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Nikki Kaye and Todd Muller emerge from the caucus meeting at which they were elected new deputy leader and leader of the National Party (Photo: Dom Thomas – Pool/Getty Images)
Nikki Kaye and Todd Muller emerge from the caucus meeting at which they were elected new deputy leader and leader of the National Party (Photo: Dom Thomas – Pool/Getty Images)

SocietyMay 22, 2020

Covid-19 live updates, May 22: Bridges has no regrets, Muller pledges to be constructive

Nikki Kaye and Todd Muller emerge from the caucus meeting at which they were elected new deputy leader and leader of the National Party (Photo: Dom Thomas – Pool/Getty Images)
Nikki Kaye and Todd Muller emerge from the caucus meeting at which they were elected new deputy leader and leader of the National Party (Photo: Dom Thomas – Pool/Getty Images)

For all The Spinoff’s latest coverage of Covid-19 see here. Read Siouxsie Wiles’s work here. New Zealand is currently in alert level two – read The Spinoff’s giant explainer about what that means here. For official government advice, see here.

The Spinoff’s coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak is funded by The Spinoff Members. To support this work, join The Spinoff Members here.

5.15pm: The Spinoff’s Toby Morris cartoonist of the year, Duncan Greive joint general feature writer of the year

Wonderful news from this evening’s Voyager Media Awards, currently being live-streamed online in a pandemic-friendly fashion – our very own Toby Morris has been named cartoonist of the year. Managing editor Duncan Greive, meanwhile, has just been named joint general feature writer of the year with Steve Braunias. Congratulations Toby and Duncan!

3.40pm: ‘Necessity breeds innovation’: How NZ businesses have stepped up

Today on The Spinoff, we talk to New Zealand businesses that have had to pivot to new ways of operating in the wake of Covid-19. From truck drivers to pizza shop owners, big corporates to local government, innovations have happened across the board, and many will be carried on into a future that’s looking very different to what we imagined just a few months ago.

Read the full story on The Spinoff 

3.20pm: Today’s data, charted

Today’s new case of Covid-19 was New Zealand’s first in the last five days. Despite that, the rate of recovered cases continues to outpace the rate of new infections.

Waitematā continues to have the most infections in the country. It added another to its tally today, with the new case part of the St Margaret’s cluster.

3.10pm: Bridges says he has ‘no regrets’

In a brisk press conference lasting less than eight minutes, Simon Bridges has claimed he has no regrets despite his ouster as National Party leader. Standing alongside his outgoing deputy Paula Bennett, Bridges said his tenure as leader of the opposition had mostly been “a blast”. “I can’t say I’ve enjoyed every minute of it but I almost have.”

Bridges congratulated new National leader Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye on their win and thanked his staff and supporters, singling out chief of staff Jamie Gray, chief press secretary Rachel Morton, and Bennett for particular praise. He named his top achievements as securing a government “backdown” on the possibility of introducing a capital gains tax and stopping a regional fuel tax being imposed nationwide. After today, he would be focusing on spending more time with his family, he said.”I’m looking forward to spending more time being a better dad and a better husband to Natalie.”

Bridges was non-committal on whether he would take up a senior position in National, as Muller proposed in his press conference earlier. “I’ll take stock,” he said.

3pm: Simon Bridges delivering press conference

Watch the livestream from RNZ here:

2.40pm: Muller confirms Goldsmith will stay on, touts economic credentials

New National leader Todd Muller has acknowledged the government’s response to Covid-19 has been impressive, but argues his party is better placed to handle New Zealand’s economic recovery.

In his first press conference as leader, Muller said the government did a good job containing the immediate health crisis caused by the pandemic. “But regardless of these efforts, Covid-19 has hurt us,” he said. He accused Labour of being bereft of talent outside of prime minister Jacinda Ardern and “two or three” top performing ministers, saying the rest of its cabinet was made up of “17 empty seats”. “We will save jobs, we will get the economy growing again.”

