Former National MP Paula Bennett has spilled the beans on her decision to leave Parliament, saying Todd Muller's treatment of her after Muller rolled Simon Bridges was "incredibly tough" and she was hurt by it.
In an interview for RNZ podcast series Matangireia, Bennett said Muller had told her there was no role for her in his caucus.
"I felt that I'd given not just 15 years, 20 years to this party and I got a phone call at 7 o'clock on Sunday morning after the Muller change and 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 she had not responded immediately. "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."
Eventually Muller agreed to give Bennett the 14th ranking, but with minor portfolios. However, Bennett said she had already decided by then that she was done and would quit.
At the time, the NZ Herald reported that Muller had tried to shift Bennett to the backbench and made it clear he did not see a future for her in his caucus – but Bennett herself has not spoken publicly about that until now.
In response Muller said he had not watched the interview and did not intend to.
"There are many of us who have memories of that era and some, no doubt, will feel obliged to frame it up as they saw it. But I'd rather keep my peace and stay focused on working for the National Party."
Bennett said she did not know what resulted in the difficulties faced by Muller and his deputy Nikki Kaye. After 53 days, Muller stepped down after suffering anxiety attacks and Kaye also decided to quit Parliament.
"Only they could answer that. But it is an incredibly pressured job. You need to be able to make decisions instantly, you need to be able to trust your own instincts, you need a plan. They'd been planning it for 12 months, I can't believe they didn't come in with a plan."
She said at that point she had worked on the National Party campaign for 12 months: "they made it clear to me they weren't interested in the work I'd done and the prep I'd done for the campaign. That was all just thrown out the window".
"I just don't believe they were equipped to make the fast decisions that needed to be made in a very pressured environment."
Bennett said she believed the National Party caucus should have held its nerve after National's polling started tumbling in the early months of Covid-19.
"They needed to grow some. Too many of them had had it too easy, to be blunt with you. They hadn't gone through what we've just been through in the last six months. They needed to take a breath and just sort of work their way through it. But there were forces that were bigger and at some point I thought 'Simon and I are just going to be undermined the whole way through'."
Bennett said there was always talk about leadership challenges for parties in Opposition but National's polls had held firm.
"And then Covid struck and that drum beating against Simon, I certainly heard it."
She said the public reaction to Bridges' comments on Covid-19 had been difficult to deal with – and she was disappointed that caucus had buckled under it.
Bennett also set out some regrets from her own time as a Cabinet minister: including her decision to scale back the Training Incentive Allowance: a study allowance for single parents which she herself had benefited from. It had been a controversial move, made more so by Bennett releasing to the NZ Herald the details of the benefit entitlements of two single mothers who criticised her for the move.
Bennett said in hindsight the criticism of her for that was probably fair.
"I did it at the time for what I thought were the right reasons …. I probably should have thought through the unintended consequences of it, which made predominantly sole mothers believe they couldn't go and study.
"I think the perception of what that said to people was probably unintended."
However, she stuck to her guns on her wider reforms, including introducing more work obligations on single mothers and other beneficiaries – some of which the Labour Government are now winding back.
Bennett said her goal had been to show people that there was a pathway out of welfare and break long-term dependency. "It was exhilarating. I got criticised, I still get criticised. It doesn't worry me at all. Not many people manage to put their hands up for a job and then get on and do it."