Chris Trotter assesses National leader Todd Muller's weekend speech suggesting he has told Jacinda Ardern: 'I’ll see your kindness and raise you unconditional Christian love'

Chris Trotter assesses National leader Todd Muller's weekend speech suggesting he has told Jacinda Ardern: 'I’ll see your kindness and raise you unconditional Christian love'
Todd Muller by Ross Payne.

By Chris Trotter*

When the right sneered that Todd Muller’s favourite band must be “Wet Wet Wet”, I didn’t think they were serious. But, in a well-crafted, mission-defining speech to a home-town Te Puna audience on Sunday (14/6/20) Muller not only made it clear that “Wet Wet Wet” is his favourite band, but that their massive hit, “Love Is All Around” is his favourite song. Labour’s leader may be promising the electorate kindness, but only National’s is offering it unconditional Christian love.

Oh, and just the right amount of spine-chilling fear.

That the onrushing tidal waves of redundancies and lay-offs is allowed to set the scene for, but not dominate, Muller’s speech, is a measure of its quality. In a way that so many of Labour’s ministers show far too few signs of appreciating, Muller and his team “get” the gut-clenching fear and anxiety inspired by both the anticipation and experience of joblessness. As the unemployment numbers rise to levels not seen in 90 years, the voters will want to know three things: Will the Government help me? Can the Government help me? How will the Government help me?

Muller’s speech answers all three of these questions. First, by acknowledging up front that the Jacinda Ardern-led Government will certainly want to help New Zealanders. But then, this election is not going to be about a government that won’t help, it’s going to be about a government that can’t help. A government that has already demonstrated, in the most damning fashion, that it doesn’t know how to help. By contrast, the alternative government Muller is offering not only can and will help, but it also knows how to do it.

Clearly, Muller’s focus groups have made it crystal clear that Jacinda simply cannot be attacked. New Zealanders (or, at least, two-thirds of them) have lifted her up beyond the status of a mere party leader; beyond even the lustre of prime minister; to that exalted realm where “saviours of the nation” dwell. Perhaps only one person, Mickey Savage, has inhabited this blessed kingdom before her, and he, too, was a Labour leader. One does not win office by assailing saints.

Those same National Party focus-groups have, however, thrown up something equally as clear as Jacinda’s unassailable popularity: her government’s almost unbelievable incapacity to translate the Prime Minister’s promises of “kindness” and “transformation” into tangible policy achievements on the ground. This incapacity, Labour’s Achilles’ Heel, is acknowledged (often with bursts of laughter) the moment anyone pronounces the single word: “KiwiBuild”. Small wonder, then, that Muller used the word no less than nine times in his Te Puna speech.

So, the voters are far from convinced that those around Jacinda are up to the job of producing meaningful and effective deeds out of her kind words. But, to transform their doubt into support for National, Muller has to do one more thing: he has to convince them that his party is no longer the flinty-faced defender of market forces which New Zealanders have encountered during past economic crises. After all, the last time the country was beset by an unemployment rate in double-figures, National’s response was Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets”. Labour may not be the most competent of economic managers, but at least they draw the line at socio-economic sadism!

Hence the strains of Wet Wet Wet’s “Love Is All Around” that were playing in the back of my mind as I read Muller’s speech. Hardly surprising, since Muller held nothing back in his assessment of both Labour’s and National’s policy-management during the 1980s and 90s:

“I joined the National Party, rather than the Labour Party, when I became active in politics in 1988. No one can deny that is partly because of my background. And, by then, National had come to accept the new open economy that I support. But I also chose National because I did not agree with the speed and indifference with which Labour had gone about the economic reforms.

“I was in for a bit of a shock when my own party took over in 1990 and moved even faster, allowing unemployment to reach 11% in 1992 – the worst since the Great Depression, but a record that will probably be broken over the next year. I think both Labour and National could have done those economic reforms more gently, more caringly and with a greater sense of love for our fellow Kiwis.

“If we look across the Tasman to our sibling rivals in Australia, it pains me to say that Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard managed the reform process better than David Lange, or my friend and mentor Jim Bolger. I believe the speed and sequencing of the economic reforms did terrible harm to the institutions of our communities, and to far too many of our families.”

Now it’s pretty easy to predict how National’s only coalition partner, Act, will respond to this sort of heresy. A more pertinent question, perhaps, is how Paul Goldsmith will react. Bluntly, there is very little to choose between Grant Robertson’s repudiation of the implementation of Rogernomics in his Budget Speech, and Muller’s repudiation of the implementation of Ruthanasia at Te Puna. That signal phrase, “a greater sense of love”, represents a mighty step away from the punitive rhetoric all-too-often directed at “their fellow Kiwis” by Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett.

