Paula Bennett reflects on leadership coup, Todd Muller's 'incredibly tough' treatment of her

Former National Party deputy leader Paula Bennett says Todd Muller's treatment of her following last May's coup was "incredibly tough" and she knew right away that she would be leaving politics in the aftermath.

Featuring in RNZ's Matangireia series, Bennett described the days after Muller and Nikki Kaye rolled Simon Bridges and herself for the leadership of the National Party last year. 

That coup came after a devastating Newshub-Reid Research poll for National, which dropped 12.7 points to 30.6 percent support. In the Preferred Prime Minister standings, Bridges had just 4.5 percent support, compared to Jacinda Ardern's 59.5 percent.

Bennett, who left Parliament ahead of the 2020 election and now works in real estate, told RNZ that as COVID-19 struck, the drum was "beating against Simon". She was frustrated her caucus picked up on that. 

"Oh yeah, they needed to grow some and, quite frankly, see a plan. Too many of them had had it too easy... Their roles had been quite easy and at some level they needed to take a breath and just sort of work their way through it.

"There were forces that were bigger. At some level, I just thought Simon and I are just going to be constantly undermined from within and caucus will decide its own destiny."

Asked what she made of the new leadership duo, Bennett said: "I didn't. I just stepped away". 

"I was hurt. I felt that I'd given not just 15 years, but 20 years to this party," she said.

According to Bennett, Muller called her two days later.

"At that point, he said to me 'I'm going to rank you really poorly, I don't see a role for you.' That was incredibly tough really," she said. 

"I think it was later in that day where I made it very clear that actually, I deserved a degree of respect. He was showing more respect to Simon than he was to me, and I'd done nothing. It's not like I did anything that caused me to lose that role. I was a consequence of the caucus wanting a change from Simon."

Bennett dropped from the number two spot to 14 in the party's rankings and she was also dismissed as National's campaign chairperson, a role she told RNZ she had given a lot of time to.

"But it didn't matter, I'd already decided I was leaving, anyway. I was done," Bennett said.

Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges.
Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Less than two months after the leadership coup, Muller stood down from the National Party leadership role, citing health reasons. He was replaced by Judith Collins, while Gerry Brownlee took on the deputy role. 

NZ Herald reports Muller as saying he hasn't watched the Matangireia interview and didn't intend to. He wants to "keep my peace" and stay focused on his work.

In the aftermath of the coup and Bennett announcing she was retiring, Kaye told MagicTalk that it wasn't anything personal.

"The leadership change occurs, and you do what you think is right, but at the end of the day we all know that we enter the building to do the best that we can and it's time-limited."

Kaye said Bennett made an "extraordinary contribution to New Zealand" and anticipated the former deputy Prime Minister would do well in the private sector. 

Muller praised Bennett at the time.

"I want to thank Paula for everything she's done, not only for the National Party but for the country over the past 15 years," he said. "Paula has been a stalwart of the National Party for a long time, serving as Deputy Prime Minister and deputy leader."