Ardern hits back at Muller's claims of Government incompetence, defends Clark, Twyford

Jacinda Ardern says she will defend her ministers "strongly" and "stand proudly" with her team following accusations by new Opposition leader, Todd Muller, that her Cabinet is full of "17 empty chairs".

In his maiden speech as National's new leader on Friday, Muller praised Ardern's "tremendous" communication but criticised her team, claiming the Government relies on "two or three heavy lifters" while 17 others are simply "empty chairs".

"The problem with the Prime Minister and this Government is that when you look behind them, it falls away very quickly," he said. 

"Every measure of accountability they have set for themselves they have failed and we will point out their deficiencies and what we will do to deliver an alternative."

Addressing the comments on The AM Show on Monday, Ardern hit back at host Ryan Bridge and his pointed questions regarding the competency of her Cabinet, including disgraced Health Minister Dr David Clark - who breached lockdown protocol twice - and Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford, whose rocky incumbency as Housing Minister came to an end after false promises regarding the controversial Kiwibuild scheme lost him the portfolio. 

"I am going to defend my team. Strongly," Ardern stated. "I do have faith in our team. People don't have to guess with us - they see us, they know us. Opposition will have to build up their own record on which people can judge them... I stand very proudly with my team."

As the election date nears, Ardern said it's normal for accusations "to fly" and run rampant, dismissing the allegations of incompetence as "pure politics".  

When Bridge queried the aptitude of Employment Minister Willie Jackson, Ardern noted the lowest rate of unemployment in a decade  - and the highest rates of Maori employment - have been achieved under the current Government and during his incumbency. She also hit back at Bridge's interviewing technique as "throwing out names".

"Jackson has been the Minister of Employment through that period where we have seen some of those lowest levels of unemployment. That's something we stand very proudly on... we are a Government that has not only got us through the biggest health crisis in 100 years, but has demonstrated we have the economic response to get us through as well.

"You're chucking out names as if somehow they have not achieved [anything]."

During his speech on Friday, Muller expressed doubt that the Government has the capacity to design an economic recovery package, when all of its performance measures since coming to office "have been a failure". He said he thinks New Zealanders will see that.  

Ardern hit back that based on the Government's previous successes, New Zealanders "don't have to guess" when it comes to Cabinet's competency - noting the positive forecasts on the back of Budget 2020. Both the Treasury and the Reserve Bank predict the country will follow a 'V-shaped' recovery following the fallout of the COVID-19 health crisis, with the sharp rise in unemployment - caused by the nationwide four-week lockdown in response to the outbreak - declining within the next two years.

"People have roughly two years of us as a Government to reflect on before the global pandemic and I'm very proud of that - in that time, we've managed to get unemployment down to its lowest levels in a decade. We managed to get debt down to some of the lowest levels relative to other developed countries, which puts us in a very good position coming into COVID," Ardern explained.

"We managed to run budget surpluses... people already know, we already have that record. When you look at our budget, the forecasts off the back of that have us getting back into gross within potentially a year and unemployment down again within two. We already have demonstrated that our plan will make a difference to people, to their lives and their jobs."

Former National leader Simon Bridges and deputy Paula Bennett were overthrown on Friday following a vote by the party's caucus, which elected Muller and Nikki Kaye respectively. The challenge to Bridges' leadership was revealed earlier in May, although Muller - who began his parliamentary career as an MP for the Bay of Plenty in 2014 - initially denied running for the role.

Ardern noted it was "pleasing" that Muller acknowledged he wouldn't be "oppositional for the sake of it" at a time where cooperation and constructive inter-party relations are imperative.