On the Tiles: Judith Collins on leadership, loss, and Simon Bridges

In an exclusive interview with the On the Tiles podcast, Judith Collins describes her time as leader of the Opposition as “walking into hell”, details her relationship with former press secretary Janet Wilson, and why it’s up to Simon Bridges to repair their frayed relationship.

Easter celebrates the resurrection.

A politician who has been resurrected more times than most is Judith Collins, former National leader. In an almost biblical career, she’s been demoted, re-promoted, and eventually elevated to the party leadership – a job she described as “hell” and lost in a brutal no-confidence vote.

Many politicians would hightail it and run after such an infamous exit, but not Collins. She’s made it into new leader Christopher Luxon’s shadow cabinet (just), and she’s been busy touring the country trying to build a reputation in her new portfolio: research, science, innovation, and technology.

But looking to the future doesn’t mean Collins won’t talk about the past. Almost five months after being ousted as leader, a period during which she’s been largely silent, she recently felt ready to talk about the job she claims she never actually wanted.

“Why would any sane person want to have that job?” Collins said.

“It was the worst possible time. You’d have to be seriously dense to think that was a career enhancing move”.

Collins had put her hand up twice before: when John Key stepped aside in 2016 (she withdrew from that contest and endorsed Bill English), and in 2018 when English retired (she lost in the first round of voting, Simon Bridges eventually prevailed.).

“I toyed with it before just to have fun really,” she said of these attempts. Collins said MPs can toy with the leadership “if you feel that you’re being overlooked and undervalued”.

“I might have felt [overlooked and undervalued] at various stages along my career,” she said.

But what happened in 2020 was different. National began the year led by Bridges, who was rolled after the first lockdown by Todd Muller. But less than two months into the job, Muller was crumbling, and decided to resign.

The night before that resignation was made public in a shock early-morning press statement, Muller’s close confidantes Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams called Collins.

“I’d been rung the night before Todd Muller announced his resignation by Amy Adams and Nikki Kaye. I was watching TV,” Collins said.

That very day, Collins had been talking with her husband, David Wong-Tung, who told her it “was a good thinking [she] didn’t put [her] hand up to be leader” when Bridges was rolled.

But Kaye and Adams had news: there would be a vacancy in the leadership, and they believed Collins should fill following an uncontested selection.

“I was assured nobody else would put their hand up so we could at least have a united front,” Collins said.

“All of a sudden I had phone calls, people saying ‘oh you’ve got to do it – you’re the only one who can do it’. I was probably the only one who could stand up to what I then went through,” Collins said.

One person who was less convinced was Collins’ husband, who counselled her not to take the job on.

“Do not take this on,” he told her.

“‘You are walking into hell and you will never be thanked for it’,” Collins recalled him saying.

She slept on the idea, and, in her recollection, decided no one else was going to do the job, so she might as well, “knowing fully well I would get it, and I would regret it”.

The leadership got off to a rocky start. Instead of being uncontested, as promised by Kaye and Adams, Mark Mitchell decided to have a go.

“Mark [Mitchell] put his hand up which he was entitled to do,” Collins said.

Collins won the contest and was thrust into the leadership, months out from an election campaign.

She now admits parts of it were “weird” – including the now infamous walkabout on Ponsonby Rd, in which an otherwise empty street was populated with planted National Party supporters.

“That was really weird, wasn’t it?”

Collins doesn’t take responsibility for the episode, and suggests responsibility might rest with her former press secretary-turned-bête noire Janet Wilson, who riled the last months of Collins’ leadership with a series of excoriating op-eds and podcast appearances.

“I can look back [on Ponsonby Rd] and think, ‘who organised it?'” Collins said.

When asked who organised the event, Collins replied: “I don’t know. You’d better ask Janet Wilson”.

Collins wouldn’t talk explicitly about the falling out, saying only that she “was certainly always very pleasant to her [Wilson]. I don’t think necessarily you give back everything you just received,” Collins said.

She said the only thing she would miss about being Leader of the Opposition, apart from her staff, is the private bathroom that goes with the job.

“The only thing going for being Leader of the Opposition – the only thing I can see …is you get your own bathroom,” Collins said.

She said she “had not shed a tear” on leaving the job.

“It’s a relief, absolute relief,” Collins said.

One thing Collins will not talk about is the nature in which she was ousted.

Late on November 24 last year, Collins issued a press release demoting Simon Bridges and stripping him of his portfolios.

The demotion was in relation to a historic complaint – later revealed to be a lewd joke – but there was suspicion the move was really about the fact Bridges was widely believed to be plotting a coup against Collins.

Collins said she acted with the “unanimous support of the board of the National Party”, but the board later clarified that she only had support for “seeking further information from the parties involved”. Put simply, the board said it did not endorse taking disciplinary action against Bridges, despite Collins saying it did.

Collins suggests there’s more to the story.

“There’s a lot I could say and I’m not going to go there,” Collins said.

“I’m going to make it very clear that I’m not going to go down that track,” she said.

However, Collins said she might one day say more, possibly in a new book she’s writing, a sequel to Pull No Punches, a memoir she released in 2020.

As for Bridges, Collins says it will be up to him to repair the relationship.

“I don’t think that’s up to me,” Collins said, “I don’t think he’s going to be part of my future as such’.

She said that when Bridges was leader, she went to him warning of the coup being mounted by Muller.

“I thought that he should know,” Collins said.

“He didn’t seem to take it that seriously,” she said, despite the fact that it was “pretty obvious” a coup was in the wings.

That’s all over now – Collins claims. She was open to attending Bridges’ forthcoming valedictory speech.

“I wish him all the very best,” she said.

• On the Tiles is available on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

• You can find more New Zealand Herald podcasts at nzherald.co.nz/podcasts or on iHeartRadio.

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