New National leadership team Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye, at their post-coup press conference (Photo: Getty Images)
New National leadership team Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye, at their post-coup press conference (Photo: Getty Images)

The BulletinMay 25, 2020

The Bulletin: After winning brutal coup, Muller’s National looks ahead

New National leadership team Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye, at their post-coup press conference (Photo: Getty Images)
New National leadership team Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye, at their post-coup press conference (Photo: Getty Images)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Muller settles into National leadership after brutal coup, government issues concern over Hong Kong, and parties reveal election candidates.

National has rolled the dice on changing their leader several months out from an election. Our political editor Justin Giovannetti arrived in Wellington just in time to see it all go down, and writes that “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.” Muller will be joined by Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye as deputy leader, after a coup against Simon Bridges that took about a week to execute, and perhaps quite a bit longer to plan.

We’re yet to see much detail on the rest of his team, along with whether there will be any actual policy changes to mark the transition. However, there have been a few early moves. Newshub reports Muller will take the small business portfolio from Todd McClay, who incidentally was a close ally of Bridges. Muller says he will be “an advocate in Wellington” for that part of the economy, and that such a move was consistent with how other leaders had picked an area of focus – for example, John Key picked tourism, and Jacinda Ardern picked child poverty reduction. Muller has also said he would be pushing for more information on how quickly New Zealand’s borders can be reopened, indicating a potential area of clash with the government.

At this point, you may still be asking yourself – who is Todd Muller again? had a crack at summing up his life and career to date in a mostly serious cheat sheet, but the point should be made – Muller steps into the top job as a largely unknown figure to the wider public. I’m not trying to be cruel here, but one advantage he will have here is that he is not Simon Bridges, who polling showed had become a widely disliked figure, in particular over the course of the Covid crisis. Muller says that he has learnt from that, and doesn’t plan to reflexively oppose the government – the implication being, at least not in the way that his predecessor did.

How did the coup itself come together? The events themselves are covered in detail in several excellent examples of parliamentary journalism. Stuff’s top political pair have outlined how despite the plans for the challenge being rushed by Bridges, the team around Muller was always a step ahead when it mattered. And the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Claire Trevett has detailed some of the more sordid elements of rolling a leader – such as unnamed figures within the party leaking to the media about what was about to go down, and allegations of MPs promising to vote one way, and then going the other way. And Politik’s Richard Harman has analysed the coup as the party’s centrists taking back control from the right, and includes some hints that the wider party hierarchy of non-MPs was comfortable with it taking place.

Those insider-y type matters may not make a great deal of difference to the face National presents to the public for the election. But it’s fairly clear that the week revealed divisions in the party, which may take some time to heal. The widely quoted but unconfirmed margin of victory was just one vote – even allowing for that to be not true, it still indicates that it was a deeply bruising contest. One big question for the party will be over the future of Bridges himself – as yet there has been no indication of what job he might take on under Muller, or if he will instead head straight to the backbenches. Announcements will be made on this today, and the NZ Herald’s Claire Trevett reports this morning that a request from Bridges for the foreign affairs portfolio has been rebuffed.

Much of the weekend’s coverage of Muller centred on whether or not he should have a Donald Trump ‘Make America Great Again’ hat on display in his office. That whole brouhaha was sparked by a photo taken by me, and the context is explained in this profile from last year – and as an aside, thank you to those news organisations who asked for permission before using it. In short – he says he just collects American political paraphernalia, while others have argued that MAGA hats are symbols of white supremacy and an emerging fascistic movement being built around the American president. Without getting into whether it’s an appropriate or foolish item to have on show, I’d just say that Muller didn’t really strike me as a big Trump guy, either in his defining political beliefs or how he expressed them. It might be best to wait and see how he actually conducts himself as National’s leader before making the association.

Finally, there’s a weird side-plot in the potential staffing of Muller’s new team. Lobbyist and political commentator Matthew Hooton has reportedly been a member of Team Muller and apparently may soon be formally working for him – and according to Business Desk (paywalled) “most journalists know that Hooton has been working on Muller’s behalf to help achieve this outcome.” For clarity, I don’t really agree with the assessment that it was widely known about. Many organisations (including the NZ Herald, Newstalk ZB and Radio NZ) used Hooton heavily over the course of last week as the coup was gathering steam, and Hooton repeatedly pounded out the message that Bridges needed to go. Since then, he has stepped away from commentary, according to Mediawatch. Those media organisations probably need to take a hard look at whether they allowed themselves to be cynically used by a highly skilled political operator. But as we saw when The Spinoff reported on the Labour government using a lobbyist as their chief of staff, many in the inner circle of politics will just see this as part of the game.