But, if enough of the voters who migrated to Labour during the Covid-19 Lockdown are to be lured back to National, restoring its electoral competitiveness, then Muller had no choice but to distance himself from his predecessors. In the poker game that is electoral politics, Muller has just told Jacinda: “I’ll see your kindness and raise you unconditional Christian love.”

Will the “punters out in punterland” (as Don Brash liked to call the electorate) buy Muller’s bid to convince them that, all this time, National has been a sheep in wolf’s clothing? National’s strategists are betting that they will – if only because their rising fear of unemployment and financial ruin will make them desperate to accept Muller as a safer (and equally kind) pair of hands than Jacinda and her non-performing Cabinet.

There is, of course, a great deal that could go wrong with the strategy. Not the least of which is the rather strong possibility that National’s more conservative MPs and party members will draw the line at Wet Wet Wet. Can Muller persuade colleagues like Chris Penk and Michael Woodhouse to set aside the vitriol for the next 100 days and feel the love instead? Certainly, the strategy won’t work if people keep coming out with suggestions that New Zealanders have fallen victim to the “Stockholm Syndrome” – presumably by falling in love with the Prime Minister who took them hostage!

Nor Will Muller succeed if Jacinda and her colleagues actually manage to construct an economic recovery programme that looks like it just might work. All the love in the world will not be enough to save National from a sudden display of competence from the Coalition Government. Even so, it’s a tough call as to which is the more likely proposition: National as the party of unconditional Christian love? Or, Labour as the party of effective economic management?

Mind you, looking around the world, we could be facing worse choices.


*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com. He writes a fortnightly column for interest.co.nz.

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76 Comments

Good piece. Chris has been on form in the last few weeks.

Great article Chris, and I think you have nailed it. I must say though it is unusual to hear a Party leader acknowledge past failings of their party. Let's hope there is real learning from this acknowledgement? And so we wait with baited breath for the substance in their respective recovery plans. I hope it is more than opening the borders, and opening the borders much, much less of a priority.

Mike Hosking; a died in the wool National Party devotee, probably summed it up best this morning with "If this is what we have to choose from, then perhaps Winston is the best alternative after all!" (or words to that effect)

dyed in the wool (ur welcome)

Wishful thinking

you're

lol - must go and have a listen to it. Like the world economy, he's in near terminal shock.

I’m thinking of voting for Cindy. One to make sure she has to fix her mess and two to ensure this brand of National dies a quick death.

Why offer any policy at all.Wait until the current bunch implode(they always do) and then in you go.

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That would be National you're talking of?
Labour just has to govern and watch National self-destruct.

John Key was over rewarded for the quip, against Goff, “show me the money.” Could not Mr Muller simply show us the policy. Mealy mouthed words always add up to nothing. NZ is in crisis mode. NZrs are understandably looking for some certainty. Because Labour are the incumbent the electorate has some idea of what they are & where they are at. So Mr Muller, as Jenee advised some weeks back, get some substance on the table, show us all the pathway the might lead us to vote for National.

Not sure how that is working when at last look, weren't Labor nearly 60%?

Sudden display of competence! What a laugh. And yet that is what we have just seen in abundance. NZ clear of CV19 and able to position early to the continuation of the swing against unfettered globalism. I know its all meant with kind benevolence and one sucess does not a war win but at last we have finally seen competence when it really mattered.
How to keep the ball rolling? What is needed, once the policy direction has been established is operational expertise. Just like that demonstrated by Dr Bloomfield. If you want to build houses you first need land not builders. Not just land but services as well. There are plenty of people who have operational expertise. But you wont find them flirting around on LinkedIn. In reality operation expertise does not often com packages with communications talent. Roger Sutton was a great communicator but as an engineer he knew he should deffer to his specialists.

The potential game changer is fear. Community anxiety about the future is palpable and growing as the wage subsidy program winds down. Labour incompetence on business has not been a significant issue until now, a pattern of chronic failure to deliver overlooked in the glow of adolescent love for the adored one. That's all about to change.

Universal Job Guarantee at a minimum living wage. Dignity through recognising the right to employment. Ordinary Kiwi battlers want to work. The centre ground likes the idea of a decent day's pay for a decent day's labour. What hardworking National voter could dislike that? Rather than leaving people on the dole and all that entails create a national employment scheme, centrally funded and locallly administered. Allow the government to be the employer of last resort. Implement the automatic stabiliser that will end the callous use of the NAIRU. National is supposedly the party of hard work. So if the private sector is not hiring and nursing its wounds the government steps in - not with the dole (something for nothing) but with a decent transitional job. Preserve human capital. This socialist would vote National if it adopted such a policy. Cause to be honest I can't tell much of a difference between the two in other ways. Labour has been National-Lite for decades.

