We sat down and pretty much the first thing Nikki Kaye said was, they were going to make some big Auckland announcements soon so they were sorry, but they couldn't tell me much today.
You mean, I said, this fine list of questions I've got here, you're not going to answer any of them?
"We'll do our best. But, you know." And she unwound a big beaming smile.
It's not the perfect way to start an interview. But there we were, out to lunch on a sunny Saturday on Ponsonby Rd, at her suggestion, I might add. The two new National Party leaders, Todd Muller and Kaye, and me, sitting down to dumplings and duck salad at the Blue Breeze Inn, ready to shoot the blue breeze.
Turned out they were ready to say quite a lot, although it didn't always go well.
We talked about the post-Covid rebuild and Kaye said, "What I would say is you can trust the public. If you look at business owners, some of them know they will be all right and some of them know, deep down, that they won't. And there's a lot in the middle. So we need clarity. It's important to know that we have to Build Back Better."
That sounded good. Or did it? What did it mean? Who knows how to provide clarity right now? Build back better: how?
• Premium - Covid 19 coronavirus: Simon Wilson on National and Act's Budget plans
• Premium - Simon Wilson: Why National is our biggest climate change threat
• Premium - Simon Wilson: The big thing we've learned about Todd Muller
• Premium - Covid 19 coronavirus: Simon Wilson's pandemic diary: Please Mr Bridges, that's enough
To be fair, most politicians do this. Including Muller, who chimed in with some of his own everything-and-nothing political noises, like: "We have to be clear in the choices we make."
When Kaye speaks, she leans in as if to tell you secrets from the inner sanctum, although what she tells you is not a secret. Her favourite phrase is, "As you and I both know . . . " It means, I think, that the knowledge she has is superior, and you know it too, so you're supposed to agree.
Simon Wilson: The big thing we've learned about Todd Muller
Simon Wilson: Is now a good time for real change, Jacinda?
Muller is a little different. In public speeches he declaims in a clear and measured tone but, one on one, he speaks quietly, with an inside voice that would be good for reading to the kids before bed or having a quiet word with a mate behind the cowshed. He makes you do the leaning in.
I'VE DONE this with Kaye before. Back when she and Jacinda Ardern were both keen-as-mustard backbenchers, I took them to dinner in another restaurant on Ponsonby Rd. For about 10,000 hours they talked at me, each determined to prove she was more knowledgeable and more caring than the other.
Oh my goodness they were earnest. I thought, if I ever do this again we'll go to a karaoke bar.
But somehow, here I was, having a meal with two quiet, serious politicians keen for me to know how much they knew and how deeply committed they were, and no prospect of a song in sight.
They were dressed to impress. He wore a dark suit, white shirt and tie, with an enamel feather brooch in his lapel; she wore a green dress over black leather pants and a black jacket, also with the feather brooch.
Alas, they had not dressed to impress me. Muller had come straight from a TV interview. The brooch, a pin in the style of a huia feather, is a symbol of remembrance used by the police. We were meeting one day after the shooting of Constable Matthew Hunt.
We talked about the climate crisis and I asked Muller if he thought we would have fewer cows in this country in 10 years and he said he couldn't answer that because technology will change agriculture in ways we don't yet know.
It seemed fair enough, in its way. He talked about ryegrasses and sequestering carbon and moisture retention, and he wondered if milk would be better. It was all fair enough. But it doesn't mean you can't have a view on whether we should stop converting land to dairy.
Then he said: "But you cannot back away from the central idea, which is that you can't have farming without environmental limits."
Yes, true, absolutely. But hang on. Is there anyone who disagrees? I asked him. He agreed probably not.
BACK ON the post-Covid, Muller said we "can't keep on with the short-term subsidies leading nowhere" and "the recovery has to be business-led".
I was trying to work out what that meant – withdraw support and let the market sort out who was going to survive, or give business more support, and if so, how? – when Kaye jumped in. "I would say it's about the scale of our responsibility. If we don't deal well with this, history will look at us very critically."
Yes but what did that mean?
Muller said: "We have to invest in enabling infrastructure and we have systemic social challenges."
Wouldn't the Government say it's already doing that?
Yes, it would, agreed Muller. Only not well enough.