Muller said he would draw on his experience as a former executive for Fonterra and kiwifruit company Zespri to confront the economic challenges facing the country. “I can read a balance sheet and a P&L, and I know a good one from a bad one,” he said. He confirmed Paul Goldsmith would stay on as the party’s finance spokesman despite the leadership spill. “This election will be about the economy, but not the economy the bureaucracy talks about, it’ll be the economy you live in, the economy in your community, your job, your main street, your tourism business, your marae.”

2.20pm: Muller pledges end to relentlessly negative politics

New National  leader Todd Muller has pledged a break with the negative tactics often employed by his predecessor Simon Bridges, saying he’s happy to work constructively with the government on areas of agreement. “I’m not interested in opposition for opposition’s sake. We’re all tired of that kind of politics,” he said in his first press conference as leader. He was proud of working across parliament on the Zero Carbon Act, adding, “wherever I have the opportunity to work with other parties for our country’s good, I will do so. Will I criticise the government? Absolutely.”

When asked what his plan was for increasing National’s popularity, Muller said he was hoping to “get on the news tonight”. National MPs have cited wall-to-wall coverage of the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis as a reason for a pair of polls showing support for the party plummeting this week.

In prepared remarks, Muller acknowledged his predecessor Bridges and his deputy Paula Bennett. “Simon has worked hard as leader and given the job his all and the caucus is gratefully for his service. Both he and Paula have served the party and our country well,” he said. He then thanked his wife Michelle and their “three lovely children”. “Kids, dad’ll be home soon,” he said.

Watch the press conference here:

2.10pm: Goodbye Simon Bridges. Now who’s Todd Muller?

Liam Hehir has written an obituary of sorts for Simon Bridges’ leadership, arguing he was brought down by a mixture of misfortune and self-inflicted wounds. Bridges political skills were considerable, but weren’t suited to the events of his tenure, Hehir said. But the former leader also failed to develop an ability to defuse hostile interviewers or shake his tendency to run his mouth at unfortunate times. Read the full piece here.

If you’re wondering about the man who has replaced Bridges, Alex Braae has written a comprehensive guide here. It’s a whirlwind tour through Todd Muller’s career, covering everything from his background as a leader in the farming community, to him getting ‘OK Boomered’ by Chlöe Swarbrick. Braae also dives deep into Muller’s unusual approach to photos. The Bay of Plenty MP’s pose of choice appears to be a blank gaze into the middle distance.

National’s agriculture spokesperson Todd Muller, next to an office shelf filled with American political paraphernalia (Alex Braae)

1.40pm: Muller talks up ‘Team National’

Todd Muller has made a call for party unity after rolling Simon Bridges as National leader. The Bay of Plenty MP won the leadership in what was tipped to be a close vote at midday. His running mate, Auckland Central’s Nikki Kaye, replaced Paula Bennett as the party’s deputy leader. Muller has now issued a press statement playing down divisions in the party. “There is no Team Todd, there is no Team Nikki, or anyone else – there is only Team National,” he said.

Muller is well-known in rural New Zealand, having held management posts at Fonterra and the kiwifruit company Zespri, while Kaye has strong support in Auckland. He pointed to that rural-urban alliance in his statement. “National has always been a coalition of city and country, business and community, conservatives and liberals – National is the party for all New Zealanders,” he said.

New Zealand was facing its “worst crisis since the end of the Second World War”, and the new leadership team was best-placed to get the country through the coming economic contraction, Muller said. “My focus as leader is our country’s economic recovery and the strengthening of every community throughout New Zealand.”

1.10pm: Muller, Kaye elected to lead National

Simon Bridges has been rolled as National Party leader by Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller. Paula Bennett will be replaced as the party’s deputy leader by Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye.

National MPs voted in the new leadership team during a full caucus meeting in parliament at midday. It was called after a pair of disastrous polls for National. Monday’s Newshub-Reid poll saw the party slump to 30.6% support, far below Labour’s 56.5%. Thursday’s Colmar-Brunton poll delivered further bad news, with the party registering 29% support, compared to Labour 59%. The preferred prime minister numbers were even more stark, with Bridges languishing around 5% and Labour’s Jacinda Ardern surpassing 60% in each poll.