'Allow the government to be the employer of last resort' .... already is - it's called the job seeker support benefit. Having the state run inefficient make work programs would just add another layer of cost with negligible physical benefits. The thought of an incompetent like Twyford designing and implementing such a scheme is terrifying.

And what is the real cost of long term unemployement? A job at a living wage doing socially useful work is very different to a dole payment. The former preserves human capital, the latter lets it rot.

Up until C19 it wasn't the system 'letting' people rot on the job seeker support benefit, it was in most cases lifestyle choice at a time of labour shortage when employers had to import large numbers of people to fill those positions because beneficiaries wouldn't. This C19 driven unemployment is however different and you can see that in the quality and motivation of job applicants. But the proposition that government should create enterprise for the purpose of making jobs flies in the face of the dismal record of such schemes compared to private enterprise.

Shouldn't the supposed 'labour shortage' have led to wages rising to attract workers? Yet, a lot of the job opportunities were remote and paying near minimum wage. What gives?

Aren't markets meant to adjust to this supply and demand imbalance? Why did they fail?

The flood of low skilled immigration meant employers had no need to increase wages or invest capital to lift productivity. That state of affairs is set to continue as we experience a surplus of labour for the next few years.

It's not that beneficiaries won't work. The problem is the way the jobseeker/unemployment benefit is abated if you do take on casual/contract work. It therefore doesn't pay to work a week here or a week there. The COVID benefit of $490/week is not abated. In other words, you can do as much additional casual work as you like, and your partners income isn't taken into account either (until they earn more than $2,000/week).

If we simply apply the same non-abatement rules to the jobseeker benefit as we do to the COVID unemployment benefit - a HUGE portion of the jobseeker (ie., pre-COVID) unemployed would benefit immensely.

The party that proposes to treat all unemployed (whether pre-COVID or post-COVID unemployed) the same, with a livable fixed sum, no abatement, benefit level will get my vote.

I agree with the implied message of the higher benefit for those losing work through C19 that many of those previously on the job seeker support benefit were there from a lifestyle choice. But I share your unease about a two tier welfare system for the same event. It feels unnecessarily divisive, other ways to target assistance to this group could have been found.

Have you not noticed the P addicts and their gang suppliers? Every city, every town has them now. Shame the police haven't been doing their socially useful bit to help fight them. In Invercargill it is common knowledge that the Mongrel Mob paid twice as much as the police per firearm and got quite a stash of weaponry. Now these people aren't interested in socially useful work, and aren't capable of doing productive work either, because of their physical and mental constraints. The best we can hope for is that the police will one day try to stop these people, and the rest of us pay taxes to support the police and the addicts as required.

The relief work of the 1930s produced the Rangitata Diversion Race, one of the most rewarding public work schemes ever implemented in NZ. Trouble is, if you looked at such a scheme in our modern times, what took the labour of thousands of men could now be done with a few diggers and motor scrapers.

Strange isn’t it. Drove a bit of a meander through that area recently. Great network of rural roads servicing the primary production of yore. Built with picks and shovels and the old steam rollers and graders. Now the roads are scarcely even maintained. A few diggers, motor scrapers and such like, obviously cannot be spared. Just as well the application by the powers that be today, wasn’t around back then. There wouldn’t have been any roads in the first place.

I drove from Christchurch to Balclutha yesterday. Most of the smaller Canterbury "rivers" are dry riverbeds. Diversions and dairying spring to mind. I flew over once in a small low plane in the early 90s and the whole place was grey, without a stock unit in sight. That was normal every few years until it was decided by the CRC, I think, that the farmers' wellbeing was more important than the rivers' wellbeing.

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There's still a lot of attack politics coming out of National. People are still attacking Siouxsie Wiles for providing scientific advice which contrary to Simon Bridges conspiracy theory committee. I am seeing the same format/playbook/personal attacks used to attack the cannabis referendum on social media.

Talking Christian love while attacking from the shadows looks more like a crusade, or that National's new leader appears to be a liar.

Gosh, a Simon Bridges conspiracy theory committee and a lying Muller attacking under cover of a christian crusade. That's quite a lot to digest. I happen to also privately believe Todd is actually a lizard person.

Conspiracies are important to conservative parties as they pick up fringe votes in addition to pensioners.

I'm not here for the narrative prose; information per word is reaching all-time lows.

It's like porn, reading it is a choice.

Great game plan. Be nice, your deputy does and says the opposite of what you want, and you get 60% in the polls. Muller is only copying a good idea.

