The Spinoff: New Zealand urgently needs a serious opposition leader
Originally published on The Spinoff
OPINION: Judith Collins' bizarre attack on Siouxsie Wiles is something you'd expect from a troll on the internet, rather than a leader in waiting, argues Toby Manhire.
It's the hardest job in politics, or so the platitude goes. Leader of the opposition. Who'd want that? Jacinda Ardern got it right, maybe: take the gig 10 minutes before closing time.
But however thankless, ill-resourced and exhausting it might be to lead Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, it's certainly not trivial. In a democracy, especially one in the midst of a crisis that has delivered extreme limitations on freedoms, however broad the support for those limitations might be, we need and deserve the scrutiny of opposition.
For that reason, I was personally in support of Judith Collins' decision to travel to Wellington to, you know, lead the opposition to the government amid another destabilising Covid outbreak. She should be there, questioning the government response. Speaking directly to the press gallery, which in turn disseminates that critique to the public. Articulating an alternative perspective.
Especially given the return of the 1pm show, during which the prime minister or her deputies have such lengthy and high-rating screen-time, it's not complicated: there is no more essential service than that delivered by the leader of the opposition.
Among her or his other tasks, the leader of the opposition presents to voters an alternative. Here, in this time when so many of us face pressure on our medical, emotional, social and financial health, is another vision. What do you think?
Well, here was the alternative presented today. According to reporting by Newshub, Judith Collins appeared on Zoom before a National-aligned Pacific New Zealand group. She was asked about a story by Cameron Slater, best known for running the now-defunct attack blog Whale Oil, which included a video of Siouxsie Wiles, the microbiologist, science communicator and a key contributor to The Spinoff. The video showed Wiles sitting on an Auckland beach with another person, one Slater's own enquiries revealed was in her bubble. The pair are without masks but a long way from any others. Wiles' bubble-friend goes a brief swim. Wiles does not.
Collins' assessment? "I think she's a big, fat hypocrite, actually." Just in case you thought that might be a loose sprinkler of words, rather than a deliberate, nasty, and precisely chosen phrase, she said it again:
"I watched that video, and I thought: big, fat hypocrite."
Ladies and gentlemen, this is your leader of the opposition.
Briefly, about that video: Slater posted it on his Whale Oil 2.0 website hoping to embarrass Wiles. Enquiries placed to The Spinoff alleged that the person alongside her was a Spinoff staff member. You can hear him licking his lips.
In fact Wiles was with a friend and colleague who lives alone, and has joined her bubble. That friend (who has contributed a handful of pieces to The Spinoff over the years but is neither a journalist nor an employee) made a mistake in going for a short swim in level four. As Wiles has acknowledged, her friend should not have done that. The pair cycled to the beach, which is clearly within the rules.
Wiles should not be beyond criticism. She's said she regrets not stopping her friend from swimming. Argue around the edges of how far people can cycle from home by all means. But as far as Collins' response is concerned, the question is whether that's what you want to hear from someone auditioning for the role of prime minister.
Let me also say this: I'm biased. I've worked with Siouxsie for many years now as an editor. I admire her immensely – her work as a microbiologist; her rare ability to express complex ideas in a way the less scientifically minded of us can grasp; her astounding work ethic, and accompanying lack of interest in personal gain; and her ability to carry on in the face of wave after wave of harassment and bullying.
Eighteen months and one day ago, Siouxsie's first collaboration with my friend and colleague Toby Morris was published on The Spinoff. It's been a privilege to watch the pair of them work. Both have worked 100 hour weeks, much more than once, because they're weird, and because they give a shit.
They've created work that has been viewed by hundreds of millions of people around the world. Because Siouxsie insisted from the start that the work should be released under a creative commons licence, it's been translated into dozens of languages. It's been repackaged and shared by public health authorities in the UK, Australia, Argentina, the Czech Republic, and a heap of other places. One of my favourites: a version of the "break the chain" animation, popped up in a campaign on Berlin bus-stops. The WHO used the pair for much of last year as key parts of its communication strategy.
What a body of work. Siouxsie Wiles' legacy is immense. Judith Collins' legacy? You tell me. Or, a better thought experiment: try to imagine her as the prime minister, leading the country in the face of a crisis.
I thought Judith Collins, under plenty of pressure, did a good job in her closing speech at the National Party conference the other day. I watched it from the mezzanine, and called it confident and assured. She was really good last Sunday on Q+A. She looked like someone who might even lead a party that would lead the country. She looked like a worthy successor to John Key and Bill English.
Sadly that was an aberration. The norm is the baffling shouting down the webcam at Indira Stewart on the country's most viewed breakfast television programme. The norm is the tin-eared hollering into a near empty House of Representatives. She's now drawing attention to the work of a discredited, malevolent, dirt-throwing attack blogger, which had been roundly ignored by credible media until that point. Worse maybe than all of that, as far as the expediencies of politics are concerned, she has proven herself completely unpredictable.
The National Party caucus is not short of talent. While Collins was hurling poison across the benches on the day the house resumed last week, Chris Bishop (recently demoted by Collins) opened his speech by celebrating the increased rates of vaccination and praising essential workers. Dr Shane Reti has been a conscience and critic on issues including the failure to fully include GPs in the Covid response. Erica Stanford has led the charge on the important, unsexy work of families split apart by the Covid immigration rules.
— Toby Manhire (@toby_etc) September 1, 2021
Simon Bridges was judged to have cocked up the National response in the first outbreak, but watch his performance on the epidemic response committee in 2020: there was a leader. Louise Upston has been asking timely and important questions about the wage subsidy. Matt Doocey has done a heap of mahi on mental health, and is asking hard, important questions on a sector where the government, in my view, has let us down really badly. Gerry Brownlee started a podcast, and it's pretty good!
Maybe Collins' is the hardest job in politics, and maybe that's because we find out who you are.
Janet Wilson, an experienced, smart and measured former journalist and communications expert, worked loyally and stoically alongside Collins through the agony of the last election campaign. So appalled has she been by the National leader's performance she recently described her as "Muldoonist", as paranoid, leading a party "floundering, saddled with endless entitleditis" and on a path to "irrelevance".
Senior members of John Key's slick ninth floor team talk privately, but with striking candour, and more than a little despair, about the state of the leadership today. And who can blame them? Key and Bill English and others must weep at the sight of a years-long project to cement National as the sensible voice of a modern middle New Zealand collapsing a little further with each spring-loaded outburst from Collins.
You can understand why National MPs might shrink from the idea of another destabilising leadership change. You can understand why those who see themselves as potential leaders might have been calculating that it would be best to wait until after the next election.
But when the door is unhinged so far from its frame that it's flown to another dimension, when your reputation as a party is so rapidly corroding, when your leader appears glued to the dirty politics poison of years past, when your leader is indistinguishable from a pseudonymous Twitter account ending in six random digits, when the country remains in a serious crisis that demands serious people, we're fast arriving at a point where National demanding anything but change at the top is not just foolish, it's irresponsible.