The woman taking on juggernaut Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand’s election

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When New Zealanders head to the polls on Saturday they will decide whether to elect 61-year-old Judith Collins, leader of the center-right National Party — or give progressive 40-year-old Ardern a second term as Prime Minister.

“There’s an expectation that it’s Labour’s election to lose,” said Claire Timperley, a New Zealand politics lecturer at Victoria University in Wellington.

It’s fair to say that Collins has taken on a challenge.

She’s the third leader of her party this year, taking the job three months before the election (her predecessor only lasted 53 days). More importantly, she’s up against Ardern, one of New Zealand’s most popular Prime Ministers — ever.

New National Party leader Judith Collins with her husband David Wong-Tung, right, and her tennis coach and sign builder, David Knott, on July 18, 2020, in Auckland, New Zealand.
Ardern’s approval ratings soared during the coronavirus pandemic after her government took early measures to contain the outbreak, including announcing a nationwide lockdown when there were only 102 confirmed cases. New Zealand has reported 25 coronavirus deaths.

Covid-19 has loomed large this election, with an outbreak in August delaying polling by a month.

A record number of people have cast their vote early, with experts saying that the high level of early voting was likely due to Covid-19 fears. As of Wednesday, more than 1.6 million people, or 46% of enrolled voters, had already voted at polling booths around the country, including Collins and Ardern.

And Covid-19 featured heavily in election debates. Ardern has pitched her party as a strong, stable government that can keep people safe. Collins argues that her pro-business party is better placed to handle the pandemic’s economic fallout.

Jacinda Adern, New Zealand's Prime Minister, smiles after casting her ballot at a polling station in Auckland, New Zealand, on October 3, 2020.

Crusher vs kindness

In some ways, the two women who could be New Zealand’s next Prime Minister couldn’t be more different.

Ardern has built a reputation for not dabbling in dirty politics and won praise around the world for her empathetic responses to crises, including the 2019 Christchurch mosque shooting that left 51 people dead. She’s a former Mormon who emphasizes kindness — her book published this year is called “I Know This to be True: Jacinda Ardern on Kindness, Empathy and Strength.”
Collins, meanwhile, is a practicing Christian known for her tough policies and sharp quips — and is no stranger to controversy. She resigned from her role as Justice Minister in 2014 after allegedly being involved in a campaign to undermine the then-director of the Serious Fraud Office, but was later exonerated by a government inquiry. “I’m really grateful that the truth has come out,” she said at the time, according to a Radio New Zealand report.
She was also accused of a conflict of interest after visiting the Shanghai offices of dairy company Oravida, which her husband was a director of, during a taxpayer-funded ministerial trip to China. Collins said she would be more careful about the risk of potential conflicts of interest in the future. Her book, also released this year, sums up the difference between the two leaders nicely: it’s called “Pull No Punches: Memoir of a Political Survivor.”
Then Justice Minister Judith Collins in Parliament on March 19, 2014, in Wellington, New Zealand after questions were raised about her trip to China.

CNN reached out to both Ardern and Collins, but was not granted interviews prior to publication.

Collins grew up in rural New Zealand, in a tiny settlement called Walton only a short drive from Ardern’s hometown, Morrinsville. She was the youngest of six children and her parents worked as dairy farmers, supporting one of the country’s biggest export industries.

“(My parents) personified to me the New Zealand spirit and the New Zealand culture: honest, hard-working people who called a spade a spade,” Collins later said.

Collins said she decided to become a lawyer after seeing them on television. “That vague ambition was made solid when someone made the mistake of telling me that I could not do it,” she said during her maiden speech to parliament in 2002. And it was while she was studying law at Auckland University that she met David Wong-Tung, a police officer of Chinese-Samoan heritage.

Because her father didn’t support the relationship, the couple eloped, she told local media. “We got married in Hong Kong so we didn’t have to go through the awful trauma of having my father and whole chunks of my family not turning up to my wedding,” she told New Zealand magazine Metro in 2014.
National Party leader Judith Collins and husband David Wong-Tung vote on October 4, 2020, in Auckland, New Zealand.
Collins entered New Zealand’s parliament in 2002 as the representative for Clevedon, an area in Auckland. In her 18 years in parliament, she’s served as Minister for Justice, Police and Corrections, which saw her overhauling the courts, adding 600 frontline police, and banning smoking in all prisons.
It was in her role as Minister of Police that she earned the nickname “Crusher” Collins. In a bid to stop drivers from taking part in illegal street races, she introduced legislation that allowed authorities to crush the cars of repeat offenders.
While Ardern publicly said she didn’t want to be Prime Minister until she was appointed the leader of the Labour Party only weeks before the 2017 election, Collins has made no secret of her leadership aspirations.

A Covid election

Before Covid-19, Ardern was vulnerable. Despite her growing profile overseas, she faced more mixed reviews back home.

