When New Zealanders go to the polls on Saturday they will decide whether to elect 61-year-old Judith Collins, leader of the National Center-Right Party – or give a second term as Prime Minister to 40-year-old progressive Ardern.
“The Labor election is expected to lose,” said Claire Timperley, a professor of New Zealand politics at Victoria University in Wellington.
It is fair to say that Collins took on a challenge.
She is the third leader of her party this year, she accepted the post three months before the election (her predecessor lasted only 53 days). More importantly, it is against Ardern, one of New Zealand̵
7;s most popular prime ministers – ever.
Ardern’s approval ratings soared during the coronavirus pandemic after his government took early steps to contain the outbreak, including announcing a nationwide lockdown when there were only 102 confirmed cases. New Zealand has reported 25 coronavirus deaths.
Covid-19 was looming big for these elections, with an outbreak in August that delayed the election by a month.
A record number of people cast their votes early, with experts saying the a high level of early voting was likely due to Covid-19 fears. As of Wednesday, more than 1.6 million people, or 46% of registered voters, had already voted at polling stations across the country, including Collins and Ardern.
And Covid-19 was the protagonist of the electoral debates. Ardern presented his party as a strong and stable government capable of protecting the people. Collins says his pro-business party is in a better position to handle the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Crusher vs kindness
In some ways, the two women who could be New Zealand’s next Prime Minister couldn’t be more different.
Ardern has built a reputation for not dabbling in dirty politics and has garnered worldwide praise for his empathic responses to crises, including the Christchurch mosque shooting in 2019 that claimed 51 lives. She is a former Mormon who emphasizes kindness – her book published this year is titled “I Know It’s True: Jacinda Ardern on Kindness, Empathy, and Strength.”
Collins, meanwhile, is a practicing Christian known for her harsh politics and cutting jokes – and is no stranger to controversy. She stepped down from her role as Minister of Justice in 2014 after allegedly being involved in a campaign to undermine the then director of the Serious Fraud Office, but was later exonerated from a government investigation. “I am really grateful that the truth has come out,” she said at the time, according to a report by Radio New Zealand.
She was also charged with a conflict of interest after visiting the Shanghai offices of the Oravida dairy company, of which her husband was director, during a taxpayer-funded ministerial trip to China. Collins said she would be more alert to the risk of potential conflicts of interest in the future. His book, released again this year, sums up the difference between the two leaders well: it’s called “Pull No Punches: Memoir of a Political Survivor”.
CNN reached out to both Ardern and Collins, but received no interviews prior to publication.
Collins grew up in rural New Zealand in a tiny settlement called Walton a short distance from Ardern’s hometown of Morrinsville. She was the youngest of six children and her parents worked as milk producers, supporting one of the largest export industries in the country.
“(My parents) personified the spirit of New Zealand and New Zealand culture to me: honest, hardworking people who called bread to bread,” Collins later said.
Collins said he decided to become a lawyer after seeing them on television. “That vague ambition materialized when someone made the mistake of telling me I couldn’t do it,” he said during his inaugural speech to parliament in 2002. And it was while studying law at Auckland University that he met David Wong. -Tung, a Samoan-born police officer.
Since her father did not support the relationship, the couple fled, she told local media. “We got married in Hong Kong, so we didn’t have to go through the terrible trauma of not attending my wedding with my dad and whole pieces of my family,” she told New Zealand’s Metro magazine in 2014.
Collins entered the New Zealand parliament in 2002 as a representative of Clevedon, an Auckland area. In her 18 years in parliament, she served as minister of justice, police and penitentiaries, which saw her review the courts, add 600 frontline cops and ban smoking in all prisons.
It was in her role as police minister that she earned the nickname “Crusher” Collins. In an effort to prevent drivers from taking part in illegal road races, he introduced legislation that allowed authorities to crush the cars of repeat offenders.
While Ardern has publicly stated that she did not want to be Prime Minister until she was named Labor Party leader just weeks before the 2017 election, Collins made no secret of her leadership aspirations.
A Covid election
Before Covid-19, Ardern was vulnerable. Despite her growing profile overseas, she has faced multiple mixed reviews at home.
Although Ardern promised to lead a “transformative” government, critics believed it failed to maintain some of its key policies. It had promised to build 100,000 affordable high-quality homes over 10 years to tackle homelessness and an overheated housing market, but by September 2019, Ardern’s government announced it would abandon the target. As of July 2020, the government said it had only sold 613 KiwiBuild homes, about 2% of its original target.
