It was a pleasure and privilege to speak with the Honourable Judith Collins to learn more about her experiences in politics and her current interests in technology and how it can shape outcomes for Aotearoa New Zealand. Judith was the second female leader of the National Party, after Dame Jenny Shipley.
Judith, you have a background in law, what was your catalyst for going into politics?
“I grew up in the Waikato and studied at Matamata College and the Universities of Canterbury and Auckland. At Auckland I received an LL.B, then a Masters in Law, and a Masters in Taxation Studies, and went on to practice commercial, property, tax and employment law for 20 years. I ran my own practice for a decade. Because the legal profession is steeped in politics, that fostered my interest. I served as the President of the Auckland District Law Society and Vice President of the New Zealand Law Society where many of our dealings were with central politicians. In the 2002 election, I stepped into the political arena, despite an MP advising me that I should wait!”
As an experienced leader, what continues to drive you to want to serve both in the New Zealand Parliament and the New Zealand Government?
“My question always is: ‘am I adding value?’ so I know as the Member of Parliament for Papakura for the last 21 years I bring a sense of what is very much on the ground. It’s important for my constituents who are not immersed in politics to just pay their bills and look after their kids. I often bore my Caucus colleagues by telling them that no one in Papakura cares about esoteric issues; they care about safety, their rent or mortgage, whether their children are going to school and if they have a future. I add a different aspect into Parliament and am very focused on making sure I deliver. I come from a rural background, so for those not having experience growing up on a farm, I believe it’s good to be able to add these perspectives. Every three years we get a very public job interview and I have continued to be elected! I’m excited every day to go to work.”
How do you re-frame your leadership profile given the number of roles that you have held in public life?
“It’s simple: work out what you want to do then get into doing it. I’m focused on the present and the future – foreign direct investment, technology, science, digitizing government, and land information -they are all very forward-looking. I have an inquiring mind and am always interested in everything. I don’t like being bored so I like moving to new portfolios, especially science and technology. I’m now involved in AI and bringing people in Parliament together to learn about it. There are dangers, so I’m trying to stay abreast. I pickup myself up every morning and get to it, so I ask and learn by doing.
I don’t need to be the AI expert, but I do need to know enough. It’s basically software that takes data and is programmed to do certain things. Sometimes the data may be wrong or biased because AI spits out what it has, therefore the algorithms may be incorrect. I can see huge opportunities to use AI, but also understand that we need to know what’s right or wrong.
The use of AI should always have a human responsible for what is put in and what is put out. I see AI as having opportunities in health for diagnosis and scans (retinas is one good example) so that successfully trained medical professionals are freed up to deliver treatment. AI is also suitable for quick diagnoses so where it can help we should definitely use it. The USA and UK are grappling about how to regulate AI, which is a bit like regulating physics, but New Zealand has already done this by using privacy law. However, by using people’s private data and the way that governments use data to analyze, we need to be very aware of what other jurisdictions are discovering and what we can learn from them. We need to keep abreast with the US and UK and Europe, so we can borrow and get better.
If you use Google maps when you’re driving, you’re already using AI! There’s no one sitting in a little box anywhere, it’s there to make our lives simpler. Also, for elderly people who forget to take pills, something will pop up on your phone that talks to you about the medication.
AI is also very helpful in education, but people are unsure of its capabilities when they don’t understand the process. In Korea, I understand that school students get an ipad or chrome book or laptop and on that device is an AI programme to enable that student to do their homework. The AI becomes a tutor and will come back and ask the student if they have done their research or advise them to go back to a certain lesson and discover an error. It’s less expensive and when there aren’t people around to mentor and guide, it’s an asset. However, we need to be able to trust the people who are assimilating the information.”
How do you re-shape your leadership purpose and intent within the current political climate?
“I keep doing my job which is leadership in my electorate. It’s not difficult as I’ve had to reinvent over the years. I don’t wander around asking for advice, I don’t have therapy or anything, I just do it, it’s who I am. I’m a resilient person and I’ve learned that over the years that I can withstand most things. I’ve been knocked around a few times but what I can’t withstand is not doing something.
I’m not a quitter, I don’t have a lazy gene (nor do my brothers and sisters, and we all have different careers) we just keep on going, it’s genetic! My purpose is science and technology, and growing the New Zealand economy.
