From newly-minted electorate MP to the highest-ranked female member of Cabinet, firmly lodged on the front bench in a matter of ten years, Judith Collins is in the ascendant. Collins, now Minister of Justice, and for ACC and Ethnic Affairs, entered the House after 20 years as a lawyer, having studied at both the University of Canterbury and the University of Auckland. Known for speaking her mind, and her uncompromising approach to achieving her political ends, Collins is a divisive figure. Salient coeditor Asher Emanuel ventured into the depths of the Beehive to discuss power, gender and how she came to be known as ‘the Crusher’.
Asher: You mentioned when you were young you had an inkling that you wanted to get into Parliament—
Judith: —Only a little teeny bit. I’d be a bit embarrassed to say it as a young… Because, people never believe it, but I’m a little bit shy. I know nobody believes it but I actually am. [...] When I was a teenager I had this sort of sneaking little ambition which I didn’t tell anyone much about, about one day I’d like to go to Parliament. [...] I did sort of, at one stage, mention it to my mother who thought it would be a dreadful thing because people would be very nasty and horrible. She was quite right, of course. But it’s not that bad. [...] I joined the National party in 1999 on the basis that clearly everyone else was leaving. And that’s when I get interested—when everybody else is about to go. I’m just one of those people. I thought they needed help [chuckles]. [In 2002] I spoke to a friend of mine who was in Parliament and she said ‘Why don’t you just stand?’ [...] I raced around, got nominations and here I am… [an] MP who wanted me to be his electorate chair—which would have been a lot of work without pay—he made the mistake of telling me I shouldn’t [stand], and that’s a silly thing to do with me. I was told I shouldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it, and therefore I decided I would do it.
A: What do you think attracted you to the idea in the first place?
J: We can make a difference. That’s why I went to be a lawyer—so I could help women and children.
A: Obviously your rise inside the party was rather rapid—
J:—It was wasn’t it! It didn’t feel like it at the time.
A: Some people had to move out of the way, for you to be where you are now…
J: It’s interesting isn’t it. Yeah. So… So?
A: How did that process come about?
J: …You’ll probably find that most people moved out of the way because they wanted to go. People think that being and MP is this really fun job [...] but actually it’s really hard work; it’s soul destroying (if you’re in opposition); it’s really hard on your families. You have no private life at all, unless you are particularly in the public domain, in which case you’re probably not doing your job right. Whatever you are, you’re in a difficult situation. I can’t think of anyone who would feel that they were bumped out by me. […]
A: Would you be able to briefly explain your political philosophy in broad-brush terms?
J: Well, I’m a very pragmatic person actually, Asher. So I am pragmatic and yet principled [chuckles]. And the principles are things like the state not interfering in people’s lives unless there is a very serious need to do so. I don’t believe in over-taxing. I don’t believe that government departments can necessarily do better than private enterprise can, but there are times when they have to—because of the role of the state. I believe very firmly in a robust judicial system—and I think we are very fortunate in this country to have a system of the independence of the judges, and we have a convention based constitution which works incredibly well. So, in essence, I am a… I’m far less conservative that some people think, because it has been portrayed in the media… You know, I don’t subscribe to saying ‘I believe this, I believe that’. If it works—that’s great. [...]
A: In your current job, there are always suggestions that after a couple of years in government, a couple of years behind the windshield of the Crown limousine, or sequestered away in the office in the Beehive that one becomes out-of-touch—
J: Which is why it is incredibly important to not hang out in this place any longer than you have to… One of the ways I deal with that is that I live in Auckland. [...] I’m in my electorate every week. And I talk to normal people who have nothing to do with politics. Because Wellington is completely immersed in politics—it is a company town, and the company is government. And I know I’m surrounded by people who are paid to agree with me. Essentially. And that can be incredibly limiting in terms of understanding what’s going on. One of the other things I do is I go out most Fridays, I am out and about either around Auckland or around other parts of the country, visiting my staff. ACC staff, the court staff, visiting police stations, going and talking to people in the justice sector, going and talking to NGOs. Listening to them. That helps keep me grounded.
A: Would you be able to describe how you’ve seen notions of power and the like affect your colleagues?
J: I actually think that… It’s very easy to see and to criticise from the outside and I think people saw generally someone like Helen Clark become more and more remote from people, but actually, to be frank Helen was always quite remote. She’s quite a shy person. And I think she was seen by the media and some of the public as being too remote from them near the end of her term.
And I think that sort of goes a bit with the territory, but I think it’s probably a bit unfair. [...] So you can sit around theorising all we like here, but actually it affects human beings who—yes, they get to vote or not vote for us—but we’re actually here only because they said we could [be], so that tends to keep me really focussed.
