s review may be more pertinent: steps should be taken to ensure “existing leaders set the right example”.
Ben Thomas is an Auckland-based public relations consultant and political commentator. He was previously a National government press secretary, and is a former political editor for the National Business Review.