New Opposition leader Todd Muller has praised Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as a great communicator - but thinks her Government will fail because she pulls all the weight.
In his maiden speech as National leader, Muller said he is the "first to admit and acknowledge that the Government's handling of COVID-19 was overall impressive... and I think most New Zealanders would feel the same".
But he said he doubts 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" and he said he thinks New Zealanders will see that.
Muller said the Prime Minister as a person is "very impressive, approachable" and "down-to-earth", and said he had met Ardern during the process of negotiating the Zero Carbon Bill, which passed its final reading in Parliament last year.
"I think she's a tremendous communicator but the problem with the Prime Minister and this Government is that when you look behind them, it falls away very quickly," Muller said. "You have two or three people who are heavy lifters in that Cabinet... there are 17 empty chairs."
He said on "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".
National MP Sarah Dowie told Newshub Ardern's popularity is a "veneer" and she seemed confident the new leadership of Muller and his deputy Nikki Kaye will bring New Zealanders' attention back to National.
It comes after National's popularity slipped to 30.6 percent in the latest Newshub-Reid Research Poll against Labour on 56.5 percent. Ardern's popularity skyrocketed to 59.5 percent against Simon Bridges who was on 4.5 percent.
The Prime Minister told Newshub at time the results "speak to the work we've jointly done" and that she "just happens to have had the humble and privileged opportunity to be leading at this time".
National MP and Deputy Speaker Anne Tolley suggested National is polling low because Ardern has dominated the media during the COVID-19 crisis.
"You've had Jacinda on television and radio dominating it for six or seven weeks – it's natural that the people would react to that and she’s done a good job of keeping the country together, so she’s rewarded with that."
Muller said with the election coming up on September 19, the National caucus has one focus: "ensuring that we put in an economic plan for the country".
He acknowledged that he does not have the high profile Ardern has but said he will be making an effort to connect with Kiwis in the coming months.
"You've got to be your authentic self, you've got to talk to the ambitions that we have as a party for this country, and as you do that I believe with authenticity, people will see me, connect with me, and relate to me."
Kaye said Muller is "probably the most decent person I know".
She said he's got "huge integrity and authenticity and I believe that part of his strength is actually that he manages to bring together a diverse range of views".
"I have confidence that he can unite both the conservative people in our caucus but also those people who are liberals. He's got an extraordinary ability to bring people together and people like him."
When asked how he plans to beat Ardern, Muller said it will come down to Kiwis reflecting on "which party has the best policies for them - their family, their community, their job - the opportunity to give them hope".
He said New Zealand is in a "time of crisis that is astounding" and that the "scale of it has still not yet truly descended and distilled in the New Zealand national psyche".
"As it does, people ask the very fair and appropriate questions of their leaders and the political parties - who best understands me? Who best understands my community? Who best can articulate a vision in terms of where New Zealand must go into the future?"
Muller said he has "every confidence" that when he articulates that vision, New Zealanders will "listen to it, hear it, reflect on their own experience, and decide strongly that the National Party recipe for the future is the right one".
Muller was announced as National's new leader after a midday emergency caucus meeting during which all National MPs anonymously voted on the leadership.
Muller and Kaye replace former leader Simon Bridges and former deputy leader Paula Bennett.