Nikki Kaye did a lot of the talking. She doesn't finish Muller's sentences so much as add chunks of her own thoughts to the back of his.
She got in trouble doing this in their first week as party leaders, interrupting him to announce frontbencher Paul Goldsmith was Māori, when he isn't. Over lunch, she didn't volunteer anything so controversial.
Muller said, "I was always clear I wanted Nikki to have a senior role in Auckland." Then he said, "And Judith Collins."
I looked at Nikki Kaye and she flashed her beaming smile.
I SAID , it's Auckland, so let's talk about transport. They both said we needed a "balanced" approach and then the discussion went all over the place.
Kaye explained that, in her view, the debate about the relative importance of public transport and private motor vehicles was "ideological on both sides".
"We want to move past that in a balanced, non-ideological way."
I suggested that when politicians talk about funding transport in a "balanced" way it usually means favouring cars. That's because, unless public transport is well-enough funded to seem the better option in commuters' eyes, they'll keep driving.
She responded that we could do more with ferries, especially electric ferries.
What about mass transit options like light rail and rapid buses? She talked about "the problem of space".
"The Link bus service is a good idea," she said, "but then it gets stuck in traffic."
Which means more bus lanes or just forget about it? Does National believe Auckland needs a bigger mass transit public transport network?
Kaye said she thought there should be "a connected network public transport system", and then she changed that to "a connected network transport system". Took out the word "public".
She said it was about "who can deliver". The City Rail Link, she said, had "cost over-runs and delays" and had "not delivered as expected".
So did she think the CRL would not be in action by 2024, as planned? "There've been a lot of problems."
Was she suggesting there should be a new management or ownership structure for the CRL? No, she wasn't. She talked some more about the potential for more ferries.
What about a new harbour crossing?
Kaye said, "We've already signalled we'll have the largest-ever infrastructure plan in our nation's history."
Which is what Finance Minister Grant Robertson also said, twice, when he announced the Government's $12 billion infrastructure spend in January and then the much bigger one in the May Budget. Right now, it's all about my infra spend is bigger than yours.
What about that new harbour crossing? Kaye beamed at me again, a clear signal they will speed up plans to build a new crossing.
Will it cater to cars? Or will they stay on the bridge, leaving new tunnels for a light rail network connecting the city centre to the Shore?
No, they both said, that's not the plan.
Kaye: "It will be a progressive plan and also balanced around public transport and the private vehicle."
Right through the discussion on transport, they were both careful not to say anything that might suggest we should leave our cars at home more.
WHICH BROUGHT us back to the climate crisis. I suggested the problem for New Zealand was largely twofold: in the country, we have to reduce methane emissions; in the cities, it's transport emissions.
Muller said yes, he agreed with that and would add a third key element, which was industry.
So what will they be doing about it?
"This is our opportunity to push on with decarbonisation," he said. "As the new technology options become more obvious, then the conversation turns to: how do you incentivise?"
Technology to the rescue? It's what he said about cows, too. I asked about electric vehicles (EVs), which are new technology the Government tried to incentivise, but National did its best to destroy the policy. Muller nodded.
What about declaring a date, at some time in the future, when vehicles that burn fossil fuels can no longer be imported? It's pretty common overseas now.
"That is not a short-term priority," he said.
I asked about housing. In his big speech the previous week, designed to introduce himself to the nation, Muller treated KiwiBuild as the Government's flagship failure. And it's true, the ambition was grand but the execution disastrous. But is National going to build more houses? He said yes.
What about social housing, which has not been a failure? Record numbers are being built now and even bigger numbers are planned. That's warm, dry and safe homes, seen as a foundation stone for good health, education and other societal goals.
"I believe that," he said.
THE BLUE Breeze Inn is a tiki bar, which is to say it's a Californian fantasy of what Polynesia might be like, all coconut shells and bamboo screens and waitstaff in matching Hawaiian shirts, with Chinese food and mysterious tiki-like statues.
In America, Hawaiian shirts are now an alt-right uniform, but the news hasn't caught up to the Blue Breeze.
Why that restaurant? I asked Kaye, who had chosen the venue for our lunch. She said Ponsonby Central, a collection of shops and eateries including the BBI, was to her "the hub of Auckland". A great "fusion" of different things.
