The Week in Politics: The demolition of Todd Muller

7:49 pm on 25 June 2021

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - Winston Peters gets back in the groove, the government struggles to explain why mental health services have not improved, and Judith Collins takes down Todd Muller.

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This week, National's Todd Muller announced he will not stand for re-election. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The week began with the resurrection of Winston Peters and ended with the demolition of Todd Muller.

Peters is an attack politician and being in government cramped his style. Now he isn't shackled by coalition he's back in the groove as the biggest stirrer in New Zealand politics.

Peters' speech at NZ First's weekend AGM, his first appearance since the party was sent packing in the last election, was vintage Peters. He laid into the media, the Greens, National, the Māori Party, feebate, Ihumātao, the vaccine rollout, KiwiBuild, Auckland light rail, and the He Puapua report.

He was incensed by the increasing use of 'Aotearoa'.

"We do not intend to put the name 'New Zealand' on the endangered species list," he told his followers.

He can further exploit the growing use of te reo in the 2023 election campaign, which he confirmed the party would contest.

What he did not confirm was that he would be its leader, although that's a foregone conclusion. He's saving that for another media hit down the track.

There wouldn't be any point keeping NZ First alive without him, and its members must know that. RNZ reported: "(Shane) Jones confirmed Peters would lead his party into the 2023 election."

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters speaking at the party's AGM on 20 June, 2021.

Winston Peters announced NZ First will put candidates forward at the next election in 2023. Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

The return of the country's most controversial politician generated more publicity and comment than anything else this week, until a traveller from Australia with Covid-19 visited Wellington and the capital was moved into alert level 2.

Peters had achieved his objective.

"From his point of view, the important thing is that we're all talking about him," former party leader Peter Dunne told Newshub.

What of his chances of coming back from the political wilderness for a second time? NZ Herald's Audrey Young, a savvy commentator, said he had cause to feel genuinely confident about the prospects.

"First of all, touch wood, New Zealanders will no longer feel in the midst of an international crisis by 2023, which unquestionably was the biggest factor in Labour being returned as the first majority-led government under MMP," she said.

"The reason for Peters' confidence is that if Labour continues as it has started its second term, there will be no shortage of issues on which he will campaign."

Young said it was a crowded market which Peters would have to share with National and ACT, but Peters and Jones had more freedom than others. Because they were Māori they could exploit issues without being called racist "and not caring if they are".

Stuff published a scathing editorial saying the politics of negativity, nationalism and nostalgia had been Peters' forte since he learned at the feet of the master, former prime minister Robert Muldoon.

"The stereotype is that his politics relies upon a rump of typically old and largely white voters who remember better days and are looking for someone to blame," it said.

The editorial also made the point that he was going into a crowded market for "anti-woke sentiment", especially when it came to whipping up fears of " Māorification" - National and ACT had been beating that drum for months.

"It's like Elvis coming back in his seventies and realising he has to compete with Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift."

It concluded: "There is a political adage that says you never write off Winston Peters. But all adages have expiry dates."

The government's failure to improve mental health services after putting $1.9 billion into it in the 2019 budget reached scandalous proportions, as details emerged showing just five new acute care beds had been created.

In Parliament, National asked Health Minister Andrew Little why only 0.2 percent of $235 million allocated for mental health facilities had been spent. In the ensuing row, Speaker Trevor Mallard ejected National MP Nicola Willis.

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Health Minister Andrew Little has been answering hard questions on the slow pace of improvements to the mental health system. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Stuff reported the number of children having to wait more than two months to see a counsellor had almost doubled in the past three years, despite the huge investment.

National's leader, Judith Collins, told Morning Report she was so angry when she heard about the five beds that she felt like going out and buying some herself.

Little said he was "extraordinarily frustrated" by the pace of change and signalled an independent review.

"This is a budget we did two years ago, with commitments made two years ago," he said.

"I'm still trying to understand it - I'm not expecting facilities to be completed and fully staffed, but we seem to be a long way behind actually getting a shovel in the ground."

Columnist Ben Thomas, writing for Stuff, said the review need not take long. "The culprit is Little's predecessor, David Clark, who wasted valuable years with indecision, inertia and a refusal to take responsibility for the portfolio," he said.

This situation fits perfectly into National's rhetoric that Labour is a government big on promises and short on delivery, so expect to hear a lot more about it.

National's Todd Muller called it quits this week, announcing he wasn't going to stand for re-election. He's the one who ousted Simon Bridges in a caucus coup and then gave up the leadership after 53 days.

Muller cited his health and wanting to spend more time with his family, familiar reasons that MPs give for deciding to go.

There was a lot more to it than that. The Herald's political editor Claire Trevett reported Muller's announcement came after a late-night caucus meeting at which Muller admitted he was one of several unnamed MPs who had criticised returning MP Harete Hipango in an article published by Newsroom.

The following day, Trevett wrote a detailed account of what happened. It went like this:

Muller's conversation with a Newsroom reporter was overheard by one of his fellow MPs, Barbara Kuriger. She dobbed him in to Collins, who confronted Muller.

Muller admitted he was one of the MPs who had spoken to Newsroom. Collins told him to resign or she would move to have him suspended from caucus. Muller refused, and Collins called a 10pm caucus meeting.

Collins delivered the ultimatum - Muller had to resign or caucus would vote to suspend him. One MP described what went on as "brutal".

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National party leader Judith Collins said Todd Muller's resignation shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"Muller tried to hold his ground and stare down Collins - only to be taken down as the pack turned on him," Trevett's report said.

The MPs persuaded Muller to "leave with dignity", rather than be forced out, which would be bad for the party. Muller announced the following day he was not going to stand for re-election.

Trevett said it seemed a very tough penalty for a low-grade offence. Muller had not leaked confidential information, or even made comments critical of the leader.

"Leaks have plagued National for years, and Collins wanted to make an example of someone," she said.

All Collins would say was that Muller's announcement had been in his own hands. "I think it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to people," she said.

The accuracy of Trevett's report hasn't been challenged.

The article which caused the trouble, written by Newsroom political editor Jo Moir, said that during the last term of parliament, when Hipango was the MP for Whanganui, she had been a liability and not a team player.

She is returning as a list MP to replace Nick Smith.

One MP said she "sailed her own waka" and seemed to think the party should be honoured she had agreed to join it.

Several National MPs said she wasn't particularly well liked and didn't have a lot of friends.

Moir referred to multiple caucus sources in her story, but apart from Muller, no one else has been outed.

She also had an interesting piece of information about the circumstances surrounding the timing of Smith's resignation.

He said at the time he was leaving because a report about a Parliamentary Service investigation into a "verbal altercation" he had with one of his staff was about to be published.

"Newsroom understands Smith had fought for months to keep the Parliamentary Service investigation under lock and key because it had gone beyond the 'verbal altercation' incident and was now looking into his treatment of all his staffers over his entire political career," she said.

"It's understood Smith believed the report would be devastating for both him and his career."

There was no media report.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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