Outgoing Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller appears at peace with himself. He arrives at NZME’s Tauranga office in jeans and a collared shirt tucked in under a navy sweater. He’s meeting his mother Trish Muller for lunch afterwards — she has always been his No 1 fan. But first, he sits down with senior reporter Kiri Gillespie to reflect on the incredible highs and notorious lows of nine years in politics, and figuring out who he is when that ends.
For the first time in a decade, Todd Muller will be able to celebrate his daughter Amy’s birthday with her.
“I missed nine in a row. Nine in a row. That’s a lot.”
The outgoing Bay of Plenty MP, who this evening gives his valedictory speech as part of his departure from Parliament, admits the job he dreamed of as a boy and held for nine years is a “selfish” one where family is concerned.
“You put your community and portfolio and wider country first and if you can, you catch up with your families on the weekend, if you’re lucky.”
The former National Party leader acknowledges, however, it is a life he chose and there is “little public appetite for politicians waxing on about the challenges of the job”.
The 54-year-old describes his political career as a “rollercoaster”.
He was elected Bay of Plenty MP in 2014, taking over from Tony Ryall. He won the National Party leadership in a coup in 2020 but stepped down after 53 days after experiencing a stunningly public breakdown.
His career as an MP nearly ended under his successor Judith Collins, but he reversed his decision to resign after she was replaced by Christopher Luxon, who brought Muller back into the fold with a No 12 ranking.
In March, however, Muller announced he would not seek re-election. He simply did not have “enough fire in the belly” to continue.
“There’s no denying it has been an extraordinary rollercoaster but I’ve loved every minute of it,” Muller tells the Bay of Plenty Times ahead of his valedictory speech, which he has been refining for three months.
“There are some parts that were obviously very painful but in terms of the experience — what a remarkable nine years.”
“Nine years ago ... none of us would have ever predicted quite this rollercoaster but the cool thing with rollercoasters is you certainly feel the air in your face. When you’re on a rollercoaster you know you’re alive.”
He is quick to assert he is not living life defined by regret.
There are, however, learnings.
The manner in which he spearheaded a coup for the party leadership against Tauranga MP Simon Bridges is one.
“Coups are always very messy and untidy. That one particularly was, and you know, I think my personal reflection looking back on it is Simon, in particular, deserved a more courteous face-to-face series of conversations around where we were heading,” Muller says.
“I think I was a little too caught up in my ego and what I thought I could be doing, certainly in the context of leadership, and perhaps less conscious — certainly less aware — of other people’s challenges and struggles. That’s been a big change for me.”
Muller says before the breakdown there was a slight sense of detachment from people seeking his assistance as MP “because it’s their issue and you’re trying to help them”.
“For me, falling over like I did, it made me think because of how hard that experience was — brutally hard — I had, I think, a greater empathy towards people where things might not have gone as well as they hoped for in their life.”
Asked about what’s next, Muller says he is looking at a portfolio of jobs and contributions locally and potentially nationally.
“I see areas where I’d like to contribute and if I can, I will, and do a handful of those as opposed to 100 hours a week as a minister.”
Muller explains his decision to leave came after he and wife Michelle looked at the scale of issues Cabinet ministers were likely to grapple with this year if National wins the October election, which Muller believes will happen.
The idea of another three years with an immense and stressful workload outweighed the positives — bringing new schools and roads to the region and helping locals navigate government services. Time to go.
“Once I made that decision, that was the rubicon.”
The self-confessed politics geek says he is spending time finding out who he is outside of that realm now.
He says he’s more of a watcher of kids’ basketball and theatre and catching up with his eldest in Christchurch at university than he was previously.
“Above all, I’m a much better husband and dog walker and am chewing the fat with Michelle more than I was. I’m having time just being me, as a husband, a dad. I’m loving it.”
There are Amy’s birthdays to look forward to, and more basketball games as son Bradley’s team heads to nationals.
Muller says he is also focusing on rebuilding himself and his resilience.
“Really, the only thing you can focus on is yourself and today and doing the best you can, right?
“The more you spend your time reflecting on past actions and decisions through a regretful lens you sort of drag yourself down.”
He says he walks regularly, listening to history podcasts.
“I love to walk. I adore it. I just love just being a bit normal actually. It’s sitting with me very well.
“I think it’s part of why I’m stepping down is because I have got myself in a much better place now.”
Muller says his mental health recovery since that savage breakdown has been an ongoing battle, but one he has found peace with.
“I was, and I am, stunned by the sheer number of people that connected by Messenger and in the street and just thanked me for being so public — and quietly, often, reflected some of their own challenges. I found that very humbling.
“I’m talking hundreds and hundreds of people.”
Muller says the interactions were confronting at first because they dredged up so much he wanted to move on from, but they have become a “huge lift in my ongoing recovery”.
“It’s been an ongoing journey. I hate that word but it’s the best word because at times it is a wrestle and at times it is a journey. A journey implies one foot in front of the other and forward movement but sometimes it’s a wrestle,” Muller says.
“The value of people coming up and sharing their story is massively, hugely supportive because you feel a connection with fellow humans that you’ve been in dark places but you’re still here and you’re still moving forward and that’s powerful.”
He says he has accepted he will be “always be known as the guy that was the leader of the National Party for 53 days and had a mental breakdown”.
“But despite that, it has had a positive impact. Clearly on myself but on other people by virtue of how that all unfolded,” he says.
“You’d never put your hand up for that particular rollercoaster but now you’ve been on it, you can see it has made a difference, which is extraordinary.
“It’s a work in progress but there’s a peace now as opposed to regret. That’s how this has distilled and that’s a pretty nice way to end a political career because I suspect it’s not as common to finish a political career with peace as opposed to regret but, you know, I didn’t see that coming.”
Where to get help
Lifeline: (09) 522 2999 Auckland, 0800 543 354 (rest of NZ)
The Low Down: thelowdown.co.nz or free text 5626 and deal with depression.
National Depression Initiative: 0800 111 757, depression.org.nz
What’s Up: For 5-18-year-olds, 0800 942 8787.