Todd Muller defends Dr Shane Reti's ranking, role as National's lack of Māori representation faces more scrutiny

Todd Muller has defended Dr Shane Reti's ranking in the National Party as the Opposition leader continues to face pointed questions regarding the lack of Māori representation on the front bench. 

Speaking to The Hui on Saturday, Muller, who assumed office in May after overthrowing former leader Simon Bridges, was probed by host Mihingarangi Forbes as to why associate spokesperson for health Dr Reti has been relegated to #17 - and missed out on the health portfolio - despite his extensive qualifications.

It follows a string of controversies last month as Muller came under fire for the noticeable lack of diversity on the party's front bench, with no Māori MPs present in National's recently reshuffled top 12. Former deputy leader Paula Bennett, who was rolled by Nikki Kaye, is the highest-ranking Māori MP at #13. Kaye later identified MP Paul Goldsmith as "obviously" Māori - a claim he debunked. 

The Opposition leader has staunchly backed his selections despite the lack of Māori representation, arguing he picked his shadow Cabinet line-up based on merit.

Yet after rattling off Dr Reti's extensive background in health - including Bachelor's in human biology, medicine and surgery; a diploma in obstetrics; a Harkness Fellowship and a period at Harvard University - Forbes questioned the authenticity of Muller's argument that his front bench has been selected "on merit". Comparatively, deputy shadow leader of the House and spokesperson for health Michael Woodhouse - who sits at #7 - has a degree in commerce and a Masters in health administration. 

"[Reti] is a remarkable man and I pulled him up from in the 30s. He is incredibly remarkable," Muller said, arguing that Dr Reti maintains the roles of associate spokesperson for health - which he assumed in November 2017 - and spokesperson for tertiary education, skills and employment. Reti was designated the role of spokesperson for Treaty of Waitangi negotiations during Muller's reshuffle in May.  

When Forbes suggested that Dr Reti may have been a more suitable selection for the health portfolio considering the systemic health inequities between Pakeha and Māori, Muller reiterated that Reti was promoted into his shadow Cabinet last month.

"He's absolutely exceptional. I have promoted him to my shadow Cabinet. I think he is going to be a massive part of the next National Government from September."

Muller also reiterated his support for his team, noting that he "accepts" the feedback he has received on his new-look National.

"We've got 55 fantastic MPs. We've got six superb Māori MPs and we have two candidates, such as Dale Stephens from Christchurch Central, Tania Tapsell in East Coast - I'm very proud of the diversity and capacity of the National Party team," he said.

"I obviously got some feedback about where people were put, I accept that. But what people missed actually was that I gave workplace relations to Dan Bidois - he's number 44, that's a Cabinet position... people are obsessed with numbers. My approach was quite different."

Later in the interview, Muller also rejected Forbes' suggestion that he and his team had failed to prioritise Māori media in his month of leadership, despite granting numerous interviews with non-Māori outlets. 

"I think this is an unusual sort of alignment of questions. I just totally reject that," he said to Forbes.

"We have been working hard to find time to be here with you and I am here - so this view that now that I'm here, I should be criticised because I haven't been here earlier - I think is... I just reject it."