National Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller had planned to return to Parliament next week despite having lost favour with some of the most important members of his party, including leader Judith Collins.
But he has no regrets from what has been a tumultuous past 16 months.
In fact, he was looking forward to once again walking the halls of the Beehive until Covid-19’s Delta outbreak scuttled such plans.
For the first time since his resignation, Muller opened up to the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend about a series of awkward or unfortunate incidents which has thrown the stability of his career into question by political pundits.
From his Tauranga home, he sits next to wife Michelle with coffee cup in hand.
It’s a strange deja vu moment where he, and Michelle, did virtually the exact same in August last year to reveal a mental breakdown unravelled his aspirations and ability to be Leader of the Opposition.
Muller spent 53 days as National Party leader, having spearheaded a coup against former leader and Tauranga MP Simon Bridges.
Muller’s breakdown forced him out of the role, throwing the party into turmoil just months before the general election. He was later demoted under Collins’ leadership from party rank eight to 19.
In June, Muller was told to resign or face suspension from caucus after Collins learned he was one of several unnamed MPs quoted in a Newsroom article critical of fellow MP Harete Hipango.
Following a late-night meeting of the party, Muller resigned, saying he would not run again in the 2023 elections, citing family and health reasons.
Political commentary at the time suggested Collins considered forcing him out but would have had to have used the waka jumping legislation – a law National is strongly opposed to.
Muller since took an extra two weeks’ leave on top of the five already organised to help him care for Michelle after back surgery. The move sparked more speculation from political pundits whether he would return to Parliament at all.
For Muller, much of this is simply “white noise and nonsense”.
Seated in a comfortable armchair with dog Maisy coming in for a pat, Muller confesses it would have been easy to throw the towel in and leave politics earlier than planned “but I care deeply about this community and what I do, I’m not going anywhere for a while”.
Muller planned to return to the Beehive next week, depending on the Covid-19 outbreak, having helped Michelle recover from an unexpected second surgery.
He rubbishes the suggestion his absence from the National Party conference earlier this month was because his presence was potentially not welcome.
“Obviously I’ve seen some of those reports… I asked to have an extra two weeks to assist Michelle. Plus, the Bay had 10 Bay National Party stalwarts fly the flag in my absence.”
Looking back, Muller says there is little he would change.
“I don’t have regrets actually. You’ve got to live your life as it unfolds in front of you,” he says.
“Of course I’m disappointed it unfolded as it did. I had a pretty acute mental health experience that I went through and the impact that it had on Michelle and the family was really hard and I regret that but I don’t regret what I did. The opportunity presented itself; I thought it was the right thing to do for the party.”
Muller admits the manner in how he ousted Bridges as leader was unfortunate.
“If you have your time again you do things differently. But what is the value to yourself, to your family and to your community constantly looking through the entrails of the judgements you made a year or so ago and deciding what might have worked?
“Really, the healthier thing to do is to be focused on the best you can be today and where you can bring the best of yourself for the next two years in this job.
“… Bitterness and regret are corrosive. You can spend a whole lot of time wallowing in what worked, what didn’t, but actually, you just have to swing your bat. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
It was on a neighbourhood street during last year’s election when Muller bumped into Bridges for the first time since his departure.
“I was walking Maisy. He was fixing a hoarding and we just said ‘gidday’ and then chatted for 10 minutes.”
Muller insists there is no ill-will between the two despite the coup, which also resulted in the resignation of former deputy leader Paula Bennett.
“I rate him. Contrary to perhaps public opinion, the two of us get on well. We are professional.”
Muller says politics can be “brutal” and there will be different views but ultimately “you move on”.
“That’s the personalities we are, and that’s what the city expects of us. They elected Simon as Tauranga MP and me as Bay of Plenty MP. We’re cheek by jowl, there’s almost not an issue that doesn’t affect Tauranga that doesn’t affect the Bay of Plenty and vice versa.