Muller, who had made that big speech in the old rugby clubrooms at Te Puna, where he grew up, said: "Te Puna's fantastic but the rugby club doesn't serve up food like this."
He was right, the food was very good. Although when you're being interviewed and a photographer is hovering, you really don't want to let a greasy dumpling slip from your chopsticks on to your white shirt. Nobody ate very much.
Will they move the port? Communications expert Matthew Hooton, now an adviser in Muller's office, is one of the key people behind Waterfront 2029, the lobby group that advocates moving the port. And that group claims Nikki Kaye as one of its "greatest supporters".
In their promotional material, she says, "It has been my view that the economic and environmental case does not stack up for the port to stay in its existing location. Aucklanders deserve to have greater access to our waterfront."
At lunch, she put it slightly differently: "It's clear the port should go in time."
I said that was easy enough to say because almost everyone agreed. Even Ports of Auckland has been known to say it, more or less. But moving the port will take many years and the question is, do we commit to it and start work now?
She said, "I'm interested in the quality of the waterfront, you know that. But the main question is the efficiency of freight and the cost to business of moving freight." That was clearly not a yes.
She talked about "having the infrastructure we need in central Auckland" and "problems with the depth of the Hauraki Gulf with the size of the new ships coming in", which was a reference to the port's current application for a consent to dredge.
Muller said, "We'll give it to the Infrastructure Commission to look at and expect a report within months."
Get another report! Almost the sort of thing Labour did when it formed the Government.
THE CORE idea of the proposal to move the port, by the Upper North Island Supply Chain (UNISC) strategy group, is that the future of freight haulage is in rail. Did they agree with that?
"It's not a binary," said Muller. "We need a multi-modal approach, utilising road and rail."
But then he said, "The concept of moving freight to rail is flawed," and, "It's not right to force freight on to rail when it isn't right for rail."
So he didn't agree with UNISC. What is "right for rail"? The answer was dairy and logs, which is what happens now. No plan for strategic change to the freight industry.
I was surprised. Rail freight is another climate issue and its potential will inevitably grow because of new technologies – something Muller had twice already talked up. But not this time.
What's his view of the Greens? "James Shaw and I get on," said Muller. "We've worked together, I think we work together well and if the opportunity arises I think we could work together again."
And what's the problem with NZ First?
"We won't work with them."
"There's not enough alignment," he said. Their policies don't sit well together.
I wondered why he didn't mention NZ First's behaviour: the party is often accused of sabotaging the programme of whoever it's working with.
He wouldn't be drawn on that.
SHE DRANK apple milk tea and he drank water. The last dumpling remained in the steamer.
In Te Puna, Todd Muller had said he was "pretty much the only Pākehā kid" at his primary school. Later, according to Hooton, he was an $800,000 a year Fonterra exec. What he gives you, sitting in a sunny restaurant on a Saturday afternoon, speaking quietly and being so earnest, is a sense of his own exceptionalism. He thinks he's got something that no one else has.
What is it? He talked and talked, he shared ideas, he's good for that, but he said so little. I still don't know.
They had to go. On his way out, Muller was stopped several times by diners wanting to shake hands and wish him well. It made a change from the day before, when I'd gone to the restaurant to check they wouldn't mind our having a photographer there. The duty manager and the staff standing nearby hadn't heard of Todd Muller or Nikki Kaye. I had to spell both the names and even then they did not ring a bell.
Politicians and Ponsonby restaurants. Sometimes it's so hard to know who's living in the real world.
What National plans to do for Auckland
• Nikki Kaye will lead the party's planning for Auckland, in conjunction with Judith Collins.
• National will speed up plans for a third harbour crossing, which is likely to carry cars as well as some kind of mass transit: trains or rapid buses.
• They do not have a position on moving the Auckland port but will send it to the Infrastructure Commission for an urgent report.
• National is unlikely to support light rail from downtown to Mangere.
• They do not believe the bulk of freight haulage should be moved to rail.
• No date will be set for an end to vehicles imports powered by fossil fuels.
• National is interested in expanding the Auckland ferry service, using electric ferries.
Todd Muller will announce more about the party's plans for Auckland on July 6.