New Zealand Opposition Swaps Health Role as Collins Takes Charge

New Zealand’s main opposition National Party replaced its health spokesman Wednesday as new leader Judith Collins sought to cement her authority over the troubled team less than 10 weeks from the general election.

Soon after being selected as party leader, Collins appointed Shane Reti to replace Michael Woodhouse in the health role. Woodhouse last week confirmed he received personal records of some Covid-19 patients and failed to disclose it to the government.

“I don’t believe for a moment that it’s acceptable to receive people’s personal medical records whether it’s solicited or unsolicited and not pass it straight away to the minister,” Collins told reporters in Wellington. “Michael made a mistake. People make mistakes. I have no doubt at all that Michael will never make that mistake again.”

By replacing Woodhouse, Collins is trying to show that National is moving on from allegations of dirty politics that have plagued the center-right party for years. It was rocked by last week’s revelations that a former president had leaked sensitive information to a junior parliamentarian, who then passed it on to the media.

Todd Muller quit the party leadership early Tuesday after less than two months in the role opening the way for Collins, 61, to be elected opposition leader late yesterday. Nicknamed “Crusher” because of her reputation as a hard-nosed politician, she vowed to take the fight to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the Sept. 19 vote -- the second time that women have led the country’s two main parties into an election.

Leaked Emails

Muller, like predecessor Simon Bridges, struggled to turn the tide against Ardern, who has won plaudits at home and abroad for her handling of the pandemic, and her response to last year’s Christchurch massacre. In a One News/Colmar Brunton poll published June 25, Labour had 50% support to National’s 38% -- signaling the challenge Muller faced ahead of the election. Muller scored 13% as preferred prime minister to Ardern’s 43%. Collins got just 2% backing.

Three years ago Ardern became leader of the opposition Labour Party less than eight weeks before the general election. She was able to electrify party support and, with the backing of coalition partners, formed government. Collins is the fourth National Party leader Ardern has faced since the 2017 vote.

Collins has been in parliament since 2002 and was a minister under the John Key-Bill English government, variously overseeing portfolios including revenue, energy, police and justice. In 2014 she resigned her portfolios after allegations that leaked e-mails showed she had tried to undermine a public servant. An inquiry cleared her, and she returned as a minister in late 2015.

She put her name forward to lead the party when Key suddenly stepped down in late 2016 but withdrew it before the contest that selected English. She also sought the leadership when English retired after the 2017 election defeat, again missing out.

‘Heavy Toll’

Muller yesterday cited the “heavy toll” the job had taken on him and his family, though his tenure included a series of missteps, including the leak concerning Covid-19 patients.

“It has become clear to me that I am not the best person to be Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the New Zealand National Party at this critical time for New Zealand,” Muller said in a statement. “The role has taken a heavy toll on me personally, and on my family, and this has become untenable from a health perspective.”

Muller took over National’s leadership on May 22 after polls showing a slump in support under his predecessor Simon Bridges saw him ousted by the party’s members of parliament. He was under pressure from the moment he took over -- his re-shuffled shadow cabinet drew criticism for lacking ethnic diversity and he was called out by some media for not having a clear economic plan.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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