'Absolute trainwreck': MPs react to Todd Muller's first week as National leader

Todd Muller's first week as leader of the National Party was an "absolute trainwreck", according to Labour MP Willie Jackson.

"Out of 10, you'd have to say it was like a two out of 10," he told The AM Show on Friday. 

"What a trainwreck, what an absolute trainwreck. From the start I think he underestimated how tough the job is."

Even veteran National MP Judith Collins, currently ranked fourth in the party's caucus, said it "wasn't as good but parts were really good", giving her new boss a seven out of 10, but admitted she hadn't seen some of the interviews with media.

"I'm backing Todd now. He's a very competent person."

Muller - a relative unknown - took control of the party a week ago, he and deputy Nikki Kaye toppling Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett, who were struggling in the polls. 

But his first week has been dominated by headlines around his ownership of a 'Make America Great Again' hat, his all-white front bench, leaks from disgruntled MPs and an apparent lack of new ideas and plans to help the country recover from the economic impact of COVID-19.

The chaos was encapsulated in Newshub political editor Tova O'Brien's report on Tuesday's edition of Newshub Live at 6, which media commentator Hayden O'Donnell at The Spinoff described as "one of the most exhilarating, confronting political stories to air on national television". 

"The worst week the National Party has experienced probably for decades," said Jackson, noting that even reliably pro-National media voices like The AM Show sportsreader Mark Richardson and NZME's Mike Hosking were horrified by Muller's performance. Richardson on Wednesday said Muller has "failed every time he's stood in front of the media", while Hosking called Muller's first day in Parliament "little short of a disaster".

"Their biggest supporter over here is in mourning, Mr Richardson... Mark Richardson and Mike Hosking, it's been their nightmare week. I heard that Mark is considering putting a membership proposal forward to the Labour Party."

Collins and Jackson.
Collins and Jackson. Photo credit: The AM Show

Collins said she thought Muller "was great" in Parliament. She made headlines herself this week after responding to criticism of National's minority-free front bench, saying she was "sick of being demonised" for her ethnicity. 

Jackson said Muller's call not to name any Māori on his front bench was "shocking" and "a throwback to the Don Brash days". 

"What if they'd put 12 men up, and not one woman? Judith would have gone off her rocker."

"They've only got two women on their front bench of 12," Collins responded. "What have we got? About half, isn't it?"

National actually has only four women MPs in its top 12, including spots two, three and four - Kaye, Amy Adams, Collins and Louise Upton. Labour also has just four - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Megan Woods, Carmel Sepuloni and Nanaia Mahuta. 

Todd Muller.
Todd Muller. Photo credit: Getty

National's former leadership duo, Bridges and Bennett, were both Māori. The AM Show host Ryan Bridge accused Jackson of saying Bridges and Bennett were "not Māori enough", which Jackson denied.

"That's not true. I said they were useless Māoris, get it right. They're Māori, but they're not advocating for Māori things."

Jackson is correct - the "not Maori enough" line was Bennett's characterisation of what Jackson said in Parliament back in May last year. Jackson actually said National's only "good" Māori MPs were Nuk Korako (who has since retired), Shane Reti and Harete Hipango. 

"That's about it - the rest are useless," he told Parliament during general debate

Collins said her party's rankings may change after the election, and the party's Māori MPs may find themselves promoted, "just not at my expense". 

"The National Party is a party that's built on merit, that's part of our principles. Merit isn't just in people's many qualities - the leader has to put together a team that he can basically bank on going into the next election. What goes into the election is not necessarily the same rankings... after the election."