Former National leader Todd Muller will bow out of Parliament this evening, delivering his valedictory speech.
It will draw a curtain on a Parliamentary career that began in 2014 as Muller negotiated National’s support of the Zero Carbon Act before rising to the position of National leader in 2020.
National polled 38 per cent in the 1 News-Colmar Brunton poll when Muller was leader, higher than its score in the same poll this week. But behind the scenes, Muller was suffering.
He resigned after 53 days in the job, but returned to Parliament after the 2020 election climbing into Christopher Luxon’s shadow Cabinet, and regaining his beloved portfolios of climate change and agriculture.
Speaking to the Herald’s politics podcast On The Tiles ahead of his valedictory, Muller described the process of rebuilding himself after 2020, returning to Parliament, and reckoning with the fact he would never be the same again.
Muller started this year with a promotion to number 12 on National’s list, having previously been unranked, a clear indication he was on a path to becoming a Cabinet minister if National takes office after the October election.
Muller said the awareness that he might not be able to handle a ministerial workload made him decide to walk away from politics.
“I was sitting there poring through all these papers and I went to Michelle [his wife] and I said, ‘I’m not sure I can do 100 hours a week’,” he said.
This was part of a longer realisation for Muller of what had changed when he became leader. He told On The Tiles that before entering politics, he had worked in high-pressure corporate jobs, including at dairy giant Fonterra during a botulism false alarm, which “was as intense an executive moment as you could imagine”, Muller recalled.
While that caused a few restless nights, he had no indication of what was to come after he became National leader.
“I was fine,” he said, of the stresses pre-leadership.
Now, three years on, Muller acknowledges the path back has been slow, as has the realisation that he is a different man to who he was before.
“I am back, I am stronger. I’m different, but I’m not the Todd Muller that I was four years ago.
“I may never be the Todd Muller I was four years ago. I’m interested in being the best I can be today and part of that is having an awareness around ‘what are the right choices for me?’” Muller said.
“I decided ‘no’ - as much as I, at one level, would love to sit around the Cabinet table with Chris Luxon as Prime Minister and be a Cabinet minister. I actually don’t think that’s the right decision for me personally, from a health perspective,” he said.
Muller described his struggles during the leadership as “horrible”.
“I never got to suicidal, but I definitely got to the point of wanting to throw myself down a set of concrete stairs on the last day to just stop it. I just wanted something to stop the pain because it was all-encompassing - physical, mental,” Muller said.
Worse still, his role meant it was playing out in public.
“We decided that we would tell people what happened. I was really worried that the kids would be sort of stigmatised at school. In fact, the opposite happened: their friends thought it was brave of their dad to be so open about it,” he said.
The other hard part was returning to Parliament after the 2020 election, and being surrounded with memories of what he had gone through.
“It was a significant rebuild. Coming back here was challenging because you’re surrounded by all these memories - or triggers as they call them,” Muller said.
Muller has no regrets from his time in Parliament, and two highlights: the Zero Carbon Act, and becoming leader of the National Party.
“As everyone knows, it didn’t play out as I would have hoped, but that’s quite an achievement to be one of the handful who’s got to the top of that particular mountain,” Muller said.
He said the Zero Carbon Bill was unique.
“Most of these so-called bipartisan processes, the Government goes away and does some thinking, realises they’ve got a vulnerability, circles back to the opposition and says, ‘will you about to support this if we concede on two or three points?’
“This was entirely different,” he said.
Muller said he went into a room with Climate Change Minister James Shaw and mapped out what they wanted on a whiteboard.
“Ultimately, we achieved legislation which I hope will be enduring. I have a very strong view that it needs to be enduring,” he said.
Muller is no stranger to the Parliament precinct. He first arrived to work in “The Building” in 1994 aged just 25, working for Prime Minister Jim Bolger.
As he pens his valedictory, he has reflected on the changes between that era and now.
He described working for Bolger as “brilliant”, with the role mainly requiring putting together schedules for Bolger’s travel.
“I met thousands upon thousands of New Zealanders from all different walks of life. It really had a massive impact on me,” he said.
He remembers Bolger’s work ethic and sense of humour, his ability to crack a joke until they practically cried with laughter.
Muller remembers in the 1990s it was much more common for MPs, staff and journalists to head to 3.2, the Beehive bar, after work for a drink.
“It would be packed with journalists, staffers, MPs every night - it was very convivial and very educational in many senses, but what was said and done there was off-limits next day back at work.
“There was a camaraderie of this place which was really powerful and a lot of that has disappeared,” he said.
Muller blames the disappearance on broader societal changes and things like social media.
“People are a little bit more focused on where they are and their progression relative to other people,” Muller said.
“There’s a lot less trust in professional relationships, certainly in a political context,” he said.
In the Bolger years, for example, it was possible to arrange a meeting between the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition if both wanted to handle a particularly thorny issue discreetly.
“You had the political battle but then you had a whole lot of avenues for quiet conversations,” he said.
Bowing out, Muller says he is not writing a book. He takes away with him an unexpected love of the Oceans and Fisheries portfolio, which he was given after the leadership. He thinks his future may hold a role in that area.
One thing he won’t be doing is running for President of the United States - a childhood ambition of Muller’s that he revealed in his very candid maiden speech.
“I’d like to do something that assists in my local community,” Muller said of what comes next.
“Then see what I can do on a, you know, on a national stage, obviously, issues of mental health will still be front of mind,” Muller said.\
Listen to the full episode for more from Todd Muller on his experiences in politics.
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.