By Praveen Menon
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's hopes for an easy win in September elections thanks to her success in eliminating COVID-19 have been checked by the emergence of a new opposition leader known to friend and foe alike as Crusher.
Judith Collins was elected only last week to lead the National Party as it reels from a series of leadership changes and scandals that have it trailing in the latest opinion polls, with 38% support against 50% for Ardern's Labour Party.
She has wasted no time in making an impact, booting out a party colleague for sending a lewd image to a woman and going public with an allegation which led to the sacking of the immigration minister for having an inappropriate relationship.
Nicknamed Crusher after she brought in a law as police minister in 2009 allowing for illegal street racers' cars to be confiscated and destroyed, Collins said she preferred to be known for her determination to build a more vibrant economy.
"I prefer 'focused' because that’s what I am - absolutely laser-focused on giving businesses in this country the confidence to invest and grow to create more jobs," Collins told Reuters in an email.
"Our focus this election is on delivering an economic plan that gives hope to the more than 200,000 New Zealanders who are currently on unemployment benefits, as well as the tens of thousands more whose jobs are hanging by a thread."
The Labour Party, governing in a coalition with the Greens and the nationalist New Zealand First party, is campaigning on its enviable record of bringing COVID-19 under control and stopping chains of community transmission.
But Collins - whose autobiography released this month is titled "Pull No Punches" - wants voters to think instead about the lacklustre economy, and what she calls Ardern's broken promises to fix a housing crisis and tackle child poverty.
Some analysts agree Ardern's government is vulnerable on domestic issues despite her global standing. The youngest female prime minister when she came to power in 2017, she has won international praise for her compassionate leadership, particularly in the aftermath of last year's massacre of 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch.
But she has backtracked on a key capital gains tax promise, while housing projects have floundered and an ambitious social welfare programme to end child poverty has achieved little.
Business confidence is low and economic growth has stagnated despite the relatively quick lifting of coronavirus restrictions.
Ardern's office told Reuters in a statement the government was proud of its economic record, pointing out its investments in health, education and infrastructure "while managing the books to keep debt as low as possible, and well below the levels seen in comparable countries like Australia and the UK".
To be sure, Ardern is popular and polls suggest Labour is on track for a resounding election win, but some analysts see an opening for Collins to make inroads.
"Ardern has domestic issues, and that's always been a problem. Collins will tell voters (Ardern) is a great global leader but a bad domestic one," said Andrew Hughes from the Research School of Management in Australian National University.
NO HOLDS BARRED
In addition to the general election, New Zealanders will vote on Sept. 19 in two referendums on legalising voluntary euthanasia and cannabis.
The National leader has supported voluntary euthanasia but has said she is not in favour of legalising recreational use of marijuana, an issue that could shift some undecided voters her way.
In her maiden speech as opposition leader Collins praised Ardern's communication skills, but said she would not let the prime minister get away with any "nonsense".
Grant Duncan, associate professor at Auckland's Massey University, said Collins could range from charming to tough to deliberately Machiavellian.
"Discontented centre-right voters may see her as an antidote to Ardern’s genuine warmth and kindness," he said.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Stephen Coates)