It would be fair to say that Todd Muller has had a shocking start to his tenure as Leader of the Opposition. A combination of gaffes – especially from his deputy Nikki Kaye – a startling lack of a plan to tackle the popularity surge that Labour is enjoying, and a completely tone deaf interpretation of what New Zealand thinks about the economic crisis should have alarm bells ringing loud and clear in the National Party.
It started the day Mr Muller toppled his predecessor Simon Bridges to take over leadership of the National Party and thereby Leader of the Opposition. Sitting on a shelf in his office was a Make America Great Again cap. When asked about it Mr Muller said that he had purchased it during a trip there in the 2016 election campaign. The criticism was immediate, warning that the cap is linked to a President widely viewed as xenophobic (at that point the riots had not started), bigoted and promoting a dangerous form of nationalism. Mr Muller took it down after a barrage of criticism.
One might have expected him to get straight down to business reforming the National Party and coming up with a suite of policies to distinguish himself from Mr Bridges. Other than a promise that he would be Minister for small businesses, we have heard barely a squeak out of Mr Muller.
But we have heard plenty from his Deputy Nikki Kaye. Ms Kaye who served as Minister of Civil Defence, and held other Ministerial warrants during the Government of former Prime Ministers John Key and Bill English, has made a rash of misjudgements which must have the grass roots of the National Party covering their eyes and ears. Barely into the job, she pulled an absolute blinder when Newshub reporter Tova O’Brien asked about the lack of diversity on National’s front bench – all white, nearly all middle aged and largely men. Her response was to suggest that Finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith has Maori heritage, which was news to him.
But the worst that has come from Ms Kaye was a defence of the lack of diversity in the front bench at a time when race relations in New Zealand have been brought to the fore by the riots in the United States. She said that “National had a moral obligation not to lose the election, because New Zealand need a National Government”, and somehow that precluded having any Members of Parliament of Maori, Indian, Pasifika or Asian descent on its front row.
I note though that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spent just seven weeks as Leader of the Opposition before the election in 2017. However her rise was not the result of a caucus revolt, but her predecessor Andrew Little realising that if he stayed on as leader Labour would have an election catastrophe to rival 2014. In the first 24 hours, Labour received over $250,000 in donations. Within a couple of days Labour had recalled its election campaign material and replaced it. Ms Ardern’s personal warm and “relentless positivity” campaign was a welcome burst of optimism in the dreary New Zealand winter. Mr Muller by contrast has had none of that and his confidence when out and about in public has done nothing to excite people.
The 2020 election campaign has not started yet in New Zealand, but the next 12 weeks are going to be an extremely busy time for National as they seek to chase down the most popular Prime Minister my generation has known. The road to the summit of Mt Jacinda is one much more difficult than Mr Muller and Ms Kay are giving it credit for. But if Mr Muller wants to be Prime Minister he has no choice but to go down that road. And to do that, Mr Muller and Ms Kay are going to need to be a heck of a lot better prepared than they or the party they lead currently are.