In 1981, the Springbok tour was the biggest division in our country; a division of people and families. And now we are in similar times. It’s so important that we think outwards not inwards and about how to secure our future as a country especially in this economy, because people can’t pay their bills. We’ve spent the last six years looking inward – even the really good stuff that was seen overseas as world leading. I can’t over-emphasize that around 60-70% of the economy is damaged, and not just because of Covid. People are worried for themselves, and other people are leaving for Australia. We made it too easy for people to up stakes and move. Australia has recently made it easier for Kiwis to leave by providing an easy path to citizenship for New Zealanders in Australia.
But, we have put very little into the markets and the science and technology arenas and so we have failed to capitalize on New Zealand’s excellent reputation overseas. Additionally, we’ve had a major increase in violent crime, especially for many ethnic minorities who own retail shops; they have become the brunt of particularly nasty attacks.
Divisions in society are influenced by the media and social media. The current government has had a lot do with it. There’s a lack of trust in the media, and in the government and law enforcement, where we’re seeing a drop-off in public support. Right now, we know that 40-50% of kids weren’t turning up at school. We have to get our mojo back and look to the future which can’t be filled with ram raids, or people leaving their properties because they can’t pay the mortgage, or their grocery bills.”
Are there political goals that, if you had the opportunity to progress them, you would like to pursue?
“I have a vision for the country. When I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the ‘60s especially, our money as a country came from exports to the United Kingdom, then we got the oil shocks, then the UK joined EEC ( now the EU) , and our markets dried up, so we had to find more. We didn’t wallow, but a lot of people went through extreme pain, and we found other markets, and now we produce brilliant products which we sell at normally good prices especially to China. We are fortunate to have been the first developed nation to have a free-trade agreement with China. We’ve tried to get a Free Trade Agreement with the US – think of Obama around the Asia-Pacific trade deal – but that got knocked on its head when President Trump opposed it. To be fair, a lot of the left wing in New Zealand opposed it too! India is a nation that we should be doing more with, in trade and in sharing of experience.
Over the years, we’ve grown our markets in certain areas. When National was in government from 2008-17, we had two major areas that brought revenue in; first our primary products which equal 63% of the income we get into the country. So, from a little country that really is a brilliant job. We also had tourism, foreign students, and manufacturing, but the big two were dairying and tourism. Tourism died during Covid, and it is coming back, but not in quite the same way, and tourism is a low-wage economy. We’re not good servants here, so we have students coming from overseas who don’t mind doing the job for a while. We don’t have a culture of professional service like many parts of the world.
We all want great healthcare, education and infrastructure. We’ve been knocked around. Where we do have a great opportunity is in science and technology. If you know much about our agriculture, it’s all about technology and science. For example, refrigerated containers were invented in New Zealand, and we are the most efficient farming people in the world. When it comes to carbon, pesticides, or anything affecting the climate, we’ve had the luxury of developing science for decades in Ruakura, and Massey and Lincoln. For decades farmers and exporters have been receiving advice from Crown Research Institutes and before that the DSIR. Science has always been important, and the only way we could compete was to be better.
I like to use the example of Glaxo Smith Kline, started as Glaxo in New Zealand in the 1920s, in Bunnythorpe, a tiny town with a dairy factory that was owned by a Mr Nathan from Wellington. That’s where they produced the very first Vitamin D. The big cities in the world were full of smog and smoke and children got rickets, but we had plenty of fresh milk in New Zealand. It’s from that milk that the first pharmaceutical quality Vitamin D was made. Glaxo shifted to the UK, for the same reason that many businesses have left our shores: capital, talent, and markets. We need immigration, and we are in a worldwide search for talent. These challenges can be overcome by bringing in the right people with the right experience, the right capital and the right access to markets. They tend to go together.
I see for us our wonderful scientists and tech people moving our country into becoming a major exporter of science. Think of all those who use Xero, which was started in New Zealand by Rod Drury. We have Rocket Lab which is on the NASDAQ, another Kiwi invention. Rocket Lab is still very focused on New Zealand with its Mt Wellington factory producing rockets for NASA. There’s no free lunch for us, so we have to be smarter and more innovative and we need people and capital.
I plan to turn us into a high science country, understanding that our focus on primary products and tourism are not mutually exclusive to science and tech. I want our country to be richer and our kids at school to have education to world class standard. I want our healthcare to be the best it can be. I don’t want New Zealanders having to go to Australia to get medical treatment that should be available here. We have to stop thinking small and take away the division and hatred of people who are different, to get on and make this country great, and be humble with it.
It’s easy to get excited about what we do, humility is one of our greatest powers when we become wealthier. In Papakura, I would like the kids who are in low decile schools to have a future in New Zealand, to be on good salaries, or owning their own businesses. National believes in equality of opportunity. We need to celebrate success and we’re not usually very good at that. Don’t despise people who have done well, however, be humble.
