Four months out from a general election, National has turfed out Simon Bridges and installed Todd Muller as leader. Justin Giovannetti writes from parliament on a big day for NZ’s biggest party.
As Simon Bridges clears his desk in the the leader’s office, the National Party now prepares to enter an unprecedented election campaign with an unknown boss, against one of the most popular prime ministers in New Zealand history.
In only a matter of days Todd Muller, a second-term MP from the Bay of Plenty, has risen from near obscurity as his party’s agriculture spokesperson to being its leader. Bridges has become one of the world’s first political casualties from the coronavirus after the opposition leader’s popularity collapsed in recent weeks as New Zealanders panned his approach to the Covid-19 crisis.
The National Party caucus, the largest in parliament, decided it had had enough and early this afternoon gave Bridges the boot. Only three months ago Ardern’s Labour Party trailed National in the polls, but many of its erstwhile voters have since turned their support to the prime minister after her steady leadership during the global pandemic.
With a general election scheduled for September 19, Muller has only four months to make himself known to the country and reverse Ardern’s unprecedented level of approval. A Colmar Brunton poll released by TVNZ on Thursday evening found that more than three out of every four New Zealders approve of Ardern, the highest level in the poll’s history. Highlighting the challenge he faces, only about half a per cent thought Muller should be prime minister.
Also gone is deputy leader Paula Bennett, replaced by Nikki Kaye. A decade younger than Muller and socially progressive, representing the Auckland Central MP is seen as a counterweight to Muller’s rural conservative brand.
Recent history suggests that National’s last-minute change might not harm it. Ardern was elected leader of the Labour Party only seven weeks before the 2017 general election, from which she emerged as prime minister.
Speaking publicly about two hours after caucus elected him in a secret ballot, Muller said that as National’s leader he would focus his time on jobs as the response to Covid-19 switches from the health crisis to an economic one. He criticised Ardern for trying to lead the economic recovery from the Beehive, putting bureaucrats in the front seat instead of individual businesses.
Moments after pledging to not oppose the government only for political gain, Muller warned that Labour so far has failed to deliver on its marquee promises, including building new homes, light rail and reducing child poverty.
“If we continue on this track of talking a big game but failing to deliver, we simply won’t recognise the New Zealand we are part of in a few years’ time,” he said.
What Muller would not explain is why, after only two years at the helm of the National Party, he and the rest of caucus had decided that Bridges had to go. When asked about the poll results he said that the party had just had “a siblings scrap” and was united again. He failed to mention it was under new management.
He described the past week, where rumours had first swirled and were later confirmed by Bridges that a coup attempt was under way, as “a period of internal reflection about where we need to position ourselves”.
Bridges himself didn’t appear with Muller, but spoke with reporters later in the afternoon.
“It’s been a heck of a ride, a rollercoaster really of highs and lows,” said Bridges, who added later that he was feeling some relief after the weight of opposition was lifted from his shoulders.
He said he supports Muller and expects he would make a good prime minister. Asked why he was just ejected from the leader’s office, he was equally cryptic. “Who knows? People have different views,” he said.
The election of Muller will help National and puts to rest questions about Bridges’ leadership and the recent slump in polls, according to Brigitte Morten, a lawyer for Franks Ogilvie who previously served as a senior advisor for the last National government.
“These are unprecedented times and there’s no doubt that the closeness of the election sharpened the minds of MPs of what the result would mean for them,” she said.
“The MMP system has a lot to do with what your brand looks like and unfortunately for Simon his brand has been severely damaged, mostly by events, not by any gaffes he committed,” Morten added.
Muller offered little to clearly differentiate him from his predecessor. He hinted that he hoped to avoid the trap of reflexively attacking everything the government did. “I’m not interested in opposition for opposition‘s sake,” he said. “We’re all tired of that kind of politics.” But he highlighted no significant policy differences and offered no clues about how he might change the party.
Muller said his personal story reflects many of the qualities that define New Zealand. He grew up on a farm near Tauranga and attended a Catholic school where he was one of the few Pākehā students. He’s then went on to work for two of the giants of Kiwi Inc, first at Zespri and then Fonterra.
As his party’s point man on agriculture he’s walked a fine balance, often finding himself in the difficult position of telling farmers that climate change is a serious challenge, while defending them from critics who contend that agriculture has damaged the country’s waterways.
He said on Friday that he was proud to have helped the government pass its climate change law. He didn’t mention a latter squabble with Te Papa over a water quality exhibit that looked at pollution near a dairy farm.
Little he’s done in his six years in parliament has commanded much attention. Earlier this week one of the world’s largest collections of photos, Getty Images, only had a single picture of the new leader on file.
Before his election on Friday he briefly made news overseas in late 2019 when Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick dismissed him with an “OK Boomer” when he heckled her during a debate in parliament. Muller is a part of Gen X.