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The problem this man faces is that he hasn’t distanced himself from his predecessors, rather he stated on the weekend that he took advice from Key, English and Joyce. Most sensible people realize how destructive that government were and don’t want to revert back to an economy based on mass immigration, housing speculation and environmental destruction.

Yeah, that was a mis-step from my perspective, but probably a truism from his.

Yeah telling points, add in the overwhelming bias to the corporate world and associated cronies all in together high life in the ivory tower. The people had had enough of it then and still do, and that’s why the arrival of an almost novice politician was able to knock them off their perch. If they had been a great and popular government, that wouldn’t have happened would it. Seems to be Mr Muller has a hankering for those halcyon days. Hopelessly and haplessly naive in that case.

Yes but the core supporters still believe that (to their own self harm in the long term - but they don't have the situational awareness to realise that yet).

Everyone knows (apart from national) that they need to appeal to more than their core support group to win the election

No government under MMP has got across the line sufficiently to have power on its own. Not Clark at her popular peak, and ditto for Key. National have no viable coalition partner. National are a lot weaker than under the leadership of Key and then English. Not much going for National really is there then.

The right, plus most of the centre gives us National governments. The left, plus most of the centre, gives us Labour governments. The hardcase, most entertaining government we have at present is because Bill English refused to have rightish Winston in his government, but Jacinda was willing to compromise, and compromise, and compromise ad nauseam.

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I understand the grief labour get regarding kiwibuild but at least they acknowledged there was a problem and set out produced policy to try and rectify it. Can that be said for the previous national government? Hell no, Key even stated in a speech prior to being elected that NZ faced a housing crisis that only he and national could solve and yet as soon as he got in power refused to acknowledge there ever was a problem and did their best to fuel the speculation.

Labour used specifically formulated Kiwibuild policy to lie and get into power. John Key lied about acknowledging the problem and get in power.

If foreign buying had continued unabated back when the govt changed and house prices had continued on their stratospheric climb, Kiwibuild would have worked well, and that is the time that it was born in.
The Chinese govt put paid to much of that when they put measures in place to stop them hemorrhaging money overseas, and it worked. It is a pity the govt did not see that when it happened but seriously, I only spotted when it became clear that KB was no longer going to work, and it was only then that particular penny dropped.

And yet, for all their inadequacies, they still did more to reform property investment and affordable housing than Labour did, despite the policy they used as an attack platform over and over again being a total fantasy, and them getting a free ride on it from the media. Try applying the same level of scrutiny you are to National to Labour and see where that takes you.

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Christian love is rarely unconditional, particularly when it comes to areas contrary to conservative social beliefs such as abortion and gay marriage....

Am i the only one somewhat concerned about the tinkling of conservative christian beliefs becoming increasing present in National party communications? Religion driving political policy? No thanks.

It's a lefty media beat up. Any NZ pollie advancing religiously inspired policies would be quickly consigned to the bin.

That may be true; but can a leader who is openly quite religious be trusted to be impartial even if they don't advance religiously inspired policies?
Isn't it kind of like voting for a KKK member who isn't advancing racial hatred inspired policies?
I certainly think the best aspect of the NZ political system is the lack of religion...

Are you sure Jacinda (and many of her supporters) aren't religious? "The Progressive Movement" looks a lot like a religion to me!

Yeah, right

Any NZ politician (of any part of the political spectrum) that advocates for religious based policies should be consigned to the bin.

"Lefty media beat up" - don't forget your tinfoil hat.

I second that

Do a bit of research regarding Christianity. Hate the sin, love the sinner. Forgive always etc etc. Don't forget that without exception, the humans involved pervert the message.

I know plenty about religion thanks and my views on religion are not tied strictly to Christianity. You are just reinforcing my point, political policy is "the message" as you put it and what will be perverted. I have no problem with politicians participating in organised religion if that is what "floats their boat", however when the religion starts to impact how the country is run then we have a serious problem... Unless you think that Iran is the type of country that we should model our own on.

Perhaps Muller really believes what he said, but he is surrounded by people whose first and last instinct to any problem is tax cuts. So, if he can lead national to a very respectable loss-I think winning this election is beyond him-then he can hold them at bay, at least for a while.
If however, national lose heavily, Muller is toast and the real National party will quickly re-emerge.Tax cuts, bash beneficiaries, talk tough on crime etc.

the Labs are incompetent for sure. And empathy relies on actually doing stuff for folk that works, not just good communication. So Labour ain't empathetic for sure.
But the Nats are on the same old path. Cosy up to China. Keep up immigration and aim for a low income economy. Why would you do that !
Hard to vote. Winston is barge pole material. And while I am an environment voter, the Green Party are not going that way really (watermelon alert)
So it's going to have to be ACT probably. At least David Seymour thinks for himself, even it it's not always what I agree with.