“He has, I think, a joy in life that you can see. And I don’t see him being consumed by what happened last year.”
Asked what confidence he has in now-leader Collins, Muller is diplomatic.
“It’s a tough job. She’s giving it her all. I wish her well in it.”
While grateful for Collins’ previous support in dealing with his health and family, Muller confirms the Hipango incident has driven a frosty wedge between the two.
“I bear her no ill will. It’s clear the relationship between the two of us has broken down but that happens. I’m sure people can understand. They can see it, it’s pointless pretending otherwise but I have every confidence I can do my job with the professionalism and integrity as local MP.
“I think I have a pretty strong record.”
Muller feels confident National will win the next election because: “There is a remarkable sense that the tide is turning. You can feel it.”
Muller is also firm in the view the drama of the past 16 months, including the rift with Collins, won’t affect things.
“I’m comfortable with what I’ve done with one exception – clearly my comments with respect to Harete were a mistake and I’ve apologised for that. Others will look back and hold a view … all I can do is be the best I can be.
“All that other white noise and nonsense is precisely that: white noise and nonsense. It’s a complete distraction from the job I have in front of me, which is to represent the people of the Bay of Plenty.”
Muller rattles off a string of local issues he plans to fight for in his return to Parliament.
The second phase of the Takitimu Northern Link, after-hours medical care in Pāpāmoa, and ultra-fast internet for the Kaimais are just some.
But fast-tracking the $45 million promised to the Bay of Plenty District Health Board in last year for better mental health services is his highest priority.
Tauranga was “on its knees” in need yet the city’s mental health needs appeared to be largely ignored by the Government, he said.
“I have a strong view this city is still treated by Wellington as if it’s a seaside town filled with affluent people. This isn’t a sleepy little town any more, it’s a city of 160,000 people growing rapidly …”
Muller’s personal mental health journey has unwittingly created a connection with others who open up to him about their challenges. He has been humbled and overwhelmed at the sheer scale of how many people confide in him, he says.
“I can see, more than I have before, the service for people and their families – who are right now crying out for help – are completely inadequate.
“My voice, to the greatest extent possible, will be for those people.”
Seated by his side Michelle speaks next, saying her husband’s breakdown and the commentary around his career since showed “there’s still a long way to go in New Zealand around mental health and how it can make people sick”.
“If Todd had had a heart attack or developed cancer, the conversation would be different,” she said.
“When he had his breakdown, the easiest thing for us would’ve been to walk away but Todd is so passionate about the community … clearly the Bay of Plenty community still believe in him because he was re-elected, the community thinks he’s doing a good job.”
That re-election will be Muller’s last – a fact that is a little daunting, he says.
Muller has no idea what’s next for him after politics.
“I wouldn’t know where my CV is if I fell over it.”
It’s the first time since Muller can remember he hasn’t had a political plan ahead of him. Such were his aspirations to become an MP, it became his pick-up line to Michelle the first time they met, he says.
“I now have to think what now do I want to do? What gives me purpose beyond politics? Where can I make a difference for community, family, for my own intellectual stimulation? All of that stuff.”
Muller’s mental health journey may have become the catalyst for his departure from politics but it has also created the beginning of something else.
“I believe you are the sum of your lived experience. So I have every sense that my profound personal experience now, with some of the challenges around mental health, will be something that I will stay connected with for the rest of my life. What form that service may take, I have no idea.”
Muller remains tight-lipped on who he expects, or prefers, to be his successor claiming it’s up to the party, not him.
He says he’s looking forward to becoming “a fascinated observer” after what has been a stellar political rise, and unexpected and unfortunate exit.
“There’s no benefit in spending your time regretfully looking over your shoulder,” he said.
“It is what it is. I have thoroughly enjoyed my job to date and I have a lot to do for this community in the next couple of years. Let the pundits be the pundits. I’ve got a job to do which is be the best I can be as the local MP.”
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