Although Ardern had promised to lead a government of “transformation,” critics believed she had failed to deliver on some of her key policies. She had promised to build 100,000 high quality, affordable homes in 10 years to address homelessness and an overheated property market — but by September 2019, Ardern’s government announced it would abandon the target. By July 2020, the government said it had sold just 613 KiwiBuild homes, around 2% of its original goal.

And, after years of campaigning on a capital gains tax aimed at dampening the runaway housing market, Ardern announced last year that Labour would rule out introducing it under her leadership.

At the start of this year, one poll had both Labour and National on 43%. It looked like the National Party had a chance of being the next government, said Lara Greaves, a lecturer in New Zealand politics at the University of Auckland.
Then came the coronavirus. Ardern’s handling of the pandemic changed the game. As other countries — including neighboring Australia — struggled to contain their outbreaks, New Zealand kept its death toll comparatively low. Polling in May found that 86% of people approved of how Ardern was handling her job as Prime Minister.

That’s left Collins and her party little room to maneuver. There are few failings that Collins can point to, and being too harsh on Ardern, who most people now approve of, could backfire. Collins has instead focused on Labour’s borrowing, claiming Ardern’s government lacks a plan for handling that debt. “This is not Monopoly money,” she quipped in one of the debates.

“I think they really are caught in a difficult place,” Timperley said of Collins’ National Party. National has been polling around 30% while their key coalition partner, ACT, has been polling at around 8% — those projections mean they are still far off reaching the 50% needed to form a government.

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“I think if Covid-19 hadn’t have happened, we would be in for a close election,” Greaves said. And National hasn’t been helped by its many leadership changes. “When you’ve got such a popular Prime Minister, and you’re looking like group that hasn’t quite got it together … they haven’t really presented a viable alternative.”

But while experts expect Ardern to win, they aren’t expecting her to bring in transformational policies in her second term.

International onlookers might see Ardern’s decision to ban semi-automatic firearms following the 2019 Christchurch terror attacks as bold and transformational. But in New Zealand, that move had widespread support and limited impact on the daily life of average New Zealanders. Instead, Ardern’s left-wing critics want to see more done to address bigger issues: inequality, child poverty, climate change and an overheated housing market.

“She has the most political capital she’ll ever have now, barring some unforeseen event. But there has been somewhat of a reluctance to spend that political capital,” Victoria University’s Timperley said, adding that Ardern’s style seemed to be incremental change rather than flashy flagship policies. In the final debate Thursday, Ardern said she believed in building consensus so policies didn’t unravel later. “I stand by my record.”

Ice cream flavors named after National Party leader Judith Collins, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, ACT leader David Seymour and NZ First leader Winston Peters are seen at Rollickin' Gelato on October 14, 2020, in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Collins’ uphill battle hasn’t stopped her from putting up a fight. When questioning how New Zealand’s second coronavirus outbreak started, she quipped to Ardern: “Where did it come from, under a rock in your garden?” She has also frequently mentioned the Pacific island of Samoa, so much so that she was accused of “weaponizing” her husband’s ethnicity in a bid to appeal to New Zealand’s Pasifika community. When a Pasifika student asked what she would do about high school students who were forced to leave school to support their families, Collins began by saying: “My husband is Samoan, so talofa,” using the Samoan word for “hello.” That phrase was memorialized on a cup, sold at a market in Auckland.
This is all in keeping with brand Collins, who once dubbed Ardern “My Little Pony.” (It’s not clear why). Earlier this year, when she was questioned on the diversity of National Party’s top ranking MPs, she memorably asked media: “Is there something wrong with me being White?”

Two female leaders

Of course, Ardern and Collins have one key thing common: they’re both women. But in New Zealand politics, that’s not unusual.

New Zealand has already had three female Prime Ministers, including Ardern — and for the second time in a New Zealand election, the leaders of the main two parties are both women.

In 1999, New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister, National leader Jenny Shipley, went up against Labour leader Helen Clark, who would go on to be New Zealand’s first elected woman Prime Minister. And New Zealand has a history of being stronger than other countries on gender equality — it was the first self-governing country to give women the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

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“In New Zealand, it’s possible for a woman to get elected to parliament because you don’t have to be wealthy,” Shipley told CNN earlier this year. “I think it has got easier, simply because there’s a critical mass.”

“I’ve been in the US and asked when I think the US will be ready for a women leader, and I just find it the most extraordinarily stupid question. Why wouldn’t a nation like that want to demonstrate that women and men have the capability of building the next generation of success for the US?”

More than 40% of New Zealand’s lawmakers are women. But Shipley said New Zealand still hadn’t reached true equality — that would be when female leaders were asked first about their politics, rather than something related to their gender.

According to Greaves, the fact that both leaders are women hasn’t been a big point of discussion.

“It’s just an accepted and kind of cool thing that’s been happening,” she said.

Timperley pointed out that, in many respects, the pair are similar — they’re White, middle class, able-bodied and have had many opportunities.

“I think it is noteworthy that there are two women, and it does change the tenor of the conversation and the debate,” she said, but cautioned that “Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins share more than they differ.”

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