Is Todd Muller the Ned Flanders of the National Party? This is how he’s been characterised by political commentator Gordon Campbell, who suggests the change in leadership is, in Simpsons terms, akin to swapping the scary and cruel Monty Burns for Homer Simpson’s compassionate but conservative neighbour.
There’s almost a consensus amongst political commentators that the leadership coup will push National towards the centre of the political spectrum, and away from the more economic rightwing and socially conservative direction of recent years.
A shift towards the centre
According to political commentator Richard Harman, who has written more than any other on the ideological ramifications of the leadership change, “This is a move to the centre by National. It is a move which sees the liberals dominate the party” – see Jamie Ensor’s Surprises in National reshuffle, questions if Bridges is an Abbott or English – political commentator.
Harman argues that, like his closest party supporters, Muller is relatively liberal, despite having voted conservatively in the past: “you will find Todd Muller is more liberal than Simon Bridges, and I’m thinking of issues here like Treaty settlements, climate change, the environment generally, and possibly even some economic issues… Muller positioned himself at the centre, rather than Bridges, who was more right-wing.”On Amy Adams taking up the number three ranking in the National caucus, Harman points out: “She is a liberal, during the abortion law reform debate, she attacked the Christian conservatives in her party, and that was seen as highly significant, so she is yet another liberal part of this party”.
Harman has written that, overall, the change in leadership last week “represents a return by National to its centrist roots” and “At its heart, the Muller team was an echo of the Bolger/Key/English governments with deep roots in the party and by instinct centrists rather than ideologues. Bridges has deep roots in the party too, but he is from the right and seemed to be moving closer to a small right-wing faction within the Caucus” – see: Adams’ return signals what really lay behind Muller’s campaign.
This column explains how Bridges had deliberately shifted National into much more conservative territory, especially in order to try to outflank rival conservative party NZ First, with the hope of destroying its chances of re-election later this year. This meant Bridges “nailed his political colours to the right of his party” and “then he went on the rampage with a hardline law and order anti-gang policy designed to make inroads into the NZ First vote.” But according to Harman, “it led Simon Bridges down some dark alleyways; none more so than the cynical decision in late 2018 to join fringe right groups and oppose the UN Compact on Migration.”
Previously, Harman has also characterised Muller as “a centrist with an aversion to hardline doctrinaire politics” in contrast to Bridges who “comes from the right of the party” – see: How Bridges flushed out Muller.
Leftwing commentator Chris Trotter also paints Muller’s victory as a win for the more moderate and traditional wing of National, who he says have been trying to reclaim the party from a Trumpist-style drift: “Over the course of the 27 months Bridges led the National Opposition, the sense of unease among both party members and supporters regarding its direction of travel was palpable. Moderate conservatives across the country became convinced that the Simon Bridges-Paula Bennett-led National Party was veering further and further to the right” – see: National’s army is on the move.
Trotter thinks the more moderate repositioning under Muller is likely to be electorally successful, drawing back traditional National supporters: “For a great many of them it will also seem as if their party, the party of Keith Holyoake, Jim Bolger, John Key and Bill English, has ‘come home’ to its core values. Over the course of the next 120 days, the chances that tens-of-thousands of National’s erstwhile supporters will follow suit must be regarded as very high.”
On the political right there has been discomfort with Muller’s more moderate views. Economically, he has previously been described by Jordan Williams, director of the rightwing Taxpayer Union, as “wetter than a puddle” – meaning that he’s not austere enough for many on the right.
But David Farrar, who knew Muller from his Young Nat days notes the new leader was known by the nickname “moisty”, because on economic issues he was neither a “wet” nor a “dry”, but a bit of both – see: Todd Muller, the new National leader.
Another National-aligned commentator, Liam Hehir, also sees Muller as sitting in the middle of the party politically: “Muller’s voting record shows him to be mildly but not aggressively conservative. That may reflect that he represents a conservative electorate more than anything else. Nevertheless, it puts him almost bang at the centre of the National Party. He also had the unanimous support of the party’s liberals” – see: #Mullmentum: Key reasons for guarded optimism.