Few MPs revealed their votes before the contest, though North Shore MP Maggie Barry confirmed she would be voting for the Muller-Kaye tandem and Tāmaki’s Simon O’Connor said he would vote to keep Bridges, saying “there are already two left wing parties in Parliament and we don’t need a third”. O’Connor is a social conservative who opposed abortion law reform, while Kaye in particular is from National’s more liberal faction.

Newshub’s Tova O’Brien first reported the leadership result after issuing several forceful stories on Bridges’ unpopularity in recent days. She offered a blunt assessment of the leadership choice to Newshub’s Ryan Bridge. “It’s a matter of having someone in the role that no one knows, or someone that no one likes,” she said.

Muller wasn’t a high-profile MP before today’s vote. For some background on who he is, you can read Alex Braae’s profile on him here.

1pm: One new case of Covid-19

There is one new case of Covid-19 in New Zealand, the Ministry of Health has reported. The new infection is linked to the St Margaret’s cluster in Auckland and is a household contact of an earlier case. Because of their connection to the earlier case, the person had been isolating since the beginning of alert level four, the ministry reported. It said the infection showed Covid-19’s long tail, and was a reminder to be vigilant about possible further spread of the virus.

This is New Zealand’s first new case of Covid-19 in five days. It takes the case number total to 1504, of which 1154 are confirmed and the rest probable. Only confirmed cases are reported to the World Health Organisation. The number of people who have recovered from Covid-19 is now 1455, or 97% of all cases. That’s an increase of three on yesterday. There are just 28 active cases in New Zealand. 

No more people have died from Covid-19 in New Zealand. One person is in Middlemore hospital in Auckland, but does not require intensive care.

Yesterday, 5408 tests were carried out, bringing the total completed to date to 250,246. 

12.50pm: Bridges voted out – Newshub report

Newshub is reporting that Simon Bridges has been voted out as National Party leader. Second-term Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller will replace him, Newshub reports. Political editor Tova O’Brien was the first to report the news of Bridges’ ouster. “It’s a matter of having someone in the role that no one knows, or someone that no one likes,” she told Ryan Bridge on Newshub.

More to come

12.25pm: More than $800m paid out by small business loan scheme

Finance minister Grant Roberston is currently providing a Covid-19 update. He said as of 9am this morning, almost 50,000 applications for the small business cash flow loan scheme had been received, and $824.5 million had been paid out so far.

Total retail spending in the week ending May 17, which was partly in level three and partly in level two, was 11% below 2019 levels, but still a significant pick-up on what it had been in recent weeks, said Robertson. Traffic volumes are close to returning to normal and electricity demand is now back to pre-lockdown levels.

People are continuing to sign up to jobseeker support, with 1,606 coming on to it last week, but the rate has continued to slow over the past few weeks, said Robertson. A total of 43,000 more people have come on to jobseeker support since March 20. Wage subsidy scheme payouts now total $10.9bn.

12.20pm: Judith Collins predicts close race

Judith Collins spoke to reporters outside parliament for five minutes before heading inside for this afternoon’s National leadership vote. She said she expected a close race, pledged her support to whoever won, and plugged her new book. Newstalk ZB’s political editor Barry Soper told Mike Hosking this morning that he wouldn’t be surprised if Collins emerged as leader after today’s vote, though he appears to be alone in that assessment. Our political reporter Justin Giovannetti posted part of Collins’ impromptu press conference here:

11.30am: Maggie Barry confirms vote for ‘Todd Barclay’, issues correction

North Shore MP Maggie Barry has told reporters she will be voting for Todd Barclay to be National leader, before clarifying that she meant Todd Muller. Though her delivery was far from ideal, Barry’s openness stands in stark contrast to her colleagues, most of whom offered variations on the words “no comment” when confronted with questions from reporters outside parliament this morning.

