In this excerpt from her new book Blue Blood, political journalist Andrea Vance post-mortems the last, haywire days of Muller’s leadership.
Todd Muller took over as National Party leader on 22 May, 2020. The panic attacks started during his first week on the job and worsened through an extraordinary series of crises: you might recall his MAGA cap, his very Pākehā front bench and upside-down tino rangatiratanga flag, and finally the convoluted episode in which Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker leaked the names and quarantine locations of 18 Covid patients. A staffer called that saga “a clusterfuck of biblical proportions”.
The Hamish Walker episode left Muller bruised and exhausted. His mental health was crumbling. “We didn’t see his absolute stress,” Lawrence Yule says. “Once I asked him how it was going. He said: ‘I go from white-hot fear to everything’s brilliant. And everything in between.’”
Muller was tipped into crisis the weekend following Walker’s resignation. Those around Muller point to different events over those two days which ratcheted up the pressure.
“The thing that I think broke the camel’s back was Rio Tinto and the smelter,” one staffer says. The Anglo-Australian mining giant was again threatening to close its aluminium smelter at Tīwai Point on the southern coast of the South Island, putting more than a thousand jobs in Bluff and Invercargill on the line. The smelter is also the biggest consumer of electricity, using roughly 13% of the country’s power. Rio Tinto had previously threatened to close operations, and it was widely viewed as a tactic in negotiating for a cut-price electricity deal in an election year.
“Nikki [Kaye, Muller’s deputy] was convinced that it was real and that National should ride to the fucking rescue,” a staffer says. She wanted Muller to fly into Invercargill, meet the workers and promise they’d keep their jobs under a National government. Gerry Brownlee, as a former energy minister, advisor Tim Hurdle, and Matthew Hooton, who had previously held Rio Tinto as a client, advised against it. “Hurdle had this line: don’t get between the government and a problem. They all said that we should shut up and let the government explain why all these people lose their jobs.”
But Kaye was insistent. “The woman just keeps going,” another staffer says. “It’s a double-edged sword. Where others would give up because it was hopeless, Nikki keeps going. And that became a problem. There were nine of us versus Nikki.”
Muller said he must back his deputy. “Normally it’s the other way around,” the staffer sighs. Hurdle was sent home to come up with a speech and a policy. Hooton was ordered to start working on a speech on Chris Bishop’s new transport infrastructure policy for Auckland, which was to be delivered on Monday. Muller also went north, to spend time with his in-laws in the east Auckland suburb Stonefields.
Insiders point to Kaye and Hooton’s volatile relationship as the tipping point. “They clashed like fuckery. It was incredible,” one aide says. Both rang Muller to complain, and both threatened to quit. The leader, already under extreme pressure, had to mollify and arbitrate between them both.
Others put the blame on Kaye’s decision to front for a television interview to explain the Walker saga. It was Muller who was invited to appear on TVNZ’s Sunday politics show Q+A. He declined, recognising there was no upside to another interrogation of what he knew about the Covid-19 patient leak. His answers would be sliced and diced into soundbites, dragging the story out into the high-rating evening news bulletin. Kaye saw it differently. Ignoring advice from both advisors and Brownlee and a direct order from Muller, she fronted up to the show. The appearance was – as one MP coarsely put it – “a shit show”.
Kaye was forced to deny that National had once again embroiled itself in “dirty politics”. She faced questions about what she’d been told by Boag, and the links to her re-election campaign. Looking back, she defended her decision: “Todd was having time with his family and that was the message I had. I had committed to it … and I thought it was really important to talk through what had occurred, and that is the way I have always operated in my political career: to front up. I think that’s the right thing to do.”
Muller could no longer cope. “In the end the frequency and intensity of the panic attacks took me to a place where I had to step away from the fire, the anxiety and the pain.” As one staffer says: “That weekend everything just melted down, for everybody.”
Calls and emails to Muller went unanswered. The team suspected he was suffering a nervous breakdown and cancelled the policy launch, citing a stomach bug. His chief of staff Megan Campbell flew to Auckland on the Monday to see what she could do.
Brownlee was in Napier campaigning with Katie Nimon, a well-thought-of candidate who was challenging Labour’s Stuart Nash. They spent the day touring local businesses in the heart of the art deco city. After a long day on the hustings Nimon and Brownlee joined former Hawke’s Bay ministers Chris Tremain and Craig Foss, and local MP Lawrence Yule, for craft beers at the Westshore Beach Inn. At 4pm Brownlee’s phone rang. It was Campbell calling to say Muller had suffered “an incident” and would be relinquishing the leadership. Brownlee said, “Aw, he’s just tired,” and flew immediately to Auckland to try and talk him around. “It was a pretty broken situation,” the staffer says.
Campbell, Brownlee and Wilson worked long into the night drafting a press release announcing Muller’s resignation, effective from the following morning. “It has become clear to me that I am not the best person to be Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the New Zealand National Party at this critical time for New Zealand,” it said. “It is more important than ever that the New Zealand National Party has a leader who is comfortable in the role. The role has taken a heavy toll on me personally, and on my family, and this has become untenable from a health perspective.”
A conference call was held to inform a small inner circle, sometime after 9pm on Monday. Muller did not attend. The rest of the party was blindsided when the news was made public at 7.30am on Tuesday. Kaye and Adams followed him out the door, both resigning on Thursday. It drew a line under a chaotic 53 days within the Opposition Leader’s office. But the party was again thrown into turmoil and the MPs were furious. “I remember thinking: it is all over. Why don’t we just concede right now?” a senior MP says. “Todd will justify it in all sorts of ways, but he has got no concept of how much damage that did to so many people who were working so hard.”
Another MP says it was a deeply stressful time for everyone. “Todd didn’t look like he was enjoying it. You have got to want the job, and he overworked himself or he let himself be overworked.” An MP loyal to Bridges rages: “The problems for us started with Jami-Lee Ross. Then we had a coup that should never have happened.”
With just 67 days until polling closed, senior party figures and MPs began calling the person they believed to be their only viable alternative. A caucus meeting was hastily organised in Wellington. At the eleventh hour Judith Collins was ready to take the job she had coveted for almost 20 years.
Andrea Vance talks to Toby Manhire about the book, its revelations, and Luxon’s challenge in this episode of The Spinoff’s politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime.