‘Catastrophic’ U-turn benefiting Ardern
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's already healthy chances of being re-elected have received a huge boost today with the resignation of the opposition leader less than two months ahead of the election.
Todd Muller quit this morning as leader of the centre right National Party just seven weeks after he took over, leaving his party in disarray. The September 19 election is so close, National Party advertising is already up with his face on.
However, Ms Ardern may be wary of being too smug about Mr Muller's resignation. She took over as Labour Party leader less that two months before 2017's general election and ended up becoming prime minister.
It could mean Ms Ardern will face another woman vying for the top job at the ballot box.
Mr Muller made the surprise announcement in a brief early-morning statement, saying it had "became clear to me that I am not the best person to be leader of the opposition … at this critical time".
CATASTROPHIC FOR THE NATIONALS
"The role has taken a heavy toll on me personally, and on my family, and this has become untenable from a health perspective," he said.
The move has been labelled "catastrophic" for the Nationals but essential for him, by New Zealand Herald political editor Audrey Young. There is some suggestion Mr Muller may have had a mental health breakdown and was not in a position to deliver the news himself to his colleagues.
On paper, Ms Ardern has a tenuous grip on power. Her Labour-led coalition has precisely the same number of seats as the Nationals.
It was only a coalition with the conservative New Zealand First party - not natural bedfellows for Labour - and a supply and confidence agreement with the Greens that allowed the Labour-led government to take the reins of power in 2017.
However, since she outmanoeuvred the Nationals in 2017, Ms Ardern's popularity has only grown, with her handling of the Christchurch massacre and the pandemic winning praise worldwide.
Mr Muller, 51, took over from Simon Bridges as leader of the centre-right National Party in late May after opinion polls - taken amid the coronavirus crises - showed runaway support for Ms Ardern.
While he clawed back some ground to the Nationals, they still trail Labour by a large margin. More than half of New Zealanders said they prefer Ms Ardern, rather than Mr Muller, as prime minister.
During Mr Muller's brief tenure as opposition leader, he had tried to steer clear of raising questions about the PM's character, said commentator Graham Adams on analysis website The Democracy Project.
"Such is Ardern's popularity and mana (honour and authority) that most opponents consider it too risky to attack her directly by impugning her essential goodness - not least because there is a widespread belief that, unlike many elected representatives, she is always well-intentioned, humble and honest."
My thoughts are with Todd Muller & his family. Opposition Leader is a very tough role & I wish Todd and his family the best for the future.— Simon Bridges (@simonjbridges) July 14, 2020
Instead, Mr Muller had been trying to "out-Jesus" Ms Ardern, he said, by pushing his own image of innate goodness.
The hope had been to prove Ms Ardern wasn't the only pollie with empathy and she was "as flawed, calculating and prone to lying as any other politician," wrote Mr Adam.
ARDEN'S WOBBLE ON COVID
An opportunity to dull some of Ardern's sheen came last month when it emerged two visitors to the country who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 had been given a leave pass from hotel quarantine.
It later emerged scores of recent arrivals had also been allowed to depart quarantine early and testing of international arrivals was only sporadic.
Mr Muller said at the time the border blunders were a "national disgrace" that could have allowed COVID-19 to spread within the community.
Senior Nationals MP Judith Collins went further and asked if the PM had been telling Kiwis the full story about international arrivals.
"We have been lied to actually. We have been lied to about the quarantine, about the standard of care," she said.
In early July, Health Minister David Shaw resigned following the quarantine bungles.
New Zealand's Massey University politics professor Richard Shaw told news.com.au earlier this month that Mr Clark's resignation was a blessing for Ms Ardern and "solved a big problem" by removing an unpopular minister and drawing a line under the issue.
He acknowledged Mr Muller has lifted the National's numbers but said that was probably less to do with him personally and more to do with some Kiwis peeling away from Ms Ardern as the immediate threat of COVID-19 lessened.
"Muller struggled to get traction. His first set of polls were OK but the Nats are at exactly the same place they were under the previous leader," Prof Shaw said.
The concern over community transmission of coronavirus that he warned of hasn't eventuated with daily numbers at zero or in the low single digits. He was also harmed by revelations one of his own MPs leaked details of 18 active COVID-19 cases to the media.
"My money is on a Labour-Green coalition. But there's a long way to go and in the present climate all it takes is another run on COVID-19, a meltdown with employment figures and all bets are off," Prof Shaw said.
Campaign hoardings are due to go up in 4 days time.— Justin Lester (@justin_lester) July 13, 2020
4 days. pic.twitter.com/jjsgyMPSQH
Mr Muller's deputy Nikki Kaye, who will take over as interim leader, is seen as a possible successor, along with the more conservative Ms Collins. Even the ousted Mr Bridges could make a return.
Prof Shaw said the new opposition leader, who will be installed with a mere nine weeks before the election, would do better to attack Labour on policy.
An economic downturn could cause harm, he said, but Labour could dodge that bullet too.
"Soft economic figures are never good for a government - but this time, these figures are clearly a function of external factors and I'm not sure those figures will mean what they normally do."
Prof Shaw said trust in Ms Ardern remained high, despite the undoubted missteps - but she couldn't get complacent.
"She would need to do something very egregious personally for that capital to disappear. The major risk is if community transmission picks up. If that happens there's every likelihood that the polls would tighten up."
Ms Ardern became Labour leader in 2017 after her predecessor Andrew Little resigned following low polling.
Today, she said she had passed on her best wishes to Mr Muller: "No matter what side you're sitting, politics is a difficult place."
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Originally published as 'Catastrophic' U-turn benefiting Ardern