Excuse me, but isn't Judith Collins the Minister of
Doesn't holding that portfolio make it even more incumbent on
her to follow the rules in the Cabinet Manual to the letter,
and especially with regard to something as fundamental as
avoiding any suggestion of conflict of interest, real or
Isn't it even more desirable that the Justice Minister set an
example and be pure as the driven snow in ensuring there is
no confusion of her official role with private business -
rather than trying to argue that her dealings with the
milk-exporting company Oravida did not create even the
perception of a conflict of interest when her husband's
directorship in the company leads inexorably and inevitably
to such a conclusion?
Why did someone who is normally extremely savvy politically
become so blinkered as not to see the distress she was
causing to her caucus colleagues by refusing to admit she had
made a mistake and apologise accordingly, thereby providing
ample justification for Labour MP Grant Robertson to keep
Above all, perhaps, can the National Party retain confidence
in Ms Collins as a potential leader one day when she has
shown such a flagrant and breathtaking disregard for the laws
The first law of politics is that often, the handling of a
problem turns out to be as bad as or worse than the problem
Whether Ms Collins now fully realises what an absolute hash
she has made of things is still a very moot point.
As hard as it seemed for her to come to grips with what she
had done, it is just as difficult to come up with a cogent
explanation for her astonishing fall from grace.
The timing of the revelations of her indiscretions - and her
refusal to acknowledge them until forced to do so by the
prime minister - are said to have infuriated MPs.
Nothing else comes close to concentrating politicians' minds
than their three-yearly appointment with the ballot box.
The onus is thus on Cabinet ministers and MPs to hold the
line until polling day by projecting an image of competence
and confidence while ensuring as much as possible that this
picture is not clouded by foul-ups or embarrassments.
National MPs will be asking why Ms Collins failed to see how
her actions were compromising this strategy - and whether,
for all her undoubted strengths, there are some previously
hidden flaws in her character which have now put her
leadership credentials in serious question.
This is not an academic matter. Mr Key made it very clear
this week that should he lose the September election, he will
not be hanging around Parliament for very long afterwards.
Until this week, Ms Collins seemed to have all the attributes
required to do the job - an abiding commitment to National
Party principles such as individual responsibility, a
diamond-hard resolve, a solid work ethic, an ability to
capture the mood of the party, an understanding of what
matters to the average punter, killer communication skills
(especially when it comes to putdowns and razor-sharp
one-liners) and, last but certainly not least, a capacity to
deliver a steel toe-cap caress to the nether regions of
National's enemies, always accompanied by that wicked smile
that leaves no-one in any doubt as to who won.
The warning signs were there long before what might be dubbed
the Oravida episode. Her projection of an image of being one
tough cookie seems to have bred a feeling of invincibility -
something which is fatal for a politician to contract.
It is certainly not a quality that sits comfortably with the
compromises and flexibility demanded of politicians by the
minority government model.
It is no accident that Mr Key has followed in Helen Clark's
footsteps and been more of a managerial prime minister who
basically tries to keep as many people as happy as he can for
as long as he can.
Like Miss Clark, he has hugged the centre line, looking
behind the enemy's trenches for areas to mine for votes,
while pushing Labour ever leftwards.
Mr Key has proven that his strategy of territorial expansion
of National's vote is best achieved by marching as much to
the left as possible in a proportional electoral system.
Steven Joyce, the other main contender for the leadership,
would happily follow that model. It is not so clear whether
the more ideologically driven Ms Collins could or would do
so, thus potentially making power more elusive for National.
This is important because the departure of an arch-pragmatist
like Mr Key is bound to provoke some ideological
soul-searching within National.
Ms Collins - who is unlikely to be in the dog-box for too
long - could exploit her more clear-cut and less centrist
beliefs to her distinct advantage if the party deems it needs
What is certain is that whoever succeeds Mr Key is more than
likely going to have a hell of a time trying to stamp their
mark on the job. Mr Key will leave super-size boots to fill.
You only have to look across to the Labour benches to see
Miss Clark's legacy. She served as her party's No 1 for 15
years. Since her departure, Labour has had three different
leaders in less than five years.
The longer Mr Key stays, the tougher it will be for his
successor to come even close to matching his record. Ms
Collins will recover her poise and panache soon enough. But
National's next leadership ballot may well be a good one to
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald