Until this week the name Todd Muller was unfamiliar to many. Today, he has stepped up to wrestle the leadership of the National Party from Simon Bridges. So who is he?
Photo: Getty Images
He was asked this exact question at his first media conference as leader this afternoon: “Look – I’m a dad, I’ve got three kids, I’m a Bay of Plenty boy, I’m a Te Puna boy, I come from the kiwifruit rural heartland of New Zealand.
“My first school I was the only Pākehā boy in a Māori convent; I come from the New Zealand communties that basically define this country, and I’ve very very proud to represent my people, and I’m very very honoured to be given this opportunity to lead such a fine team.”
The Bay of Plenty MP’s expertise is a mix of agribusiness management with some of the country’s highest profile companies, and behind the scenes parliamentary experience.
Before becoming an MP in his own right, Muller had a front row seat to the leadership of the country for three years, serving as executive assistant to then-Prime Minister Jim Bolger in his second term between 1994 and 1997.
After his first taste of politics Muller became an industrial relations manager for Zespri from 2001, then a general manager for their corporate and grower services, before taking the helm as chief executive of Apata Ltd, a Bay of Plenty post-harvest kiwifruit and avocado supplier.
Next he worked for Fonterra as local government and regional relations manager, and then as director of cooperative affairs, while also serving as director of the New Zealand Sustainable Business Council.
Muller was elected as a new MP for the Bay of Plenty in 2014, as part of the John Key-led government.
In his maiden speech in Parliament he presented himself as a family man, who represents the values of his community and hard work.
His earliest interest in politics grew from his parents expensive purchase of a 1978 World Book Encyclopedia, which enthralled him with the histories of American presidents.
“I devoured those books… it fired my imagination to such an extent, that I saw myself as a future United States president.”
Photo: VNP / Phil Smith
Closer to home, his grandparents Henry and Eileen Skidmore demonstrated to him the “power of deeds” to transform a community, during their almost 60 years as mayor and mayoress of Te Aroha.
Muller has been a Catholic since he was a small boy.
“Family, faith and community were at the core of their lives. They demonstrated how selfless service not only enriches those who receive it, but for those who give it, enables a life that has distinct meaning,” he said.
“I’ve always wanted to serve my community, and for me the vehicle for that service is the National Party. I believe the National party philosophy speaks to the aspirations of the families of the Bay of Plenty and the values of our country.”
He pledged his focus in Parliament would be on building a society where people are rewarded for hard work, given opportunities for development, treated with respect in their old age, and where tough deterrents against crime provide personal security.
In April, Muller talked of a country where “hard choices” would be among the steps necessary to recover from the Covid-19 hit. And where many urbanites are not aware of the pressures farmers face.
He talked of an agricultural sector “feeling under siege, struggling to see how they could navigate an increasingly fraught regulatory environment,” but that would be key to economic recovery.
“Our capacity to produce diverse food products be it dairy, meat, kiwifruit, wine at scale, with sublime quality assurance gives us a strong platform to build from.”
Muller’s new deputy leader, Nikki Kaye, said he was “probably the most decent person I know”.
She said he has incredible strength and authenticity and an extraordinary ability to pull people together.
Jim Bolger has backed Muller’s bid for the National Party leadership, saying his former colleague’s skills and knowledge – and in particular his agri-business know-how are invaluable.
“[He] worked in my office when I was prime minister, worked with me as a councillor on the university council at Waikato. He’s a businessman of significant experience.
Photo: RNZ/Rebekah Parsons-King
“Going forward the number one issue for New Zealand, in fact the world, is how do we get economies up growing again, employing people and producing goods. That’s really where one has to say Todd’s experience has been before he entered Parliament. He’s been the agricultural, primary industries spokesman now for National.”
Former National Party press secretary Ben Thomas has told RNZ that while Muller is “no Jacinda Ardern”, he may be able to help the party recoup some voter confidence, by representing the party’s traditionally perceived strength as “stronger economic managers”.
RNZ political editor Jane Patterson said Muller has a low public profile, but is “smart and affable”, and has been seen as working hard in his role as National’ agriculture spokesman.
Former National Party MP for Tauranga, Bob Clarkson, said Muller had leadership potential, but was surprised he was stepping to the front spot so soon in his political career.
“There’s not much to talk about Todd. We knew he might be a leader in the future but not this soon. He’s a good guy, a good businessman. I think he’ll do a good job if gets the post.”