Muller: Now I’ll deal to Labour Full cov­er­age

Nats’ new leader opens door to NZ First with four months to elec­tion

Weekend Herald - - Front Page - Claire Trevett

The Na­tional Party’s newly crowned leader Todd Muller has started off by say­ing he was “in­cred­i­bly up­beat” about his chances in the next elec­tion — and has left a door open to re­verse the de­ci­sion not to en­gage with NZ First af­ter the next elec­tion.

Af­ter suc­cess­fully rolling Si­mon Bridges in a cau­cus Muller will now take on the task of try­ing to re­claim the ground Na­tional has lost in the polls over the Covid-19 cri­sis with just four months un­til the elec­tion.

Muller was elected leader af­ter a bit­ter show­down with Si­mon Bridges, and Nikki Kaye was elected deputy to re­place Paula Ben­nett.

The past three months have seen Labour and Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern soar up to record lev­els of pop­u­lar­ity in two polls while Na­tional’s vote was dec­i­mated to around 30 per cent.

Muller ac­knowl­edged the chal­lenge ahead but said the polling was clearly re­lated to the Covid-19 cri­sis and the Gov­ern­ment’s “im­pres­sive” han­dling of the health re­sponse to that.

In an ap­par­ent ref­er­ence to Bridges’ lead­er­ship, Muller said he would talk about “what was right for fam­i­lies, not what was wrong about the Gov­ern­ment”.

How­ever, he went on to chron­i­cle Labour’s fail­ings, say­ing they had failed to de­liver on al­most every mea­sure they had put up and did not have the ca­pac­ity to han­dle the eco­nomic cri­sis that lay ahead.

He was “in­cred­i­bly up­beat” about Na­tional’s chances, say­ing Ardern was “an im­pres­sive com­mu­ni­ca­tor”.

“How­ever, if you look be­hind her it falls away very quickly. There are two or three peo­ple who are heavy lifters in that Cab­i­net and there are 17 empty chairs.”

There were no de­tails of the poli­cies Muller might look to change, and Muller said he would now take some time to de­cide what reshuf­fle was needed and which poli­cies might get changed.

And while the cau­cus de­ci­sion in

There is no Team Todd, there is no Team Nikki, or any­one else — there is only Team Na­tional. Todd Muller

Fe­bru­ary to rule out any post-elec­tion Gov­ern­ment with NZ First still stood, Muller did not rule out hav­ing a sec­ond look at it.

How­ever, first Muller will have to try to re­pair the rifts in his own cau­cus that the tur­bu­lent lead­er­ship con­test has left, and any dam­age it has done to the party among the pub­lic.

Yes­ter­day Muller was con­fi­dent that un­der his lead­er­ship, Na­tional would win the elec­tion.

“There is no Team Todd, there is no Team Nikki, or any­one else — there is only Team Na­tional.”

But Bridges’ sup­port­ers were smart­ing af­ter Bridges lost the vote yes­ter­day, some say­ing the way Muller and his sup­port­ers treated Bridges in the lead-up to that chal­lenge was dis­re­spect­ful and that Muller and his sup­port­ers had been un­der­min­ing Bridges for a long time.

Muller was quick to de­liver the first olive branch to the Bridges team, con­firm­ing Paul Gold­smith would re­main in the fi­nance port­fo­lio — a crit­i­cal role es­pe­cially in an elec­tion year.

In some­thing of an un­der­state­ment, Muller de­scribed the lead­er­ship ruc­tions as “a pe­riod of re­flec­tion” for the party, and likened it to a fam­ily which some­times squab­bled.

Bridges and Ben­nett could be crit­i­cal in try­ing to re­store unity to the cau­cus.

Muller said Bridges would get a se­nior role if he de­cided to stay on in Par­lia­ment — but did not say if it would be a front bench role.

Bridges him­self stepped out of the role on a gra­cious note, say­ing it had been “a heck of a ride” and he would take some time to con­sider his own po­lit­i­cal fu­ture rather than make a hasty de­ci­sion.

He said he had no re­grets, and it had al­ways been a priv­i­lege to be the Leader of the Op­po­si­tion, de­spite the highs and lows of his time in the job.

His deputy Paula Ben­nett also lost her job to Nikki Kaye — and may also now be de­posed as cam­paign chair. That role is de­cided by the Na­tional Party board, and the leader sits on that board.

Ben­nett said she would take some time be­fore mak­ing any de­ci­sions about her own fu­ture.

How­ever, the change will mean she loses her high list rank­ing — the party re­serves three places for list-only MPs and one was re­served for Ben­nett, who would have been at num­ber two.

Af­ter the vote, Bridges sup­porter Brett Hud­son told the Her­ald he would be dis­ap­pointed if there was dis­unity.

“I have a much greater re­spect for both Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye than to think they would ex­tract some sort of sense of re­venge, and it would dis­ap­point me deeply if mem­bers of the cau­cus who did not get the re­sult they hoped for thought it would be ap­pro­pri­ate to act in a way that was not in the in­ter­ests of cau­cus.”

Bridges was dis­patched in that cau­cus meet­ing af­ter about half an hour. It was a closed bal­lot and MPs are not told the num­bers, but Bridges’ camp be­lieved it would have been very close given the sup­port they had been promised. One be­lieved the dif­fer­ence would have been just two votes.

Win­ston Peters has wel­comed com­ments by new Na­tional leader Todd Muller sug­gest­ing the party’s ban on work­ing with New Zealand First could be re­viewed.

The pol­icy rul­ing out Peters’ New Zealand First party was driven by for­mer leader Si­mon Bridges and an­nounced in Fe­bru­ary this year.

But at his first press con­fer­ence as new leader, Muller said it was pos­si­ble it could be “re­freshed”.

“It’s a far more in­tel­li­gent stance than some­one who has just gone, who ruled me out, and I said at the time there will come a time and soon when they will want to talk about that more than I do,” Peters said.

“You never say never be­cause in the end you are caught in cir­cum­stances ei­ther be­fore or af­ter the elec­tion where the num­ber one thing . . . is whether they are go­ing to get a sta­ble gov­ern­ment.

“You are caught with peo­ple who have done their best to cru­cify you and vice versa, and it is a cam­paign type of bat­tle that goes on, but the day af­ter the elec­tion, the num­ber one thing has got to be ‘how can a sta­ble gov­ern­ment be formed from these cir­cum­stances’.

“And any­body who says ‘never, never, never’ hasn’t even thought about the re­spon­si­bil­ity they may have, like Si­mon Bridges.”

Strat­egy mat­tered and Bridges did not seem to un­der­stand that,” Peters said.

“That’s rather sad. He had no strate­gic un­der­stand­ing of the call­ing he was in.”

When asked about the ban on work­ing with New Zealand First af­ter the elec­tion, Muller said yes­ter­day: “It is quite pos­si­ble, maybe, that in the fu­ture we could re­fresh that — I don’t know.”

The cur­rent po­si­tion was clear. “Let’s see if it changes in the fu­ture,” he said.

Muller also re­vealed that when he formed the Young Na­tion­als at Waikato Univer­sity in 1988, his first guest speaker had been Win­ston Peters, then a Na­tional MP.

Un­usu­ally for Peters, who has har­boured a deep an­i­mos­ity for the past five Na­tional lead­ers, he wished Muller and his deputy, Nikki Kaye, well.

“I’ve known Mr Muller since his univer­sity days and wish both him and Nikki Kaye the very best in their new jobs.

“Their dif­fi­culty of course is the Na­tional Party is deeply di­vided, with too many fac­tions all wish­ing to march to the beat of a dif­fer­ent drum.”

Na­tional’s pol­icy rul­ing out New Zealand First was en­dorsed by the Na­tional Party board and the cau­cus and would re­quire the sup­port of both to have the pol­icy over­turned.

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