Judith Collins: When there’s a will there’s a way

by NZ Lawyer23 Mar 2016
You’d think an appointment at 9am - in this case an interview - would kick off the day for most individuals, but not so for freshly re-appointed cabinet minister Judith Collins who is about to celebrate her 14th year in politics. Instead she was traipsing through fields in the dark and digging holes to commemorate the opening of a new school in her electorate of Papakura at 6am. And between having to shoot home to change (thanks to the wet grass), the traffic, phoning the police commissioner and waiting on a call from the prime minister, she managed to fit in an interview with NZLawyer.
But the morning was nothing out of the ordinary she says, because if it’s not meeting with her community, the police, penal reform, charitable organisations or taking part in Auckland’s gay pride parade, it’s going to parliament and doing the very regular 6.45am to 10pm work days, which was the case the day prior to the interview.
“I do what I do because I love it. The day I don’t find it interesting or exciting is the day I won’t bother anymore. I say, if you’re not excited look for something else, or decide to be excited by what you’re doing. Rather than becoming complacent, why not take every opportunity you have. Change the paradigm!”
But life hasn’t always been so busy for Collins, who hails from Walton in the rural Waikato. Being the youngest of five children, Collins says she takes after her mother, who was extremely competitive, going so far as to have her own herd that she would raise in competition with the rest of the family’s cows.
And while competing in calf club days “sparked a competitive nature” in Collins herself, it was this competitive nature, her love of history, public speaking and English that meant she was well suited for a career in law, and later politics, she says. 
She also recalls seeing women lawyers on the television, who were strong and who advocated for the disadvantaged.
“I guess I thought I could use the law to make a difference and stand up for women and children.”
Studying at both Canterbury and Auckland University, Collins says there were a lot more men than women doing law in those days, but it didn’t affect her as “it’s always good to be a slight outsider,” she says.
After successfully graduating in 1981, Collins worked in residential and commercial property for a number of top-tier commercial law firms, before being headhunted to be partner for a smaller firm in Takapuna. Thereafter she was headhunted again to set up a tax unit in a firm on Queen Street, which later led to the completion of a Master’s degree in tax. Before long, Collins had set up her own legal practice, Judith Collins & Associates in 1990. 
“[Starting the firm] was more fun because I like being the boss. I decided that it was fine working for everyone else, but I wanted to have a baby, to finish my thesis and I got asked to help set up a business school so it made sense to set up my own practice.
“While there were many upsides to having your own practice, before the practice grew it could be very lonely environment. Even when it did grow I learned a lot about being a good employer. I’m most hard on myself, apparently. I was always working all sorts of hours and trying to do all sorts of things, which could be no good in a lot of ways.”
Setting up a practice meant that she could dictate her own agenda, and it was throughout this time she made great relationships with the New Zealand Law Society and the Auckland District Law Society, to which she served as president and vice president in the 1990s.
It was the connections with the legal world that led her to a career in politics, she says.
Serving on the executive for both the New Zealand Law Society and the Auckland District Law Society meant she got to interact with a number of politicians and appreciate political issues.
Although Collins had friends and connections in all the political parties, including former Prime Minister Helen Clark, she aligned herself with the national party because it is “the party of freedom”, she says.
Forced to resign from her post as justice minister amid allegations of dirty tactics in 2014, Collins was cleared of all allegations and is now overjoyed to be back in cabinet and in her old stomping ground with the corrections and police portfolios.
“It feels great to be back in cabinet and in ministries I really like and appreciate. I also don’t have to muck around with niceties, there’s not the downtime of having to get to know everyone. They all know me, they’ve seen me. We respect each other.
“It was a real low-light having to resign [as justice minister prior to the 2014 election] but I knew I would be back as I hadn’t done what I was accused of. The key’s to keep moving and keep on keeping on. Don’t be downcast as being negative gets you nowhere.”
Even so, being a backbencher was fun, she says.
“I was free to do what I wanted to do. I needed a bit of convincing to write for the Sunday Star Times as I felt somewhat battered. But I took the opportunity to explore what I cared about and it was good for me. Then there was the Paul Henry Show, which was heaps of fun. Annette [King], Paul [Henry] and I get on so well. But now I have to be more focused.”
Take The Vehicle Confiscation and Seizure Bill that was passed in 2009, for example, which gives courts the power to send cars owned by repeat offenders to the crusher.
“It’s been hugely successful. I told police to look outside the square. It came about after shots were fired at a policeman in Christchurch amid a crowd of 200 who were engaging in illegal street racing. I was so annoyed I thought we need to think about what is going on, why is it happening and do we prevent it? What is it that these characters care about most? Their cars, of course. Fines clearly weren’t working. So I had to go to the source - and often it would be the case where once parents or finance companies get involved the chain is broken.
“My legal background contributed to the law, I knew finance companies often owned many of these cars and naturally they’d be very interested to know what was happening. Many people often don’t think about legal ownership and funding, for example.”
And so it was, the name Crusher Collins hit the media - which has been both advantageous and disadvantageous to her brand, she says.
It doesn’t fit within the model where Collins tries to find innovative ways to help mothers and babies in prison units for example, whereas it does help in the sense that “if people don’t know your name it’s a problem”.
“People take me seriously so that when I want to do something, I can just go ahead and do it. [Nonetheless] I didn’t give myself that name and I certainly don’t use it.”
Women generally are treated very differently in politics to men, she says, so it is good to be taken seriously.
“People, journalists can be particularly vicious. Being determined is treated as being ostensibly hard. Strength is treated as a negative whereas they same couldn’t be said for how men are treated in the media. Mind you, you can worry about it or otherwise just get on and do your job well.”
But, one has to be strong in politics, she says.
“Electorates choose their own MPs. If you come in they will not choose women if they’re not seen as strong, the same could be said for men. If you’re not prepared to advocate for yourself then you can’t advocate for others. It’s a case of how much you want it. if you want to do this job you need to stand up for yourself.”
Collins likens her work to that of being a lawyer, but on a pro bono basis, she says.
“People come into my office, I take in their problems and try and fix them.
Unlike most politicians who are pragmatic and follow public opinion, Collins takes a legalistic approach to her politics.
“It can certainly be disadvantageous to not go with the “vibe” of public opinion but then again it’s sound and you can actually explain your reasoning.”
In fact, Collins believes lawyers are particularly suited for politics, more so than perhaps other professions.
“It makes sense really, you’re making laws all day long. If you have the training to look at lots of paper, to legally analyse what the ramifications of certain actions might be for example, it makes sense that lawyers are an ideal pick.”
Outside of politics and the law Collins insists on taking one day off every week, which is increasingly harder given her promotion back into cabinet, she says.
“I suppose I cope with the workload because I keep myself pretty grounded. I like to do the shopping. I enjoy cooking at home. Socially, I’m not very good at going out, but that’s probably because I’m a bit of a home body.”
And to avoid burnout Collins enjoys walking and bustling around parliament, she says.
“I see a lot of people, politicians and lawyers who try to deal with the pressures differently. If I feel my energy is lacking I’ll go for a 6km walk. It’s very good.”