Barry may be less wary of the potential repercussions of revealing her voting preference than some of her fellow MPs. She is retiring at the 2020 election.

Tāmaki MP Simon O’Connor is on the other side of the contest, telling reporters he is backing Bridges to remain as leader.  “There are already two left wing parties in Parliament and we don’t need a third,” he told Stuff. “This is not about social conservatism, this is about the whole team around him. As I say, there are two left wing parties in Parliament, we don’t need a third.” O’Connor was a vocal opponent of legalising abortion, while Muller’s prospective deputy Nikki Kaye strongly supported the reform.

11.05am: Sweden making slow progress on herd immunity

Only 7.3% of Stockholm residents have produced the antibodies needed to fight Covid-19, raising more concerns over Sweden’s relaxed measures to control the spread of the virus. The relatively low immunity figure was confirmed in recent research by Sweden’s public health agency, CNN reports. It’s roughly similar to immunity rates recorded in other countries with greater restrictions, the report says.

Sweden has adopted much less stringent Covid-19 restrictions than many of its Nordic neighbours, with state epidemiologists arguing lockdowns only delay widespread transmission of the virus. Though that approach has allowed it to keep schools, restaurants, and other businesses open, the country has seen more Covid-19 deaths as a result. Its death rate per capita was the highest in the world for a week, eclipsing countries like the UK, the US, and Belgium. Meanwhile, the country is still suffering a severe economic contraction.

Swedish state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, told reporters the antibodies figure was “a bit lower than we’d thought”, but said it was within range of projections. However, The Guardian noted that Swedish officials had earlier estimated one third of Stockholm residents would have developed antibodies by early May, rising to between 40 and 60% herd immunity by the middle of June.

9.55am: National MPs tight-lipped on way into parliament

National MPs are arriving at parliament ahead of a leadership contest scheduled for noon today, but few are giving anything away on which way they might vote. Second-term MP Todd Muller is challenging Simon Bridges for the National leadership following a pair of disastrous polls for the party. Stuff’s Henry Cooke is one of the reporters stationed near the Beehive waiting for MPs to arrive. So far he’s secured firm refusals to comment from MPs including Nick Smith, Michael Woodhouse, and Mark Mitchell. The latter also added that he would not contest the leadership.

Dominion Post reporter Collette Devlin is also out there securing “no comments”. Nicky Wagner told her she’s “not going to discuss it“, and then asked “do I have to say it again?”. In the face of quite a lot of evidence, Barbara Kuriger told Devlin “we have a united caucus”. David Bennett, Matt King, and Matt Doocey also refused say which way they’re voting. Anne Tolley said she’d “rather be in her electorate”.

Only Maureen Pugh offered something like an opinion. The West Coast-Tasman MP, who Bridges called “fucking useless” in a recording leaked by Jami-Lee Ross, made this face when met with the question “you don’t have a good record with Simon Bridges. He hasn’t been nice to you in the past. Why would you support him?”

9.15am: Auckland Council looking at huge revenue shortfall

Auckland Council is looking to cut jobs as it prepares for a shortfall of more than $500 million dollars in revenue over the next financial year as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. New financial analysis has shown the scale of the hit to the 60% of council revenue that comes from sources other than rates. It’s forecast to have $550 million less income in the coming year from sources including profits from Ports of Auckland, dividends from Auckland Airport shares, visitor attractions, concerts, and public transport fares.

Mayor Phil Goff says council is now trying to strike a balance between deferring rates and other payments for people suffering economic hardship as a result of Covid-19, and retaining spending on infrastructure and essential services, he says. “All of this adds up to a huge challenge for Auckland. As a city and a council, we will have to make difficult decisions.”

