The text message that sealed Judith Collins’ political future arrived at 6.57am.
Then-Prime Minister John Key had received a copy of an email which appeared to directly implicate his most powerful female minister in the Dirty Politics scandal raging during the 2014 election campaign. Before the day was out, Collins had resigned.
The episode was neatly wrapped up. National went on to win the election, and Collins was later brought back into the fold, after an inquiry concluded there was no evidence she had acted inappropriately. She continues to be one of the party’s most influential and popular figures.
It was textbook political management. But Collins has sought to re-open the chapter with a tell-all memoir. And she tells a very different story. Her revenge is served ice-cold.
She makes it clear Key betrayed her, putting optics before her career. “He threw me well and truly under the bus, and that’s what I’ve said in the book,” she says.
“He chose political management. And that’s the big difference. He is a significantly more ruthless person when it comes to politics than myself. And that’s probably why he became the leader of the National Party and the Prime Minister for as long as the number of years that he wanted to be.
“But I didn’t hate him for it and I don’t hate him now. He was doing his job. And his concern was the National Party winning the next election. It was very close to it. And he was protecting that, himself and also other people’s jobs.
“I couldn’t do it myself. I don’t judge him on it. He just made a different choice to what I would have.”
Collins reveals Key, and his chief of staff Wayne Eagleson, had received the email some days previously, but chose not to tell her. In his own unofficial biography, Key claims he got the email the day before and “calmly” slept on it before confronting Collins.
“It was obviously a number of days because they’d already checked with the State Services Commission. I’d been texting with John, and also Wayne Eagleson, on another matter and they never mentioned this to me,” Collins says.
The email, penned by notorious far-right blogger and fabulist Cameron Slater, claimed Collins was part of a smear campaign, trying to undermine Serious Fraud Office boss Adam Feeley. (Slater later admitted he was big-noting.)
Feely was under investigation by the SSC, which oversees public servants, and Collins was the SFO’s Minister.
The commission told Key there was no evidence that the minister attempted to influence its view of Feeley’s performance. But a shadow had already been cast over Collins’ reputation earlier that year, because of her ties to Chinese milk company Oravida. Revelations about a friendship with Slater, in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics expose, was the final nail in her coffin.
She’d already received a call from deputy prime minister Bill English, hinting that she might want to move on. “You can probably get a sense in [my] book that I felt under incredible pressure at that stage. I mean, honestly, I got about six pages [in Dirty Politics]. John Key and John Key’s office got chapters.
“Someone had to take the fall. I was already wounded from earlier that year.
“And when we were three weeks out from the election, it lanced that particular boil.
“Everyone got their blood. They had their kill and were all happy. Including you guys, the media. It was a frenzy.”
The treatment of her staff – who were ordered to vacate their office within two days of her resignation – is a bitter memory. “None of my staff were offered positions nor asked to remain…They were not wanted. The way those women were treated still rankles with me,” she writes.
Dirty Politics alleged Key’s office was seeding information on opponents with Slater, to be published on his attack-blog. Jason Ede, a spin doctor, took the blame and resigned and Key successfully distanced himself from the fall-out.
But Collins firmly implicates her former boss. “I know, because he [Key] would often discuss it. I would like people to understand that prime minister’s offices and Opposition offices, of course they talk to bloggers who are friendly to them.
“Clearly, [the relationship] was very close. Jason Ede was collateral. He was not well looked after. Jason Ede was employed to do a job and he did his job.”
This is one of a number of behind-the-scenes revelations she makes in the book. It’s the first insider account of the Key-led government, a nine-year period that was notorious for a stranglehold over political narrative.
The book is called Pull No Punches, a title Collins says she didn’t choose. The wounds she inflicts are much more subtle: a clinical but devastating setting out of detail. There is no overt criticism of her National colleagues – in fact most of them barely rate a mention.
The book reveals other, smaller betrayals. Collins became involved in a brouhaha over a private dinner she attended with senior executives of Oravida, and a Chinese border official. Her husband, David Wong-Tung, was a director of the dairy exporting company, and Opposition parties argued the meeting was a conflict of interest because she was on an official ministerial visit to Shanghai.
