Todd Muller has been criticised for posing in front of an upside down tino rangatiratanga flag. Hayden Donnell deploys high-level investigative journalism to find out who’s responsible.
Todd Muller’s speech at Te Puna Rugby Club was designed as a reset for his troubled leadership. He’d spent his first days as National Party leader defending a MAGA hat and trying to work out whether Paul Goldsmith is Māori. Sunday at Te Puna was a chance to put the focus back on National’s top priority: appealing to the amorphous mass of regressive views and begrudging kindness known as “middle New Zealand”. Muller talked of love, and also the looming economic apocalypse. National wouldn’t raise taxes, he said. On the other hand, it wouldn’t cut benefits.
The speech may have hit some of the right notes. But its message was again undercut by Muller repeatedly shooting himself in the foot. “I joined the Labour Party,” he said, before appearing to receive a vision of hell.
Worse still, after the speech ended, Muller posed, alongside a range of different fonts, in front of an upside-down tino rangatiratanga flag.
The mistake was one of the first things mentioned in Newshub at 6’s story on the speech. The New Zealand Herald embedded six mean tweets in its story on the error.
Some Muller allies pushed a counter-narrative. Hutt South MP Chris Bishop implied the flag was already hanging at the marae. Right-leaning podcaster Ben Thomas queried whether it had been hung up by members of the church. Labour MP Kiri Allan insisted the speech had taken place at her local rugby club, which doesn’t usually have a tino rangatiratanga flag on the wall. “The upside down flag isn’t in our clubrooms on any other day, so it came in for your team’s show,” she said. Allan later added the flag is hung for some celebrations, but never upside down.
Who was right? It was a mystery which only a skilled servant of the truth could unravel. I took it upon myself to start digging.
In what will be remembered as an act of journalism, I Googled “Te Puna Rugby Club contact”. The first result brought up a number for one of the club’s managers, Lissa Carston. Using skills I’d learned from my 13-year career as a reporter, I dialled her number and recorded what she had to say.
Carston’s answer was quick and unequivocal: Muller was innocent of any flag crimes. The upside down flag had been hung by someone from the club who was setting up for the event, she said.
“It was a little mistake. We weren’t even thinking about it. Somebody saw a gap on the wall that the camera would be on. The suggestion was ‘let’s put up the flag that’s dangling to the side of the clubrooms’ … And it just got put up, upside down.”
Carston said club members were too busy making sure the venue was clean to notice the mistake. She was disappointed with the media for giving attention to the slip-up. Nobody had called her to check what happened, she said. Te Puna Rugby Club president Sean Lett was even more cross. “It was just an oversight,” he said. “The media latched onto the flag thing. Well whoopty shit. There’s bigger problems in New Zealand than that.”
Maybe so, but I’d come too far to stop my investigation. I’d finally gathered enough information to reach a conclusion: Todd Muller is not guilty of hanging a tino rangatiratanga flag upside down at the Te Puna Rugby Club. While it’s possible his advisers should have picked up on the error before posting an embarrassing photo to social media, nobody from National had a direct part in the flag bungle.
That exoneration leaves just one National MP still embroiled in a distasteful flag-related scandal this week. Rotorua MP Todd McClay, you’re now on your own.