John Armstrong's opinion: Todd Muller is capable and qualified despite uninspiring opening as National leader

Call the doctors. The spin doctors, that is. And urgently. There is something of an emergency.  Hang on a minute. Hold that call. At least for now. 

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The Bay of Plenty MP rolled Simon Bridges and brings in Nikki Kaye as his deputy. Source: 1 NEWS

The various National Party advisers, executive assistants and sundry other backroom staff assembled in Parliament’s former Legislative Council chamber alongside the MPs who not long before had knifed Simon Bridges could have been excused asking themselves whether Friday’s leadership coup had been worth all the trouble.

Simon Bridges' position within National to be worked out in time, new leader Todd Muller says

Todd Muller’s first speech as National’s leader — and much of the press conference which followed — won’t have anyone rushing to draw comparisons with the Gettysburg Address.

The words insipid and uninspiring rapidly came to mind - and that is being kind. 

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The Bay of Plenty MP successfully ousted former leader Simon Bridges in an emergency caucus meeting yesterday. Source: 1 NEWS

Sure, it was understandable that Muller did not want to disclose any plans he has for changing things, be it policies or whatever.

There was no disguising the fact that the affair was not far short of a presentational calamity — at least by modern-day political standards. Astonishingly, Muller read from speech notes. That in itself was quite extraordinary. 

Simon Bridges rolled, Todd Muller new National Party leader

Given he had not long secured the job he had long coveted, it would seem safe to assume he must have rehearsed what amounted to his acceptance speech many times in his head beforehand.

But no. There was 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.

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Just four months out from the election Mr Muller rolled Simon Bridges for job. Source: Seven Sharp

Yet for all that, Muller said enough to reveal that though he might not yet have a detailed plan for getting National off the sick bed, he does have a broad strategy as to how it goes about recovery.

There might not be long to go before Parliament rises for the election. He might be Mr Unknown. But he is not going to be rushed. He is about the last politician who would be prone to panic. 

At Friday’s press conference, he referred to his “authentic self”. It was code for saying he would not be putty to put in the hands of political image-makers or the marketeers or the aforementioned spin doctors. 

Muller’s approach to the job is to build credibility as National’s new leader as much by quiet action as by bold statement.

The immediate priority is to get voters to tune back into National after tuning out to the Bridges-led party.

Is Muller the one to do it? On paper, the MP for the Bay of Plenty seat is more than qualified to hold the leadership.

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Having held senior executive-level posts at Zespri and Fonterra prior to entering Parliament six years ago, he understands business. 

As a one-time staffer in the Prime Minister’s Office back in the 1990s, he understands politics. 

As an electorate MP, he understands what makes provincial New Zealand tick. As his party’s agriculture spokesperson, he understood how rural New Zealand ticks.

As a major contributor to the cross-Parliament consensus which delivered last year’s Zero Carbon Act, he understands MMP politics.

Above all perhaps, he understands what makes National tick, having been a member of the party for nigh on 30 years.

The party is thus putting a lot of faith in him to deliver. He will accordingly do everything in his power not to disappoint.

Of inestimable value is Muller’s dry sense of humour. People will warm to that. Interviewed on RNZ National, he was asked if had charisma. There was a brief silence. Then out came a self-deprecating chuckle. It was authentic. It was the perfect response. 

His post-coup address was a matter of dealing with the matters that needed to be dealt with first and foremost. He drew a line under the Bridges’ era by emphasising that he was “not interested in opposition for opposition’s sake”. In similar vein, he added he would be talking about “what was right for families, not what was wrong about the Government”.  

In an unusual declaration for the leader of any Opposition, he described the Prime Minister’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis as “impressive”. He then immediately made it clear he was talking about the medical aspect of the pandemic. 

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That is a battle which Jacinda Ardern has won hands down. There is no point in Muller trying to refight it. The recovery of the economy is another matter entirely. Here the Ardern Administration is on far less solid ground, in part because the extent of the downturn is something of a guessing game. Moreover at some point the money being poured into propping up struggling companies is going to have to be curtailed — and drastically.

His declaration that were he to become Prime Minister he would also take specific responsibility for a portfolio dealing with issues of concern to small business enterprises was a not so sly dig at Ardern for her also being Minister of Arts and Heritage.

She might point out by way of rejoinder that she put herself in charge of child poverty reduction and then ask what National would be doing about that.

What might worry the Prime Minister far more is that Muller is flagging an election campaign which will see National focus on what is happening in localities and communities in terms of economic recovery, rather than simply at a national level.

Whatever, Muller faces the hardest of slogs in the four months between now and Election Day. It is not just a matter of such basics as name recognition. There is already plenty of material available detailing who he is and what he has done in life. The worry for Muller and National is that Bridges’ awful legacy as leader is such that voters cannot be bothered or are simply not interested in finding that all out.