Science has created great results; we have great advantages so how do we take them and build on them? We have 5 million people in the country, and 1 million overseas. That creates a good crowd who are ambassadors for New Zealand –a big advantage. We also have eight universities, which is quite a lot for a small country, however, all of them have a focus on research. In addition, we have seven Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) as well as Callaghan Innovation. The opportunities to free up science for good can be illustrated by the CRI Scion in Rotorua which is dedicated to forestry; they’re in the process of inventing a sterile pine, but regulations stop them from taking the invention into a field trial within New Zealand. That’s simply stupid. We need to let Scion trial there science here. We have 25 different research institutes, in healthcare, in wine, wool, etc. They are all focused on science and technology.
Then there’s another consideration, we do all of this in English, which is the language of science, the reason being that it’s precise; a lot of the people working in it will be speaking English which, as a very precise language is used as the lingua franca by many in science. We are also part of the intelligence-sharing arrangement Five Countries/Five Eyes with the United States, Canada, UK, and Australia, so we’re trusted partners in space and telecommunications, which is a big advantage for New Zealand. And, we have access to other people and markets just because we are New Zealanders.
There are more opportunities in science but they’re not being developed fast enough. Science often takes many years of research before you get to commercialisation, but we’re now the 6th largest space industry in the world. The US scene is large and all-encompassing, but we have lots of innovative space people wo are doing wonderful stuff through partnering with Nasa and the IP is so precious. That is extraordinary and has been built up over just the past 15 years. If we can’t commercialise fast, we need to ask, why are we doing it? We need capital, but there’s still a massive brain drain going to Australia because the country has progressed and has rolled out the red carpet for tech and science. So, we are losing some, but we have retained some who stayed during Covid, so as a country we have opportunities to benefit.”
If there is ever a post-politics period for you, have you already turned your mind to it, and what would your priorities include?
“I was a public company director before I got into politics; I’ve done it before, so I’d be interested in doing it again, and something involving law perhaps- I still have my practicising certificate – or I might write another book. However, I’m not thinking about leaving anytime soon!
I’m very happy with Christopher Luxon; he understands business, he has extensive work experience overseas and understands the American market, and we need someone who is outward looking to get the country going. I enjoy working with people who don’t feel threatened by me and let me get on with my job!”
As a member of Global Women NZ, do you see the organization progressing gender equality for women?
“I joined Global Women when I was Minister of Justice, when the organization had just started. I think Global Women is like any organization – it changes with whoever is leading it. Also, it tries to deal with the issues it faces. I would have thought that one of the biggest hurdles for women in business is frankly the opportunities that come from expansion of business, but business is frightened of failing and that’s something we need to learn to embrace: failing. That’s a big difference between New Zealand and US business culture. We need to take risks and celebrate those risk takers. I’m not sure that’s a gender issue. To me, celebrating success is great, but we also need to recognize that we only really learn from failing.
Does Global Women have a space? It’s a coming together of people who are often dealing with the same challenges in their working career and can be inward-looking. I prefer it when GW doesn’t go down political pathways. I find it uncomfortable if GW is used as a space to politicise.
The future of New Zealand will be driven by stopping looking at ourselves but instead looking at our advantages. We are part of the Asia Pacific region which is a massive arena to step into. Human Rights can be greatly increased when we have better technologies and income, however, we also need better education which is one of the things that I see failing right now. But I’m positive about the future. We need to make the outcomes happen, and that includes what happens to people, and get them into a position to pay their bills.
I have worked all my life as an adult, worked all the way through University, when I had a baby, I never stopped. I completed both my Masters’ degrees and a Graduate diploma while working full-time. People need to have those opportunities to make the same or different choices, but everything has a consequence, which culminates in working a lot. But there is no equality without financial security. The best way for any women to be secure is to have her own purpose, her own career, her own money. By that I mean for me that my customers are the people of Papakura. The customers of Global Women are the members, and they are what matters. Once you lose a sense of what matters to the public, I think you lose the country.
I‘d love every govt department to treat the public as customers who have a choice of the government they wish to work with. When I see how some people are treated when they can’t talk to a human for example, they come to see their electorate MPs, but they shouldn’t have to do that. People should be valued without having to bring in their MP to advocate for them.”
To give you briefings on AI, Science and Tech opportunities in New Zealand, a look through my LinkedIn shows some of the Tech Talk and Science Scoops podcasts that I do.