Key publicly admonished Collins, claiming she had misled him by not revealing the dinner. In a chapter entitled That China Trip, Collins reveals she had sought his permission before she left, suggesting it might be a way to smooth bumps in relations between China and meat exporters. “He said in front of my senior private secretary, Megan Wallace, that I should do that as it could not harm the relationship and might help,” she writes. It was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who advised her to treat the dinner as a private affair.
Key later claimed not to remember the conversation and told Collins she would have to “take one for the team”.
“I think he genuinely forgot… people do,” she says. “It obviously meant more to me when we talked about it months before. And I didn’t protect myself by putting it in writing, which is what I should have done.
“He could have remembered that I’m not someone who goes out and lies. And if I said this happened, that did happen.”
The reader is left with the sense that Collins doesn’t much like Key, although she never actually writes that. Her highest praise of him is that he was “very approachable”.
But she also writes of his role in destabilising the leadership of Don Brash, to whom she was very loyal. “He had come into politics with a very clear agenda of being Prime Minister. It seemed to me from his actions… that John Key was on a course where nothing would get in his way.”
There are also hints at sexism within his premiership. She was not part of his ‘kitchen cabinet’ – the inner circle that met on Tuesday nights and for two terms was “entirely male”. That she was never awarded an economic portfolio despite her experience as a tax lawyer and small business owner, nettles. And she recounts how Key was loath to send her to Afghanistan, as police minister, writing: “He was concerned it was dangerous and how bad it would be if a woman Minister was injured. I thought, about the same as if a male Minister was injured.” She went anyway, in 2010.
Key’s resignation – one of the biggest political shocks of the last decade – gets only a few paragraphs. She also doesn’t devote much time to the next PM, Bill English.
He once told her she reminded him of Jenny Shipley, a comparison she didn’t much appreciate. “I think he has tremendous abilities. And he worked hard. And he was very good at certain things. But I just don’t think he ever liked me,” she says.
She disapproved of the deal sewn up to have him succeed Key in 2016: “I just did not like this anointing thing… It all smacked of backroom deals.” For that reason, she put her name forward in the ensuing leadership contest. “I was stirring,” she admits.
For much of the past decade, Collins has been in the frame as a serious contender to lead National. “It’s not helpful,” she says. She regularly features in preferred prime minister polling, and her name is always mentioned in speculation about a coup.
She ruled out a run at the top job earlier this year, when Simon Bridges was deposed for Todd Muller, who will fight September’s election.
But never say never. The entire book reads like a manifesto for Prime Minister Judith Collins. She cycles through her ministerial achievements (reforming Corrections and ACC, enacting cyberbullying laws and leading police through the Napier siege, Pike River mine disaster and Canterbury earthquakes). She also sets out her ideas on immigration, reforming the Resource Management Act, and on how to defeat Jacinda Ardern.
“What it is, is me saying that there are ways through for us as a party and as a country,” she says.
“It’d be foolish just to write about the past. It’s also important to say these are some ideas you might like or not. But this is what I’m thinking.”
So does she want to be prime minister? At first, she recites the stock-standard non-answer: “People have been saying that to me for a long time, but I haven’t noticed it happening. I’m just happy to do whatever people need me to do. And I’m very happy doing what I do.”
We agree it’s a “really stupid” question because it puts an MP in an impossible position. “It sticks a big, fat target on your head. And I don’t have the ability to grovel, to tug my forelock. I don’t fawn and I can’t pretend.
“But we have a leader, and I’m very happy supporting our leader. We get on well and I know I add value.”
The book is subtitled ‘memoir of a political survivor’. She’s about to fight her seventh election, as the MP for Papakura, and over 18 years has held six ministerial portfolios and done two stints in Opposition.
Collins, 61, ground out the book over the summer break, writing for long days. The early chapters detail her upbringing, on a Waikato dairy farm. Her parents, Percy and Jessie, were her “childhood heroes,” established her love of reading and sent her to charm school, aged 14.
