On Friday 11 September, opposition leader Judith Collins sat down with express to discuss her history with the Rainbow Community, why she chose her deputy and what it’s like to be the woman leading the boys club.
There’s a lighter air to Judith Collins than the Vader-like aura of ‘Crusher’ that I had expected when she arrives for our photoshoot and interview – perhaps it’s the bright jacket!
She’s focused, with an appointment with BusinessNZ to get to after us, but still examines her photos closely on the monitor. She’s thrilled with the jacket. Thrilled with pictures.
We adjourn to a couch for our interview. Her team have not asked for any topics or questions to be supplied in advance. This is brave but works somewhat to her detriment as her answers being to ramble in places, but there’s no denying – she’s game!
Throughout our conversation she skittles her opponents: while admitting she is open to a confidence and supply arrangement with The Greens, she lambasts, “but we won’t be signing up to their brand of socialism;” after denying that National and Winston Peters could build a bridge, she skewers, “we just need to work with people who do what they say they’re going to do,” and on debating Jacinda Ardern: “she’s very good at communication skills, but I’m very good at being me and that always comes across a lot better and reciting lines!”
She may not want to celebrate our current Prime Minister, but she is willing to honour the significance of two women vying for the country’s leadership. “It shows that gender, and hopefully sexual orientation doesn’t make any difference in terms of leadership. Hopefully, it says to everybody that you don’t all have to look like traditional leaders… And you know what? Jenny Shipley, Helen Clark, Jacinda Ardern and myself, were made leader by caucus members when times were tough!”
“It may mean that you have to work harder. It made me have to work smarter,” she says of the experience of being a woman in parliament. Adding poignantly, “it may mean, that sometimes you have to wait longer.” And waited she has.
First elected to Parliament in 2002, Collins has been appearing on preferred Prime Minister polls since 2016, but Bill English, Simon Bridges and Todd Muller were all chosen before her. She tells us she is unsure whether her gender played a role in that.
“Possibly but who knows? I mean, there are plenty of straight white men in any political party who are thinking, why don’t they pick me?” She says frankly. “I’ve never been part of any particular group or faction within the party, and parties do have their particular groups. That’s just the way it is… I’m never going to be one of the boys and I know that there are women who are happy being one of the boys, well that’s just not me. I’ve always been a bit of an outsider.”
“It can be quite isolating,” she says, but admits on top of this, she hasn’t always toed the party line. “I’ve always been someone who said what I think and occasionally that gets me into trouble.”
Her deputy, on the other hand, has always seemed to be deeply rooted in National’s boys’ club. Collins announcement of Gerry Brownlee as her second in charge was met with outcry from the rainbow community – with a quote from Brownlee on Civil Unions, doing the rounds on social media:
“Homosexuals are now saying they want to be treated the same as other people. In my view, the sad fact is – although some will find this difficult to take – they are not the same.” – Gerry Brownlee, 2004.
“It’s a shame that he said that,” says Collins who seems unaware of the comment when we read it to her. “I’ve never heard him express anything like that since. I’m disappointed by that, but you know what, sometimes people say things they later regret.”
Collins confirms she ‘expects’ Brownlee regrets the comment, as the two of them are surrounded by, “quite a rainbow team at work.”
Comedian Tom Sainsbury, who famously impersonated Paula Bennett in Snapchat videos, has moved on to Brownlee; painting him as a part-time cross-dresser who picks out Collins outfits for public events.
While Collins ensures this is not the case, she does dwell on Brownlee’s artistic attributes.
“No, he doesn’t choose my outfits… I don’t want to go in my wardrobe and find my shoes have been nicked and had his big feet in them. No thank you very much. I don’t want my shoe stretched… But he is very artistic… he’s a really good artist and he’s got a really good eye for how things are going to look somewhere.”
Perhaps he helped pick the jacket?
The challenge for Collins’ cabinet, when courting the Rainbow Community’s vote is bigger than just Brownlee. Of her top ten, only three voted in favour of Marriage Equality (Shane Reti and Chris Bishop were not in parliament in 2013).
“I didn’t actually think of that when I was putting together the team. I was thinking who could help us build the economy and also deal with the health issues that we have,” she says, going on to point out that both National and Labour have party members with religious views, and “people have to be able to vote the way that they believe on conscience issues.”
On top of this, National has no openly Rainbow MPs currently serving. But Collins assures us this is not far away: “you might find that hopefully, we will have some… We’ve got people who are standing now for us who are definitely rainbow. It is not for me to say what their sexuality is, but I think you’ll find that we will have some coming through.”
And she remains adamant that the community should not have any concerns about her current cabinet.
“Nobody is objecting or thinking of any changes to laws like [Marriage Equality]. You know what, people have big issues to concern themselves with and top of those are whether or not, people, for instance in the rainbow Community, are actually going to even have jobs!”
As Minister of Justice, Collins herself did vote yes on Marriage Equality, pledging her support with the brilliant punchline, ‘everyone deserves a mother in law.’
“Anything that encourages lifelong or long-standing relationships as a good thing for everybody,” she tells us now. “I didn’t support the Civil Unions act for the very good reason that it was a sop and what the government should have been doing, was gay marriage. I got some criticism at that time because people didn’t think I meant it, but I don’t say what I don’t mean!’
So what would a Collins do specifically for our community if they were elected?
On her record for mental health in government, she highlights the digital communications legislation she brought forward as Justice Minister to combat online bullying and her opposition to gay conversion therapy.
“If you’re holding somebody against their will, that’s actually against the law now! I’m a parent and I have said to my son, and I hope other parents would also say this, ‘Just be who you are!’ That’s unconditional love. That’s the best thing any parent can do. Not trying to convert your child to anything else.”
In terms of rainbow community homelessness, Collins aims fire at the current government, stating: “I was pretty disappointed that we had 5,000 people in the statehouse waiting list when we left office, but I am really disappointed that there are now 18,000 families on that state house waiting lists, three years after a Labour government.”
When pushed she concedes that National could have tackled the housing crisis quicker. “We should have moved faster on RMA reform,” she admits, highlighting this as a top priority if National are successful on October 17.
In terms of amending the Births, Deaths and Marriages act, it seems her party are surprisingly enlightened. “We’re not particularly opposed to anything. Our view is, how does it affect anybody else?” She says, before philosophising, “for some people there birth certificate is a fiction!”
She also shows no opposition for Tamati Coffey’s Surrogacy and Adoption Bill.
“The adoption laws are things that governments have historically kept well away from,” she tells us. “I remember I looked it up as Justice minister and boy, the advice was very much, ‘that’s a hornet’s nest you’re dealing with!’ What is clear is that the family courts are moving more and more towards understanding surrogacy and understanding the fact that having parents who want babies is a really good thing and having parents who love babies is an even better thing. That’s the reality and courts and the law have to move to that.”
Let’s hold her to this if the country turns blue.
Article | Oliver Hall.
Photo | Danilo Santana David. @danilophoto