Judith’s book Pull No Punches can be found here. It was the best-selling non—fiction book in New Zealand for six weeks in a row: https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=1505248547
Judith, thank you for your visible and tangible roles in New Zealand and the country’s politics. We look forward to watching the exciting further development of science and technology under your leadership.
As Pou Tātaki of Kaipara Moana Remediation (KMR), Justine heads up a collaborative programme between the Crown, Iwi and regional councils to restore the mauri of the Kaipara, the largest natural harbour in the Southern hemisphere. Justine is also a Director for the New Zealand Institute of Plant & Food Research, sits on national Advisory Committees for community research and environmental limits and targets, and has held multiple governance roles. Justine lives on the Bream Bay coast.
Justine, you are deeply involved in the infrastructure (conceptual and foundational) and environment of Aotearoa New Zealand. How did your career path lead you to this absorbing and important mahi?
“I’ve always been strongly values-led, and keen to make a difference for New Zealand. As a career diplomat I was privileged to progress international consensus and ensure New Zealand’s voice was heard on the world stage. People say to me that I am on a very different career path now, but it’s just as satisfying and values-driven. Ultimately, my work is still about sustainability and making sure that Aotearoa is successful in an increasingly complex world.
I have always taken on roles where I can add value. In particular, I bring international experience and perspectives – we cannot escape that New Zealand operates in a global context. The other common threads in my career are leadership and governance, strategy and investment, innovation and the environment. For me the definition of environment is broad – natural resources, food, sustainability and also health and well-being. People are not separate from nature – we are part of it.
Perhaps because of my first career in international diplomacy, I’m passionate about New Zealand forging its own way in the world. We are the size of the UK or Japan, with all of the costs of that, but we have the population of a small European city. This means that while we can face resilience, capacity and capability challenges, we also know the other leaders working in our field – that’s a strength if we can collaborate, rather than compete, to achieve collective success. Aotearoa New Zealand also has other natural advantages, including a ‘can-do’ attitude and cultural settings which are truly special and unique.
I am very committed to KMR because – ultimately – it’s about equity. Fundamentally, KMR uses environmental restoration to grow people and develop human capability. A particular focus is to support the younger generation into science-enabled career pathways that are meaningful, local and nature-positive. KMR is collaboratively governed, and te ao Māori principles and approaches are also actively woven through our work. In the longer term, KMR’s work will deliver the foundations to develop new economic value from more diverse land uses.”
Throughout your career, whether working internationally or in New Zealand, you have focused on investing for good, growing people & future-facing solutions. How do you view the New Zealand government’s role in regard to supporting land and settlement issues? Is our country on the right road to sustainable growth and development in view of climate change?
“This is an important question, which must recognise the distinct contributions of the arms of government, society and consumers (markets).
Central government sets the national frameworks, minimum standards and incentives to guide local environmental action, informed by local government and community aspirations. New Zealand has always been at our most successful in achieving environmental outcomes when we forge a path that is strategy-led – that is, when we are explicit about the environmental outcomes we are aiming for, clearly identify associated standards, and invest to enable action on the ground to meet them. This can only be achieved as a system – government, industry, Māori, wider community working together.
Successive governments have made progress in setting environmental bottom lines, but as a country New Zealand needs to do more to reflect – and meet – rising international standards. Global consumers and their expectations are usually well ahead of government targets. New Zealand feeds 40 million people annually from our environment, and it is those communities who will increasingly set the norms for our food and fibre industries, particularly in our highest-value markets. Recently the world’s largest food company set more stringent greenhouse gas emissions for its supply chains – this will have a major impact on some New Zealand food producers.
Whether we like it or not, the world is changing very rapidly, driven not only by shifting social mores as described above, but also by technology disruption and environmental innovation. As an example, a growing number of countries are using precision technologies to optimise environmental management while maximising primary production. As a country highly dependent on export revenue, New Zealand must keep up with this reality and transform our own primary sector through innovation and smart technologies.
Equally, over the past few decades globally we have seen the democratisation of environmental management. That is, a trend towards stronger government-set ‘bottom lines’ for the environment and natural resource use to protect ‘the commons’, matched by greater involvement by indigenous peoples, industry leaders and wider civil society for on-the-ground, local delivery as well as environmental monitoring.
Together, these shifts enable everyone to play their part in protecting nature – our lifestyles, our recreation, our health and our economic prosperity depend on it. Māori absolutely understand the concept of ecosystem services – the critical support that nature provides to humanity, and the interrelatedness of healthy, functioning natural systems and the health and well-being of people: toitū te whenua, toitū te moana, toitū te tangata.