And, after years of campaigning for a capital gains tax to dampen the runaway housing market, Ardern announced last year that Labor would rule out introducing it under his leadership.
Earlier this year, a poll had both Labor and Nationals on 43%. It looked like the National Party had a chance to be the next government, said Lara Greaves, a professor of New Zealand politics at the University of Auckland.
Then came the coronavirus. The way Ardern handled the pandemic changed the game. While other countries, including neighboring Australia, have struggled to contain their outbreaks, New Zealand has kept the death toll relatively low. A poll in May found that 86% of people approved of the way Ardern was handling his job as Prime Minister.
This left Collins and his party with little room for maneuver. There are few mistakes that Collins can point out, and being too hard on Ardern, which most people now approve of, could backfire. Collins instead focused on Labor loans, arguing that Ardern’s government doesn’t have a plan to manage that debt. “This is not monopoly money,” he joked in one of the debates.
“I think they’re really caught in a tough spot,” said Collins National Party’s Timperley. National voted around 30% while their key coalition partner, ACT, voted around 8% – these projections indicate they are still a long way from reaching the 50% needed to form a government.
“I think if Covid-19 hadn’t happened, there would have been close elections,” Greaves said. And National hasn’t been helped by its many leadership changes. “When you have such a popular Prime Minister and you look like a group that hasn’t met yet … they haven’t really come up with a viable alternative.”
But while pundits expect Ardern to win, they don’t expect her to introduce transformational policies in her second term.
International viewers could see Ardern’s decision to ban semi-automatic firearms following the 2019 Christchurch terror attacks as bold and transformative. But in New Zealand, that move had broad support and limited impact on the daily lives of average New Zealanders. Instead, Ardern’s left-wing critics want to see more done to address bigger issues: inequality, child poverty, climate change, and an overheated housing market.
“He has the most political capital he will ever have now, barring a few unforeseen events. But there has been some reluctance to spend that political capital,” said Timperley of Victoria University, adding that Ardern’s style appeared to be incremental change rather than flashy flagship policies. In Thursday’s final debate, Ardern said he believes in building consensus so that policies are not destroyed later. “I remain true to my record.”
Collins’ tough battle didn’t stop her from arguing. When questioning how the second coronavirus outbreak in New Zealand started, she joked with Ardern: “Where did it come from, under a rock in your garden?” She also often mentioned the Pacific island of Samoa, so much so that she was accused of “arming” her husband’s ethnicity in an attempt to appeal to the Pasifika community of New Zealand. When a Pasifika student asked her what she would do with high school students who had been forced to drop out of school to support their families, Collins began by saying, “My husband is Samoan, so talofa”, using the Samoan word. for “hello”. That sentence was memorized on a cup, sold in an Auckland market.
All of this is in keeping with the Collins brand, which Ardern once dubbed “My Little Pony”. (It is not clear why). Earlier this year, when questioned about the diversity of the National Party’s senior MPs, she memorably asked the media, “Is there something wrong with me being white?”
Two women leaders
Of course, Ardern and Collins have one fundamental thing in common: they are both women. But in New Zealand politics, it’s not unusual.
New Zealand has already had three female Prime Ministers, including Ardern – and for the second time in a New Zealand election, the leaders of the two main parties are both women.
In 1999, New Zealand’s first female premier, national leader Jenny Shipley, clashed with Labor leader Helen Clark, who would become New Zealand’s first female prime minister. And New Zealand has a history of being stronger than other countries on gender equality: it was the first self-governing country to give women the right to vote in parliamentary elections.
“In New Zealand, it’s possible for a woman to be elected to parliament because you don’t have to be rich,” Shipley told CNN earlier this year. “I think it has gotten easier simply because there is a critical mass.”
“I’ve been to the United States and asked when I think the United States will be ready for a female leader, and I find that the most extraordinarily stupid question. Why would a nation like that not want to prove that women and men have the ability to build next generation of success for the United States? “
More than 40% of New Zealand lawmakers are women. But Shipley said New Zealand had not yet achieved true equality – this would have been when women leaders would be asked about their politics first, rather than something related to their gender.
According to Greaves, the fact that both leaders are women was not a big talking point.
“It’s just an accepted and kind of interesting thing that’s happening,” he said.
Timperley pointed out that, in many ways, the two are similar: they are white, middle-class, able-bodied, and have had many opportunities.
“I think it’s noteworthy that there are two women, and it changes the tenor of conversation and debate,” she said, but cautioned that “Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins share more than they differ.”