Hehir sees him as being somewhat akin to John Key: “in many ways, what you have is a similar dynamic to the one that brought about the election of John Key. Not that they’re the same person. Muller strikes me as a bit more serious and a lot less goofy than the former reigning champ. But the overall dynamic is the same.”
Muller himself says Bill English is the politician he most admires, and a number of commentators have suggested they share some similarities.
Not all commentators see the change of leadership representing a change of political direction for the party. Writing before the vote on Friday, Stuff political editor Luke Malpass argued that Bridges and Muller were very similar, and ideology wasn’t part of the leadership coup: “Make no mistake: there is no great point of principle at stake here. The party and most of its MPs are not unhappy at the philosophical direction the party has taken under Bridges. Sure, some are temperamentally uncomfortable with some of the attacks on gangs and some of the tougher law and order rhetoric, but nothing outside the normal realms of a broad church party. This is about a lot of the Nats thinking that people have just tuned out” – see: National had better be sure if Simon Bridges is to be axed.
Pragmatism and blandness
Certainly, it seems that Muller himself is extremely non-ideological, and it’s difficult to discern any particularly strong principles that mark him out as distinct. This could result in a more pragmatic but bland way of operating.
Gordon Campbell characterises him as “a middle manager whose key credential for the job seems to be his affable inoffensiveness” – see: On not buying what Todd Muller is selling. He also complains that “Muller has failed the Hooton Test by managing to be almost invisible – without legislative initiatives of his own and devoid of a public profile”. He points out that “Todd Muller has spent twice as long in Parliament as Swarbrick and yet – until last week – no one beyond his immediate family and friends had ever heard of him.”
The most critical and severe evaluation of Muller’s lack of ideology or principles is by libertarian Damien Grant, who eviscerated the leader in a column labelling him an “uninteresting middle manager devoid of vision or the ability to inspire” – see: Todd Muller: The uninteresting middle manager lacking charm and zing.
Grant argues that as well as being “a wooden performer in front of the camera”, Muller has achieved very little in Parliament and holds no strong views at all, but instead just spouts platitudes: “He’s dull. He has nothing interesting to say. And after reading his maiden speech in full the reason for this becomes clear. He doesn’t appear to hold any strong political views. He declared his belief in the family, individual enterprise, education and constant self-improvement. These are the platitudinal talking points of someone whose understanding of political theory comes reading book covers and not the pages within.”
A more positive spin on this is put by former prime minister Jim Bolger, who says Muller shows “a commitment to ‘what works’ over ideology” – see Thomas Coughlan and Henry Cooke’s Todd Muller, the man who could be prime minister. Here’s what Bolger said: “He’s a bit like me. What works is important. I think the world has seen enough of ideologues who believe if you repeat and chant the same slogans everything will work”.
A socially conservative leader
The new-look National Party is being portrayed as more socially liberal than the Bridges-Bennett one, especially due to the central involvement of MPs Nikki Kaye, Amy Adams, Chris Bishop, and Nicola Willis.
Yet, the new leader himself has a very conservative voting record. For the details of this, the Family First lobby group have drawn up a comparison of how the new leaders compare to the old – see: Simon Bridges v Todd Muller – voting record on family & moral issues.
Muller is somewhat defensive about how his Catholicism has shaped his voting record. He makes it clear that he doesn’t wish to campaign on these conservative views. He says: “But one thing you’ll never, ever, ever hear from me – and you would have seen that if you looked back in the Parliament over that debate – this is a personally held view, but I didn’t stand up and speak to convince anybody else in that Parliament they should change their view because it’s a privately held view and I respect all views” – see Dan Satherley’s Where Todd Muller stands on cannabis, same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia.
Finally, it seems that even the new National Party leader’s preferred taste in music is middle of the road: U2 and Dire Straits – see Dan Satherley’s New National Party leader Todd Muller’s favourite things.