2023 has certainly highlighted the impacts of climate change. Here in the North, floods and cyclones, storms and winds have caused widespread and ongoing disruption. Most young people are very concerned about climate change – we need to listen to their concerns and empower them to step up and identify solutions. After all, they are inheriting a very different world with very different problems. There is a sense of urgency now, and we must grapple with some really difficult decisions to ensure we are resilient into the future. 20 years ago when I was working in the NZ Climate Change Office, we were starting to plan for climate change impacts. Yes, it’s difficult to adapt, but we must do it to avoid further loss of lives, homes, infrastructures and livelihoods. We simply cannot afford not to.”
You have held executive leadership roles at the Ministry of Science & Innovation, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research and GNS Science. In these roles, you deepened a lifelong interest in coaching and mentoring early-career women leaders. Please tell us more about this.
“I’ve always tried to use the intellect I have been blessed with, my education and my experience to help other women. My sister and I were the first in our family to go to University, and we had to work hard for our education. I have always been grateful for the opportunities that a good education has unlocked.
As a young person, I was offered a lot of support from various mentors. Later in life you look back on those formative experiences and the many kindnesses that others have shown you. My mentors were often women, so over a large part of my career I’ve wanted to give back and offer other young women the same support. A big part of my mentoring is to encourage young women to be themselves in the workplace – to be comfortable in their own skin. When I was entering the workforce, I was told to smile less, wear makeup, put my hair up, wear certain clothing, while later on in my career I was told to send emails only between 9-5. One benefit of COVID is that flexible working is now accepted and valued!
I’ve tried to make KMR a place where you can bring your whole self to work. My staff and I have lost parents and siblings, have had sick babies and partners, have separated or bought new homes, and have experienced many of the other major ups and downs of life. We trust each other and know it’s OK to be honest about what’s going on in our lives. If you have to conform to someone else’s idea of what work looks like, you’re going to feel unsuccessful, irrespective of your achievements. Why do we all need to work in the same way? We are all different, and that’s actually a strength. For me, this is an incredibly important concept for Global Women to model. I often ask the women I mentor ‘what does success look like for you’ and their answers are often ‘to be valued for what I bring and who I am.’ ”
Why did you join Global Women and what is your vision for the support our membership can give to sustainability and resources for the future of Aotearoa New Zealand?
“In my experience, collaboration is the only pathway to success on complex, intergenerational issues such as the environment. So, for me, Global Women was a chance to connect with others who come from different backgrounds, career trajectories and experiences so I can understand and learn from other ways of thinking.
Global Women is also chance to access the ‘many hands’ that are needed to make advances on some of these complex issues. That’s where I’m at my happiest – when I’m helping others, I can sum up and synthesise the gaps and chart the start of a way through and offer help. If we’re really trying to tackle these complex sustainability challenges, we really do need to develop some holistic solutions. They’re not easy, as they often involve shared outcomes where everyone has to flex a little from their own preferences. Global Women can connect and galvanize the many resources we need to transform practice. It’s also critical to drawing on the wider knowledge systems that are needed to remove roadblocks and find meaningful solutions.
For that reason, I’m very pleased to be a member of the Global Women Environmental Sustainability Committee. What is striking is that we are a group of women from really different perspectives and sectors – investment banking, human rights, commerce – coming together to ask ‘how can I help? What levers can I pull? You can achieve great momentum when people come together with open minds and open hearts.
Research both in New Zealand and globally demonstrates that diversity around the board table brings greater success. Other research confirms that a diverse leadership team brings wider benefits to an organisation, as well as bottom-line results. Global Women is an important forum to advocate and model the way for more of this successful diversity around New Zealand board and leadership tables.”
And Justine’s closing thoughts…
“I just want to acknowledge the incredible environmental action going on everyday by many Kiwis. Often this goes unseen in communities and unreported by our media. As an example, in just 21 months, over a third of the landowners across the 600,000 hectare Kaipara Moana catchment have worked with KMR to develop plans and take action to protect and restore their waterways and improve the resilience of the landscape. Collectively, these landowners have planted or contracted to plant over a million trees in that timeframe – that’s a really big number.
For our part, KMR offers co-investment and seeks to profile landowners who are doing such amazing work to protect and preserve Aotearoa New Zealand. They have a real passion to leave their land in a better state than they found it. We are often more fortunate than we realise, and it’s important that we send a positive message of hope to others. Those results show that it really can be done.”
Justine, thank you for your passion and commitment to our whenua and rawa taiao and for working tirelessly for the sustainable future of Aotearoa New Zealand.
All interviews and stories written by our Editor in Residence, Jenni Prisk (Global Women Member)