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The salt in the soup of democracy

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 17 July 2020

Perhaps the election of Judith Collins to the National leadership does not change her party’s immediate electoral prospects. National is still fighting an uphill battle to unseat an extremely popular Prime Minister.

But Collins’ election makes a huge difference to the political climate. It feels as if robust democracy is awakening from a 53-day slumber.

From every interaction and by all accounts, previous leader Todd Muller is a nice guy. That was a big part of his problem.

The Prime Minister has made niceness a core part of her brand. Jacinda Ardern has written opinion pieces on a new “economics of kindness.” She introduced a Wellbeing Budget. “Be kind” has been her Government’s mantra during the Covid-19 crisis.

In the eyes of the public, niceness and brand Jacinda have almost become interchangeable. For the opposition, this means it was a futile task to outdo the Prime Minister in this territory. Yet that is precisely what Muller tried.

In his long, programmatic speech at Te Puna, Muller talked about having been “born in a town called love”: Te Aroha. Indeed, the word ‘love’ appeared 17 times in his speech.

Meanwhile, a few other words seemed to elude Muller’s dictionary. Among them were ‘Jacinda,’ ‘Ardern’ and ‘Prime Minister.’

No matter how solid the content of the rest of the speech may have been, there was no cut and thrust to it.

Enter Judith Collins. People who love her would not simply call her nice. And even if Collins may be kind, this is far from her unique selling proposition.

Collins is Ardern’s antithesis. Collins is the “crusher,” not an evangelist of kindness. She is witty and plain-speaking, where the Prime Minister prefers effusive rhetoric. No wonder Collins’ autobiography is titled Pull no Punches.

Collins’ short statement after her election lived up to her established public persona. She talked about her desire to “crush the Government,” to “take back our country” and kick out “the current lot.”

Regardless of whether one likes or agrees with Collins, her leadership appointment immediately added spice to New Zealand’s politics. And how refreshing that was.

The Prime Minister’s approval ratings are so stratospheric that opposition politicians had shied from personal criticism, let alone attacks. Yet such quarrels are the salt in the soup of democracy. Without them, political debates are bland and boring.

Love her or loathe her, Collins guarantees the election campaign will be anything but boring. And for the sake of a vibrant democracy, that can only be a good thing.

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