Claire Trevett: National Party leader Judith Collins ousting of Todd Muller will have a cost


The punishment of National Party MP Todd Muller for whisperings to a media outlet is leader Judith Collins’ equivalent of hanging sinners from The Wall in The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Wall surrounds the boundary of Gilead, and sinners are hung from it by way of a cautionary tale to others.

Collins’ big ultimatum to Muller to either resign or be suspended from caucus by his own peers was intended to send a message that there would be consequences if they leaked or were caught briefing media on matters they should not be.

She was making an example of Muller, who had bad mouthed colleague Harete Hipango in a Newsroom article quoting un-named MPs.

There will be many National Party members who are cheering Collins for her move this week.

Any National MP will tell you that they are constantly berated and pleaded with by supporters and party members to sort themselves out.

The leaks and disunity, the scandals and mini-scandals have now paralysed the party’s chances for almost two years.

Sir John Key tried to stop it, delivering a blistering speech at the party’s post-election conference in November last year. In that, he said to those MPs “quit the leaking, or quit the party”.

It did not work.

It is almost impossible to prove such things.

So when Collins was handed evidence of one, she went for the crackdown – turning her policy of crushing the cars of boy racers into a policy of crushing her own MPs who whisper to media.

In terms of making that message clear and being seen to flex leadership muscle, Collins will not be totally unhappy that the real reason for Muller’s resignation has made it into the public eye.

She will not be happy about the amount of detail that has come out in the NZ Herald’s coverage of it – detail only those in that caucus meeting would have been privy to.

While some members might applaud it, and it may have the effect of terrifying MPs into silence for a while, it may well prove to have made things worse rather than fixed things.

The price of Collins’ bare knuckle approach will be trust.

This was already a precarious issue for Collins for precisely the reason she has driven Muller out: she was widely regarded by the other MPs as having leaked, briefed media, and undermined leaders.

There was already suspicion among many MPs that Collins effectively pushed Nick Smith out by telling him a media outlet was about to broadcast a story about an investigation into a “verbal altercation” Smith had with a staffer. No media outlet had that story at the time.

She pushed Muller out on grounds that did warrant disciplining, but fell well short of the usual grounds for suspension from caucus.

His was not an act of undermining the leader, or leaking confidential caucus information.He bagged a colleague – along with a fair few of his colleagues who did not get caught out.

There is already speculation doing the rounds about who might be next on Collins’ hit list – Collins does not disguise her views of enemies well.

Nor does it help that Muller’s fellow MP Barbara Kuriger dobbed him into Collins.

Muller foolishly took the call from Newsroom – and gave the comments on Hipango – while he was sitting in a car with Kuriger.

Presumably he trusted Kuriger, and it is likely Kuriger did not expect the result to be as drastic as it was.

But it has done little to enhance trust in each other for caucus.

It has resulted in a climate of fear and disquiet within caucus.

There is only so long a caucus can limp along in that state.

The other question that now arises is whether Muller should leave Parliament sooner than the next election.

The chances of leaving with the “dignity” his colleagues promised when they urged him to resign rather than face suspension have now gone.

In the initial press statement announcing his resignation, Muller said it had “difficult decision” for him to step down, and listed family and health reasons for it.

It took only a few hours before the NZ Herald broke the news that the “difficult decision” in question was a decision between resigning or being kicked out.

Some in National are concerned Muller will go rogue, festering away on the backbenches, especially after betrayals of him by people he thought were friends. That is not impossible, but Muller will also not want to damage his own reputation.

National may also be wary of risking a byelection in the Bay of Plenty seat, lest voters show their disgust by stripping them of one of the few remaining safe seats.

The chances Collins has cauterised the problems are very slim.

For a start, Muller was not the only bad egg. He was also probably not the baddest of the bad eggs.

Would Collins start hunting for and sacking every one of them?

Collins was quoted in Dirty Politics as saying “if you can’t be loved then best to be feared”, an adaptation of Machiavelli’s “it is much safer to be feared than loved”.

She explained it at the time as part of her sense of humour. But she has certainly lived up to it this week.

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