Fran O’Sullivan: Judith Collins’ tightrope act deserves more applause

OPINION:

If it takes “true grit” to be Opposition leader, then Judith Collins has it in spades.

Press Gallery divas have already placed a giant short under her political future on the basis of a recent Reid Research poll.

But Collins still keeps turning up. She put on a credible performance at yesterday’s BusinessNZ post-Budget luncheon irrespective of the obvious strain she is under from those who won’t give her a fair chance.

The National leader holds what must be one of the worst jobs in New Zealand politics.

Yes, there has been a decline in her preferred prime minister rating. But some history here. Even Helen Clark — who went on to become a highly competent Labour Prime Minister — had very low approval ratings for a considerable time while Opposition leader.

But now Collins must walk a tightrope, with her every comment measured against a reflexive response from journalists. If she raises a valid argument — such as, for instance, making the point that proposed changes to give more power to Māori through a partnership model should be debated — the reflexive journalistic response is to charge her with race-baiting or sounding thedog whistle — harking back to former National and Act leader Don Brash’s Orewa speech.

Why are they so fearful of debate?

It is not racist to suggest that proposals such as those contained in the He Puapua report should be openly debated rather than sitting in some drawer in a Cabinet Minister’s office.

There is obviously considerable dissatisfaction within Māoridom with the status quo. The He Puapua proposals provide an opportunity to embrace fundamental change if New Zealand chooses to do so through the evolution of a new constitutional framework.

This is the point.

Why not a Royal Commission to openly investigate and come up with recommendations — if warranted — for a new constitutional framework that is fit for the 21st century and beyond?

A framework that endeavours to keep faith with the Treaty of Waitangi and deliver on bicultural objectives against a present-day reality that in Auckland, for instance, the experience is multicultural. Not simply Pakeha and Māori, but also the large Asian and Pasifika populations who also want to be embraced as New Zealanders.

This is not work for the faint-hearted.

Collins did not touch on these issues at the BusinessNZ luncheon.

What she did canvass was the opportunity to present a growth agenda for New Zealand.

Among the initiatives were more investment in science and R&D to solve pressing issues likeclimate change’s impact on our key agricultural export sector. More investment into high-growth sectors and so forth.

What was clear was that Collins and her Shadow Treasurer Andrew Bayly are in listening mode and are thus responsive to what business is experiencing.

There is the hard truth that the NZ border is not going to be opened significantly untilmass vaccination against Covid-19 takes place.

It is scandalous that New Zealand may run out of Pfizer vaccines mid-year.

Collins did not make a great song and dance of the issue but she could have.

Fundamentally, she did hit on three matters that are of increasing concern to businesses.

First, the Government’s failure to deliver in timely fashion on existing infrastructure commitments against a background where, according to businesspeople I spoke with yesterday,Australian recruiters now have their chequebooks out to persuade people to cross the Tasman and work there.

Second, the Government’s proposed immigration reset. Collins suggested this was aimed at the “rich”. It also is aimed at more highly skilled immigrants.

But right across businesses there are shortages at the level of cleaners for hotels, fruit-pickers and hospitality staff. These are jobs that aren’t done by machines but by hard-working people who will grab a chance to work in New Zealand and give their families a chance to get ahead.

Third, creeping Government centralisation squeezing out the private sector.

These are issues which matter to business.

Collins is hitting a nerve here.

She does, somewhat irritatingly, still tend to spoil her delivery with self-deprecating comments.

And of course she polarises — as many effective people do.

But to a business audience she is making cut-through where it matters.

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