And I don’t think my colleagues get out of their… well people might… maybe portrayed as various things… but the other thing is in government, you have to make decisions. And decisions mean that some people are going to be annoyed, or they’re going to say, that you know, you’ve lost touch with them or whatever, because you’re not doing what they want. But that’s the point. In government you make decisions, in opposition, you know what you get to do? You whinge.
A: I’ve read that you were once a staunch Labour supporter—
J: Oh, well that’s what happens when you grow up in a family that is [chuckles]. Everyone’s allowed to be stupid once, I always say!
A: On Labour, you once said that it’s a group of people “who think that policy papers can change the world”—
J: They do. Actions speak louder than words.
A: How would you characterise the difference?
J: They think that having a strategy paper [...] followed by a work plan paper, followed by a consultation document should take up about three years of government and then they can say that they’ve done something. [...] It’s a bit like those people who say things like ‘one day I’m going to run a marathon’, and then never actually put their running shoes on to go and start. I guess I’m someone who feels very aware, Asher, that I have a certain amount of time on earth, I have a certain amount of time and I don’t believe I get to come back here to earth, so—not a buddhist. [...] And I am absolutely aware that every single minute has to count.
A: You’ve said before of you portrayal in the media, that it has been ‘one-dimensional’, as regards Crusher and the like. Is there a different Minister?
J: Well… I think so. I am actually a human being, although… you wouldn’t necessarily think it if you saw the one dimensional portrayals [...]. I’m also not only a Minister, but I’ve been—before coming to Parliament—a lawyer for 20 years; I’ve been a mother, wife, all those sorts of things. I have interests outside of politics, although I have to say that politics is pretty all-consuming at the moment. [...]
A: How does your gender affect you media portrayal?
J: Well, there’s no point moaning about it, because you won’t get anywhere with it, but women politicians are quite clearly judged on an extra set of characteristics than our male counterparts. Our clothes are criticised, or sometimes ever MARKED. Hair, weight, age; all these things are up for grabs, and to the extent that our male colleagues don’t get the same sort of scrutiny. However, that is also an opportunity for us to actually show ourselves as different from what is the norm, and so every difficulty or every problem is actually an opportunity.
A: You’ve said before that you’re “pro-women” rather than describing yourself as a feminist.
J: I’ve never had a problem with saying that I am actually someone who is pro-women, and the trouble with the label feminist, is that it’s used in a derogatory way by many. It’s also used [in] a celebratory way by many. [...] Far too often—and not just in Parliament, in business and particularly around boards—we have far too few women. Or the women that some of the men feel comfortable with are the women who play supportive roles. Well… I’m not a supportive role player. Unless it’s part of the team—I’m very happy to be part of the team. But I’m not a handmaiden. And I think that some men, who feel threatened by that, that that’s a bit of a shame, because they hold back the best people, and they spend their time worrying about someone being threatening.
A: So you wouldn’t consider adopting the label feminist to demonstrate that it ought not be a pejorative?
J: Well I don’t need to. My whole life is one where I have gone outside the square and outside the norm. So for me, I never have a problem if someone calls me a feminist, but I’d say the problem with giving yourself a label—it’s a bit like the ‘Crusher’ label—it gives someone opportunity to say: ‘you’re just one-dimensional; that’s all you’re interested in.’ [...] It is easy to be portrayed as being a ‘ball-buster’, destroy people… Strength is portrayed as aggression. In my male counterparts, they would all be excellent qualities that we should celebrate… So, are we treated unfairly? Yes. Is there anything much we can do about it? No. We might as well just get on and do the best we can.
A: You’ve said before that Maggie Thatcher is an important person to—
J: Of course she is! She’s one of the great people of the 20th century.
A: —But you said that you regret that she didn’t bring enough women along with her… What do you see as your responsibility [in this regard]?
J: Well, one of the things that I [have done] as the senior woman in Government [is] establish, for instance, a group where women ministers get together every sitting term, and we chew the fat, have a drink, criticise various things or run issues past each other [...]. And we’ve got one tonight, by the way. And if you look around my office [...] you’ll find that all of the staff that I am responsible for are women and that is essentially because I like to choose the best people for the job, and I intend to employ people who are going to be working well together.
A: What do you think of the nickname ‘Crusher’?
J: Well it was given to me by the opposition. I never use the term myself, but having said that, I think they wish they hadn’t given it to me [chuckles]. So, ultimately, it doesn’t particularly hurt, and in politics to not be able to be strong, and to be able to get through what you need to get through, and to make the changes you need to, makes you somewhat redundant—both figuratively and literally.
A: So you think it’s a reasonable epithet for your general attitude?
J: Ah, no—I’d like to do better than that, but it certainly hasn’t proved to be a terrible hinderance…
A: What would you suggest as an alternative, perhaps?
J: That’s not for me to say, that’s for others to do that [chuckles].
Eds. Note: This is the extended version of the interview that appeared in Issue 22, 1 October 2012.