It’s a pity the voters in his electorate can’t think for themselves

More people need to follow Laila Harre's famous injunction to vote with the heart rather than the head.

Out of interest, do you live in Epsom?

Ha. No but sometimes I see more.

Of course not, I don’t vote according to how national want me to vote.

Didn't Muller goof up by saying 'When I joined the Labour party' recently ? May be he will soon, aye.

He did. And they were also flying the Tino Rangatiratanga flag upside down in the background. You can't make this stuff up.

But the strangest thing of all was Todd Muller delivering a speech in front of a Tino Rangatiratanga flag. A condescending choice in itself, given the almost exclusively white audience, it’s made even more awkward by the fact the flag was hung upside down.
Even a landlubber like me knows that in the maritime world, that’s the recognised sign of extreme distress.

Could this afternoon’s speech really be a hostage video?

Photo here;

https://thestandard.org.nz/todds-odd-distress-signal/

Delivered in Te Puna.
Bet a large proportion of the local audience had never turned of SH2 and traveled down Te Puna road, having spent most of their travels bypassing it to get to Bethlehem and it's slightly more exclusive education institute.
Love Te Puna, grew there, and loved playing in the black n blue colours. But inclusive and equality and other such words don't sit well there in my mind, and I doubt most of those Nats will give that end of town another thought.

Unconditional Christian love? Show me the money....

This election should be about NZ Inc & its society. Its communities. It's families. It's regions. Its future in the sense of who do we want to be, who would we like to be friends with & how would we like our lives to unfold in the short term (next 3 years) medium (6 years) & long term (further than that). What is our ideal human mix? What are the best industries to focus on for our future? Do we still want to be a democracy or do we want to be told what to do, when to do it & for how long? Do we still want to be responsible for ourselves, our families, our neighbourhoods & our businesses? What does the welfare state look like in 6 years time? Do we want better leadership structures in our regions & in our nation? I could go on....
Most of the above points are beyond the grasp of politicians, or at least, beyond what we the people will trust them with any rate. And this is the point. That our political system is essentially dysfunctional, on all sides politically, & particularly underneath the beehive, in those long dark corridors of the state apparatus, where tens of thousands of overpaid, underworked people shuffle paper (e-paper) from one desk to another in an ever increasing round-a-bout of poor decision-making & even worse implementation, costing the country more than 30% of its total GDP (in other words a small fortune to you & me) so our borders can go both unprotected &, as the kiwifruit growers found out to their cost, with no responsibility accepted in our own courts of law. The system is stuffed folks, I'm sorry, but it is.

Maybe, but it's the least stuffed out of all the alternatives.

I might vote Greens this election. I might not agree with everything they say, but at the very least they are future-focused which is isn't really the case of either Labour, or more especially National. Both the main parties are can-kickers.

I see Genter waited 2.7 years to have an opinion on Auckland's Light Rail as Associate Transport Minister - and it was to dump on the government agency, not to explain what part she'd played in trying to hurry it up. Doesn't strike me as the most proactive way to run a project - pretend it doesn't exist until the next campaign window rolls around.

Yeah, I'm not really convinced at all in her...

I think Green policy is still the original plan from the election to run surface level light rail on Dominion Road and start ASAP (probably without a PPP). What can she realistically do if Twyford doesn't want to honour the promises both parties were elected on? The Greens don't exactly have much bargaining power, I doubt they are going to waste it on one light rail project (that Winston was always going to prevent anyway).

If you believe scuttlebutt, they were prepared to use it to change LGWM. And don't get me started on Winston - Labour should have know the only way they were getting into power was with him. If they couldn't factor that in then they're exactly as competent as I expect them to be.

I would prefer it if all political discussions were free from religious references.

Amen to that

This is a strange position given how much the National party love the godless Chinese communists.

Ever heard of "tough love"? Apparently neither Todd nor Grant have. Both are assuming we can manage the economy without making 'hard calls' which spill over into peoples lives. Perhaps whoever wins the election will have a different view in 12 months time? Just remember Chris, It's easy to bag Ruth Richardson and Roger Douglas from a far - but were it not for their making those 'hard calls' we would be in a much worse position today.

Yeah, stuff people (other than the wealthy, of course, who can weather this sort of thing). Hard call, my rear end, more like self interested call.

What makes National such great "economic managers"?

1975 they scrapped the compulsory savings scheme. Everyone knows that was a disaster.
And 1990s saw Mother of All Budgets.

Absolute social vandalism.