A survey for you: We’ve had a number of readers get in touch over recent days with thoughts on their experience at cafes, restaurants and bars under level two rules, particularly as far as contact tracing is concerned. We’re keen to know what you’ve encountered. Click here and let us know. It’ll just take a few seconds.

The NZ government has issued a statement of concern over an attempt by China to impose new restrictions on political freedom in Hong Kong. Stuff reports the statement from foreign minister Winston Peters raises the possibility that the proposed new law could end the “one country, two systems” principle. Other Five Eyes countries have also protested the move from Beijing. For more on what a psychological blow this proposed law will be for those who are campaigning for a democratic Hong Kong, I’d encourage you to read this lament by Wilfred Chan in US publication The Nation. The alternative view is put by Yonden Lhatoo in the South China Morning Post, who says “blatant interference” from US-led countries has left Beijing with no choice, and that the current fears are being sensationalised.

Two important candidate lists for the 2020 election have been revealed. The Act Party has revealed the 49 people who have been selected as candidates, with the final list to be revealed later. And the Green Party has put out the final version of their list for the election, with Chlöe Swarbrick in particular being bumped right up to 3rd place. Toby Manhire has analysed the Green list through various lenses.

A couple of criticisms worth reading on the current rush to build infrastructure to boost the economy: Writing on Newsroom, Forest and Bird’s Kevin Hague says that a lack of transparency around resource management changes risks pushing the environment out of the picture. And the NZ Herald’s Kirsty Johnston reports on criticisms that the recovery will favour men over women – while women are more likely to have lost their jobs, much of the recovery spending has been targeted at male dominated industries.

Waste from an old landfill has been seeping into the Rangitīkei River for more than a year, reports Samuel Kilmester for Stuff. Heavy rain in 2018 altered the course of the river, and it cut into the Putorino landfill to the south of Hunterville. The total cost of fixing could be a mere $2 million, though work will not begin immediately, because a report has found that most of the waste isn’t plastic.

Congratulations as always to the winners of the Voyager Media Awards, and in fact all those who were nominated. A full list of the winners can be found here, and I’d like to make a special mention of cartoonist of the year Toby Morris, whose art of late has provided defining images of issues and events. I would like to make a more sad shout out to the fine folks who used to make Metro magazine – along with a whole lot of other former Bauer titles and staffers it was a deserving winner on the night, sharing the magazine of the year award with NZ Geographic.

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A mannequin of Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII, is cleaned at Sudeley Castle. (Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images)

Right now on The Spinoff: Professor Robert Patman writes about the geopolitical changes that will emerge from Covid-19, and where New Zealand can fit in. Liam Hehir writes a lament for Simon Bridges, and how his set of political skills were badly mismatched with the moment he found himself in. Danyl McLauchlan reviews the latest “masterpiece” from Hilary Mantel. George Driver walks the streets of Queenstown as a tentative recovery starts getting underway. Felix Geiringer gives a view of a very different set of Covid-19 challenges being faced by South Africa. Richard Smith writes about disaster resilience, and how preparation is worth far more than any reaction after the fact. Mark Amery looks at the emerging video artworks being created since lockdown began. Karyn Henger writes about the challenge of trying to fix a broken friendship.

And finally, this piece is what we in the industry would call a ‘great get’ – when a writer is perfectly matched to the subject matter in front of them. Margaret Hayward, former parliamentary secretary to and biographer of PM Norman Kirk, has given her assessments on the similarities and differences between the late former Labour leader, and the tenure of Jacinda Ardern.

For a feature today, a profile of an organisation that we see very little of, but matters a lot. The NZ Herald’s (paywalled) David Fisher has looked at the office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, which will now be held by Brendan Horsley. Basically, these people keep an eye on the country’s spies, and so are a critically important line of oversight over a group of people who don’t always come out looking that good when their actions are revealed, especially under the strict watch of predecessor Cheryl Gwyn. Here’s an excerpt:

How Horsley does that work will be the focus of intense fascination at Pipitea House, where our spies are based. From a public perspective, the work of the enhanced IGIS office under Gwyn has been revelatory.

Today, New Zealanders know more than they have ever known about how its spy agencies operate and the purpose they are intended to serve. We can also have greater faith than ever our intelligence agencies are operating in the way they are meant to – legally and proportionately. This confidence is a function of good oversight and a good oversight structure.

A large part of that is the way Gwyn went about her work, but also the remit she had to carry out that work through laws passed in 2013 and 2017. The changes followed bungling around entrepreneur-fugitive Kim Dotcom here and the heightened demand internationally for accountability after the disclosures of whistleblower Edward Snowden.

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