Auckland Council has already asked staff to take voluntary pay cuts and cut more than 1100 temporary jobs and contractors. It will also conduct a review in the coming months that will “result in fewer jobs in our organisation”, Goff says. Finance and performance committee chair Desley Simpson says the council has no choice but to reduce operational spending to deal with the shortfall.  “These are difficult decisions to make, but absolutely necessary if we want our city to recover as quickly as possible from this crisis and move forward.”

8.30am: What role will Judith Collins play?

Most eyes are squarely on the Bridges vs Muller contest for National’s leadership. But there is a third possibility being floated. On Newstalk ZB this morning, Barry Soper said his sources have told him that Judith Collins is still a possible option for leader, despite her saying she won’t enter the contest. “What happens inside that caucus room if say Muller and Nikki Kaye, they put it to the test, put it to the vote, they lose, then [Collins] is nominated by a pre-arranged person in the caucus, then she says ‘okay, if I must, I will’,” Soper said.

That may seem unlikely, but Collins could still have a key role in the vote. The Herald’s political editor Audrey Young has written that while Muller is the likely next National leader, Bridges may retain his post if he secures Collins’ backing. “She does not have enough support to be a contender herself, but she has the satisfaction of knowing that she has enough supporters to influence the outcome.”

Judith Collins. Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images

8.05am: National MPs heading to parliament for leadership vote

National MPs are starting to arrive at parliament ahead of a vote on Simon Bridges’ leadership scheduled for noon today. The vote is thought to be finely poised, but there are signs Bridges will struggle to hold on to his post against a challenge from second-term MP Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye. Politik has a quote from someone in Bridges’ camp, saying they were aware that “defeat was likely today”.

Most of today’s political analysis is also leaning in Muller’s direction. Right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton argues Muller is the only viable choice for National MPs, in a column for the Herald this morning. His argument boils down to the fact that even if Bridges survives, he’ll be charged with leading a weakened and divided caucus to near-certain election catastrophe. Bridges would need to demote many of the party’s most effective MPs, including Muller, Kaye, Chris Bishop, and even deputy Paula Bennett, Hooton writes. “It makes me sad that things have reached this point. Bridges and Kaye have been personal friends of mine for 13 years, and Muller for more than 30.”

At Stuff, political editor Luke Malpass also envisages a tough road ahead for Bridges. Last night’s Colmar-Brunton poll, which showed Labour on 59% support to National’s 29%, will arm Muller with a strong appeal to his colleagues’ self-interest, he writes. “And that could well be what the race comes down to. Not just self-interest of those trying to keep their seats but, if numbers start to peel off of Bridges’ camp, self-interest may also be about serving on a National front bench under new management.”

7.50am: Olympics could be cancelled if not held in 2021

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has told the BBC it’s probable the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be cancelled if they can’t be held next year. “You cannot forever employ 3,000 to 5,000 people in an organising committee,” Bach told BBC Sport. “You cannot have the athletes being in uncertainty.”

The games are due to take place from July 23 to August 8 2021. Bach wouldn’t be drawn on whether a vaccine would need to be discovered before they were staged, but said he didn’t want to hold the event behind closed doors.

7.00am: Yesterday’s key stories

There were no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, for the fourth day in a row, meaning there have now been just two new cases in the past 10 days

National Party MPs descended on Wellington to attend Friday’s urgent caucus meeting to decide on the party membership, with Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller looking to topple the incumbent Simon Bridges

Bridges’ position looked increasingly shaky after a disastrous One News-Colmar Brunton poll showed him as the preferred choice of only 5% of voters. Jacinda Ardern is at 63%.

Bars around New Zealand were allowed to reopen for this first time since the country entered lockdown in March, albeit with strict new health measures in place

The idea of a four-day working week was kicked around after the prime minister floated it as a potential way to stimulate domestic tourism

New Zealand’s new contact tracing app, NZ Covid Tracer, was slammed by National Party health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse as “pointless” as some experts criticised its “significant shortcomings”

There was a new twist in the ongoing media saga involving NZME’s attempts to buy Stuff, with the introduction of a third interested party revealed

Read more in yesterday’s live updates

Keep going!