Political Roundup: Todd Muller’s torrid start as National leader

Political Roundup: Todd Muller’s torrid start as National leader

The latest opinion poll is out, and it’s more bad news for the National Party, with Roy Morgan putting them on only 26.5% support, against Labour’s 56.5%. You can see the details here: Roy Morgan May opinion poll.

Roy Morgan is regarded as less accurate than other polling companies, and the polling period is largely prior to the change of leadership, so National will still be thinking that the only way is up.

Nonetheless, it caps off an awful first week for Todd Muller as National’s leader, brimful of embarrassing episodes over his MAGA hat, the lack of diversity on the party’s new frontbench, stumbling interviews, and the lack of anything new to say.

The most blistering take on Muller’s performance so far comes from RNZ’s Tim Watkin, who can’t believe the new leader was just so unprepared to take over. He compares Muller and Kaye to new parents who spent so much time concentrating on the pregnancy they didn’t think enough about looking after the baby at the end of it – see: Todd Muller: National’s new dad who forgot to build the cot.

Watkin suggests it was essential for Muller to have “a couple of big policies to show you have a plan distinct from the previous leader, maybe a tough call or two ready to go to show you can make the hard calls, and a story or two to introduce yourself to a public that couldn’t pick you out of a police line-up.”

Instead, “Muller arrived to debate about his Make America Great Again cap, the whiteness of his front bench and loose language, such as most New Zealanders being unknowingly unemployed. When the child came, he just wasn’t ready and has spent most of the time reacting to minor stories exploding around him.”

Watkin questions his competence, and says his leadership and performance, so far, looks too much like Labour’s parade of poor leaders in the three terms since Helen Clark departed. Muller’s interviews, in particular, showed that he was extremely underprepared: “You wanted to look away, to put your head in your hands. It was uncomfortable viewing or listening.”

Not only has Muller not allowed anyone listening to these interviews to feel safe and reassured, he’s bored them too, says Chris Trotter. He argues it’s one thing for Muller to take National back towards the political centre, but he actually needs to do so in an engaging fashion, in the way that Jacinda Ardern does in her own middle-of-the-road way – see: Holding the Centre.

Here’s Trotter’s main point: “The problem with centrists is that, practically by definition, they shy away from extremes. It’s the quality that most encourages voters to trust them. The quality that makes people feel safe. Unfortunately, it is also the quality most likely to bore people rigid. If a politician wishes to promote safe policies, then it is absolutely vital that he does so in an interesting and engaging way. If your brand of politics is boring, then you have to be anything but. So far, Todd Muller has come across as every bit as uninspiring as his politics.

Some rightwing observers are also highly critical. Damien Grant wrote yesterday that the last week has shown just how unimpressive the new leader is: “Muller, it turns out, didn’t have a plan. It began to look as if he didn’t have a clue. The debacle over the MAGA cap, the lack of diversity in the front bench and Muller’s failure to articulate not just an economic agenda but even an idea confirmed what many of his detractors, this columnist included, had already concluded; he was a middle manager promoted several rungs above his level of competence” – see: Todd Muller confirms himself as a middle manager promoted several rungs above his level of competence.

Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking scored Muller 4/10 for his first week, saying “he ends this week bruised, battered, and hopefully ultra-aware this is harder than it looks” – see: Todd Muller’s MAGA hat is not a story. Hosking gave Nikki Kaye a 2/10 rating, but Paula Bennett 6/10, and Judith Collins 8/10.

Newshub’s Mark Richardson was also deeply unimpressed with Muller and Kaye, especially with their failure to set the agenda when taking over and the lack of unity in the party: “They [National] have not come up with at least two decent points and policies – saying ‘this is what we’d have done differently’. As a National supporter, that is totally and utterly unacceptable and those National Party members who are now undermining him, get over yourselves, stop sulking, and start representing this country” – see Mark Quinlivan’s Mark Richardson slams The National Party, says Todd Muller has ‘failed every time he’s stood in front of the media’.

Also at Newshub, Mark Longley reflects on Muller’s interviews to date, and suggests that the new leader has “had the shortest honeymoon period of any incumbent”, with performances “nothing short of a train wreck” – see: Dear Todd, the honeymoon is over – welcome to political leadership in New Zealand. He complains that Muller “didn’t seem able to answer the questions with any authority”, and “it’s looking increasingly like, for political nous at least, there is an empty seat at the head of National.”

Muller’s lack of a plan for once he became leader is emphasised by Stuff political editor Luke Malpass, who points out the new leader is talking in slogans without any detail or commitments to back these up – see: How Muller-mentum is breathing fresh life into NZ First.

