Bennett’s last bow puts Muller in the shade

Todd Muller's attempt to set out his broad approach to the economic recovery faced a setback as the news of Paula Bennett's retirement eclipsed his headlines, Sam Sachdeva writes

After a rocky first few weeks in the job, new National leader Todd Muller seems to be finding his feet.

The Government’s botched border measures have helped with that, along with a relatively favourable poll last week - the first to be publicly released since he usurped Simon Bridges in late May.

But speaking to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce on Monday afternoon, Muller appeared comfortable enough to indulge in a favourite pastime of politicians - having a dig at the media.

“As you can see, I brought my friends - I don’t think I brought them, they sort of invited themselves, but here they are,” he said of the assembled journalists, who funnily enough had indeed been invited to attend by Muller’s office the week before.

In any case, the National leader’s speech was overshadowed by another uninvited guest - the elephant in the room that was the news of Paula Bennett’s departure from politics, announced just hours before.

To some extent, the writing was on the wall for Bennett, who lost her deputy leadership and campaign chair roles after Muller took over and fell from second spot to 13th in National’s caucus rankings.

And it could have been worse: the NZ Herald’s Claire Trevett reported Muller had initially told Bennett she would hold neither a portfolio nor a caucus ranking under his fledgling leadership, only for a change of heart (or loss of nerve).

It was little surprise then that Muller repeatedly ducked the question of whether he had tried to change her mind, instead offering up platitudes about her “tremendous” contribution to New Zealand.

“She leaves at a time of her choosing, leaves at a time of, I’m sure, huge personal satisfaction in terms of what she’s achieved for this country.”

Paula Bennett will leave Parliament with a somewhat complex political legacy. Photo: Suzanne McFadden.

Only the second female deputy prime minister in New Zealand’s political history (behind Helen Clark), and the first Māori woman to fill the role, Bennett’s rise to the second-highest role in the Beehive was the culmination of a nine-year ministerial career covering 14 different portfolios.

She identified her time as Social Development Minister as a career highlight, noting her role in helping vulnerable Kiwis through the wake of the GFC.

But to Bennett’s critics, the welfare reforms she oversaw were not a strength but a weakness, with benefit cuts and hardened criteria presented as evidence that while she had benefited from government assistance as a solo mother, she was all too happy to pull up the ladder behind her.

Bennett’s news came just two days after East Coast MP Anne Tolley announced her own retirement, having represented National in Parliament for almost two decades.

While Tolley’s decision did not capture quite as many headlines, her departure is still significant.

She held the education, social development, and police ministries at various points during the last National government, and just six months ago had outlined her desire to become Speaker had her party won this year’s election under Bridges’ leadership.

Another reshuffle?

But plans - and leaders - change, and Bridges’ ouster has left both Bennett and Tolley making new plans: the latter spoke of putting her husband and family first, while Bennett quipped that her desire to maintain a strong marriage was the very reason why she would not be spending more time at home.

As a result, Muller faced some predictably awkward questions about divisions within National, but there is a silver lining in the chance to rejig his lineup.

While the new rankings are barely a month old, the lack of Māori representation within the senior ranks remains an open sore - one exacerbated by the departure of Bennett who was the caucus’s highest-ranked Māori MP.

But pressed on the issue, Muller hinted at a reshuffle more significant than simply moving those MPs below her up one spot - perhaps opening the door for the likes of 46th-ranked Dan Bidois (of Ngāti Maniapoto descent), who Muller showered in praise during his initial defence of the party’s paleness.

There is of course another Māori MP to whom Muller could turn - the man whose job he took.

It remains unclear whether Bridges has any interest in taking up a prominent role within his successor’s regime; he showered both Tolley and Bennett in praise after their retirements came to light, saying of his former deputy: “I could not have asked for a single thing more.”

Attack without alternatives

In his speech to the Wellington business crowd, Muller seemed at risk of replicating Bridges’ tendency to attack the Government for its plans without offering a clear alternative in return.

He seemed strongest when speaking in generalities, talking about the need for governments to provide direction and surety in times of crisis and the importance of fiscal discipline even as various industries called out for assistance.

But the line that created the biggest news was Muller's suggestion that it was “untenable” for New Zealand to keep its borders closed to other nations unless they reached a similar Covid-free status: "The New Zealand strategy cannot be that we stay locked up until everybody else gets to zero or we have a vaccine. This country would be on its knees if that was the case."

But he seemed unable or unwilling to articulate which countries should be part of a bubble with New Zealand, or how a quarantine or testing regime would work for foreign visitors, saying instead that the Government “needs to be clear with New Zealand around what the criteria should look like”.

It is true that the Government has greater access to information and advisers, but given the current aversion among many Kiwis to having even New Zealand citizens returning across the border, the National leader’s urgency does not seem to match the national mood.

Muller did suggest that his party would have more to say about its own vision soon, and he has only been in the job a month - but with the election drawing ever nearer, he will have to hope he can spend less time talking about personnel and more about policy.

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