She charges through her earlier working years as a hospital aide, lawyer and restaurant owner. Her enduring marriage had an inauspicious start – her father was “not thrilled” by her romance with the Samoan police officer. “Nice bloke, shame he’s black,” he told his daughter after their first meeting. The couple eloped to Hong Kong after six years together. They have one son, James: “The love of our lives…a kind, good natured, intelligent and decent man.”
The biographical detail is disarming, and there are some interesting insights on her entry into politics in 2002, just after National had suffered a thumping defeat. She found Parliament archaic and hierarchical, and not much has changed.
“Politics is a brutal business,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be as nasty a place as it is. And it is like what I expect a 1920s boarding school to be, complete with fagging. And I’ve said this in the book.”
It takes 200 pages to get into the real detail that will interest political junkies: the Key years. Collins kept detailed records and dairies. But there is much she cannot say, bound by cabinet rules of confidentiality. The last three years are not covered. That will come later, she says with a mischievous grin.
An entire chapter is devoted to Ian Binnie, the Canadian supreme court judge who served up a flawed report on David Bain’s bid for compensation. This was necessary, Collins says, because he impugned her integrity.
Other tantalising details are left out. Who was the MP who told her not to put her name forward for selection in 2002? She won’t say. Similarly, she won’t give the names of the former Labour ministers who became involved in a nasty union dispute at La Gondola, the restaurant she owned with Wong-Tung.
They are no longer in politics, she says. “I’m trying to be kind to people.”
Collins, like her mother, was a Labour supporter. In 1975, aged 16, she’d attended a “disappointingly boring” public meeting where Helen Clark (“dressed in dungarees with her hair in long plaits and a very serious demeanour”) spoke alongside Sir Basil Arthur, a long-term MP. It put her off politics for a while.
As part of her law degree, she interned with David Lange, then MP for Mangere.
But the restaurant episode – which saw the business picketed and bottled, and staff threatened – led to Collins and Wong-Tung abandoning the party. “Our eyes had been opened and we were no longer Labour,” she writes.
Pull No Punches reads like an official history, almost entirely shorn of intimate details. In writing about 2014, her “year of awful,” she does not dwell on the emotional impact, only saying that she was “shattered”.
The public is already very familiar with the tougher side of ‘Crusher Collins’, who carved out a career based on self-confidence and steely determination. But it’s a one-dimensional caricature, and she is an infinitely more complex person. You never know which Judith Collins is going to show up to an interview: the ball-breaker; the wounded, misunderstood and wronged politician; or the fun, occasionally coquettish and devilish-witted MP.
But the book only offers a few, intriguing glimpses into the inner thoughts of one of modern-day politics’ most fascinating characters. She reveals she suffered a miscarriage during her first pregnancy. “That afternoon I had to go back to court to finish the job. I was proud that I did not let down the court,” she writes.
Collins explains it was important to her to fulfil her responsibilities. “Because otherwise, I might have cried,” she says. At this her voice does break and waver. She talks of the death of her sister Margaret, at six days old, in 1949. Her mother went straight out to help with the calving. “That’s what we do. I had to do that because otherwise I would have let down other people and I had plenty of time to deal with it myself.”
Did she not see the book as an opportunity to soften her image by drawing on the traumas she has suffered?
“Milk it?” she asks. “I wanted the facts to speak for themselves. People will imagine themselves in those situations. There is no point me saying I was upset when of course I was upset.
“Look, I was once advised I should have my son out with me doing things to show that I’m a human being. Well, if you have to have your son to show you that you’re a human being, I’m sorry, you’re probably not that genuine. And frankly, I can’t be bothered with it.”
Politics is bruising, and Collins has taken more than her share of punches. It’s not surprising she is unwilling to let down her guard.
“I have had to develop a shell,” she admits. “I didn’t want to, at any stage, let those who had been particularly cruel know that they had hurt me.”
Pull No Punches: Memoir of a Political Survivor by Judith Collins. Published by Allen & Unwin NZ. RRP $36.99. In stores from July 1.