Here’s what Malpass says about Muller’s promise of economic revitalisation at the community and small business level: “It is a laudable goal, but it’s a political slogan, not a plan. What was really required in Muller’s first week were a couple of bold policy announcements that would demonstrate to Kiwis that he actually had a strategy to gee up those local economies, and one that was markedly different from Labour’s.”

Malpass suggests Muller needs to come up with much more than Friday’s employment subsidy for business. And the party needs to snap out of their complacency in assuming the looming economic recession will automatically bring a chance to beat Labour: “the Nats as a whole seem to have been seduced by the strength of their own economic management brand, into thinking that voters will flock back as the economic situation worsens. But the public has overwhelmingly supported the Government’s response to date – health and economic – and there is no evidence at all that people blame the Government for Covid-19 or the downturn.”

Herald political editor Audrey Young also points to the lack of any economic plan as Muller’s main failing in his first week, suggesting this debacle might have a much greater impact than the debacles over the lack of Māori MPs on National’s frontbench: “The more important impact was Muller’s failure to project a strong alternative to the Government’s policies to respond to the Covid-19 economic crisis, and his failure to say whether National would spend more or less. Muller might be easier to listen to than Bridges, he might be more ‘likeable’, but he had nothing better to say this past week” – see: National deputy Nikki Kaye learning to let the leader lead.

Muller’s lack of an economic plan to take to the public is a problem for his credibility, according to Claire Trevett, because “having pitched himself as a better salesman of National’s positions than Bridges, he turned up with absolutely nothing to sell” – see: Todd Muller’s sink or swim introduction to Leader of Opposition (paywalled). She points out that at least Labour currently have a $50bn plan, and although Muller continues to talk about how his promised plan “will take New Zealanders by storm”, currently “he has nothing to talk about in the meantime”.

Trevett examines the various leaks in the National Party caucus, as well as Muller “using his very first full caucus meeting as leader for a stern talking-to about leaking”, and comments: “It is little wonder the lecture about leaking was also leaked very quickly after that meeting. Many of the MPs believed Muller’s own supporters had been leaking about caucus discontent against Bridges for two years before one last frenzy of leaking amid the Covid-19 lockdowns.” And she points to the negativity of Gerry Brownlee blaming “Simon’s supporters” for the leaks.

For details of the most recent leaks from National, see Tova O’Brien’s National sets up ‘intelligence unit’ to dig up info on political opponents during 2020 election campaign, and National MPs already leaking as new leadership team of Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye suffers disastrous first sitting day.

Many of the other embarrassing issues this week were so easily avoided according to many commentators. For example, Karl du Fresne argues that criticism over a lack of diversity could easily have been headed off by “promoting one of the party’s capable Maori MPs to the front bench; perhaps Shane Reti, who seems an impressive performer. It needn’t have been seen as tokenism, since Labour appears unembarrassed by having Kelvin Davis as its deputy leader – a status presumably acquired on the basis of his Maori roots rather than through ability and achievement” – see: Muller could take a lesson from BoJo.

According to du Fresne, it’s hard to see how the National leadership and their advisors didn’t’ see this issue coming, given the heightened concerns about ethnicity and appropriate representation.

But according to leftwing commentator Martyn Bradbury, it was simply a product of politicians being driven by self-interest: “This was blind panic and naked privilege at work and in that frenzy of self-interest National defined ambition as white and selected thus. It’s not that National actively wanted to silence Māori perspective in decision making, it’s just that they forgot about everybody but themselves” – see: National’s passive racism highlighted in Muller reshuffle.

Bradbury suggests that the leadership is now facing the consequences of the emptiness at the heart of coup: “If you intend to take over a political party, your motivation to do so should be driven by a deep political belief that you have better ideas than the current leadership and that those ideas are filled with so many self-evident truths that your disloyalty is forgiven and a better set of ideas put in place under your leadership and authority. To date, Todd Muller, the newly elected leader of the National Party who ousted Simon Bridges, has managed to not justify why he should have taken over or articulated any vision for what National would do if they won power in September.”

Finally, veteran political commentator John Armstrong is very astute and fair in his evaluations of politicians, and so his verdict on the new leader’s first press conference is worth reading – see: Todd Muller is capable and qualified despite uninspiring opening as National leader. He calls Muller’s first outing “insipid and uninspiring” and “not far short of a presentational calamity” due to “an absence of the usual post-coup atmospherics of excitement, urgency and, most importantly, a feeling of a political party regaining its mojo and thus its electoral momentum”.

Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.