Simon Wilson: Judith Collins wants to be a tech warrior but for what?


Poor old Todd Muller. As the National Party gathered in Manukau for its annual conference, the news broke that he would no longer be attending caucus. He is not resigning from the party, however, or from Parliament, and the party is still going to use his vote.

Politically speaking, Muller has not been executed or even exiled to some barren desert land. Instead, he has been nailed up outside the castle walls, where everyone can gawk at him and thrown rotten cabbages if they wish. Pilloried, as a punishment and as a deterrent to others.

Muller’s sin was, ostensibly, that he blabbed to the media about party discord. But that was hardly news. His real sin was that he failed. Judith Collins, warrior queen, clinging to her throne in that castle, has made it clear: losers are the worst.

That’s a high stakes game for her to play.

Sir Bill English was not at the conference, and nor were Paula Bennett, Nikki Kaye, Steven Joyce, Chris Finlayson or other stalwarts of the oh-so-recent past. Better things to do.

National used to be rightly proud of its ethnic mix but almost all of them were missing too. It was a remarkably white meeting.

Jim McLay turned up. Former party leader, scion of the 1980s, known as one of the bright young “Turks” who tried and failed to overthrow Sir Robert Muldoon. He was never pilloried for it though, and eventually took his turn as leader when Muldoon was gone. He quite often turns up.

Sir John Key was there, too. He sat front and centre in the audience, in a jacket of electrifyingly bright cobalt blue. Collins, up on stage, would not have been able to stop it vibrating in her lower field of vision.

During the session on technology, chaired by Collins, Key spent quite a bit of time fiddling on his phone. In fact, so did much of the caucus, arrayed in the row behind him.

It was a dull session and Collins knew it. She sat there hardly saying a word, looking as if she’d be quite happy if her seat suddenly pitched her through a trapdoor in the floor. A pool of waiting sharks would be preferable to this lot, was the look on her face.

Which is the problem for National, and for Collins. She gave a pretty good speech, later that day, albeit with a Citizen Kane kind of vibe to it. She does a pretty good job, most of the time, by her own lights and those of her party. She does go off message rather often, with things like the referendum on calling the country Aotearoa, but she did that to support a colleague.

She models loyalty to others in the hope of getting some back, and she soldiers on.

But she knows and so does everyone else that she will not be the next National prime minister. They don’t expect to win the next election and so her rivals are sitting it out.

Doesn’t pay to be a loser in the National Party, just ask that guy hanging up outside the castle walls.

It must be very hard, being Collins, and you might think her party would thank her for it.

Instead, she has to put up with a dazzlingly blue Key reminding her of everything she’s not, with Simon Bridges sitting right behind him, insouciantly brandishing his lovely long hair.

One way to thank Collins would have been to replace Peter Goodfellow as president. He’s been there a long time, he has personally presided over some disastrous candidate selections and – despite his supposedly very special set of skills, as a fundraiser – party donations have declined.

When he was asked about this, he said no biggie, donations always wax and wane. But it was election year last year. That’s when the waxing is supposed to happen.

Former Speaker of the House and Cabinet minister David Carter, a richly pedigreed South Islander, challenged him for the job and lost. That suggests Goodfellow really does have a very special set of skills, and Carter then had the very good sense to leave town on the next aeroplane.

He’d obviously seen Muller up there on the pillory post.

National’s new board, by the way, now has just one South Island member and no one from the rural community. They believe, earnestly, that they are the party of farmers, but they are not a party in which farmers get close to running anything.

Collins made only one announcement over the weekend: the party will hold a “tech summit” in September. I asked her afterwards what she thought might come out of it.

She said she wants to listen. “We’re doing it so the tech experts can tell us what we need to be doing as a country,” she said.

Could be problematic. What if transport tech experts say National should stop attacking light rail, because it’s the technology most obviously missing and needed in Auckland’s future transport plans?

What if they also say e-bikes and e-scooters have the potential to be great disruptive technology drivers? Not just for better transport, but for better health, better communities and better cities?

What if they say that anyone who doesn’t grasp this, and therefore grasp the need for safe cycling infrastructure, doesn’t understand the first thing about how technology works in society?

What if health tech experts say the party should support the proposed new centrally co-ordinated health structure? They might explain that the current set-up wastes enormous amounts of technology and the new one could allow tech-driven specialist services to be delivered to a far greater number of people than now.

What if that was also true for education? Tech experts might warn that the amount of top teaching expertise currently commandeered by privileged schools is terrible for society. They might propose that those schools have their funding tied to outreach programmes to schools in poor areas, some of it focused on tech training and partly delivered through high-tech comms.

And what if farming tech experts say it’s blindingly obvious we should reduce dairy herd numbers because of the damage being done, and because they already know they can raise productivity through improved science?

In addition to being Prime Minister, Judith Collins wants to be the Minister for Tech. She wants to be a tech warrior because she knows it’s important.

But it’s not rocket science. Everyone knows it’s important.

The technology challenge for National plays out in its policies for farming, transport and most the other things we do. To use tech well, you have to grasp the potential it offers for change, and make sure you manage that change to achieve socially valuable outcomes. You have to look forwards.

It’s not about gazing in wonder at Rocket Lab. It’s not about that Citizen Kane-style technology, either.

Nor is it about clinging to a health structure that has manifestly failed in public health, mental health, geriatric care and all the rest. And it’s absolutely not about telling farmers their farms are fine just the way they are and telling city folk there will always be more roads and bigger roads for them to drive on.

Collins didn’t announce any new policy over the weekend. It was odd, for a leader and a party desperate to get us to look their way. But how could they have?

While it’s fun to focus on the leadership crisis, the far bigger question for National is this: How does the party fit into the world we live in now?

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