National is going through a major popularity slump. Is Todd Muller the man to save it?

National MP Nicola Willis vividly remembers when she got the call from her new leader Todd Muller. 

She was on maternity leave from Fonterra when the company became aware whey products contaminated with clostridium botulinum had been used to create infant formula.

Muller – Fonterra’s corporate affairs and Government relations boss – asked Willis to come back and help him during what would become one of the biggest crises in the co-operative’s history. 

The Chinese Government was furious. A New Zealand Herald report noted Muller was part of a huge “hand-holding operation” to save the company’s reputation and reassure markets.

As the Financial Markets Authority called on Fonterra to explain delays in reporting the contamination, Muller held meetings with key business leaders to reassure them the co-operative was being above board.

The ‘botulism’ scare of 2013 would eventually result in a major recall of Fonterra products across the globe, but the company’s reputation recovered quickly in the end.

Later, authorities would discover the strain of bacteria was not one that could cause botulism

“Todd is unflappable. He is always calm,” Willis said.

“When others are choosing to flap around and speed up he will deliberately slow down.”

“And he is very focused.”

Muller’s presence has often gone unnoticed even as his star has risen within the organisations of which he’s been a part.

At a Fonterra meeting where he was announced as having been given a high-level promotion, many in the audience scratched their heads and asked “who is Todd Muller?”

‘He’d have a few beers then wander off’

Former students at the University of Waikato during the early 1990s don’t really remember much about how Muller ascended to the presidency of the university’s student union or what he stood for.

They do remember the chaos that preceded him.

Waikato Students’ Union history books record that the year before Muller took over, the organisation had changed leaders mid-term.

Students who were there at the time recall a riotous student uprising the year before – full of left-right recriminations – but absolutely nothing when Muller took charge.

Universities had started to change. Voluntary student unionism came through much later, but in 1992 students had started to grapple with the first versions of tertiary fees and student loans. 

“You get the really popular people who were having a real party at university. That wasn’t him.”

Former Zespri CEO Lain Jager was a student, too, back then. He didn’t remember what Muller campaigned on, or how he got there. What he does remember is that his long-time friend successfully pulled off the only campus event he had to. 

“You have to be able to organise a very good O-week.

“And of course, Todd did that with gusto.”

Muller’s political alignment with the Young Nats and ambitions to future political office were clear to those who knew him. He wasn’t a widely known personality on campus, the biggest socialiser, or a party animal.

“You get the really popular people who were having a real party at university. That wasn’t him,” Jager said.

“He really enjoyed his politics and his history lectures…he really enjoyed being student president.”

“[He’d] have a few beers and then would wander off. He’s that sort of guy.”

‘One of the boys’

Muller was the perfect fit for a role in Jim Bolger’s office.

Bolger was a Catholic Te Kuiti farmer and MP for King Country.

Muller was born in Te Aroha to a Catholic farming family and graduated with a Masters of Social Science from a university that was the natural place of study for the sons and daughters of rural families in the wider Waikato and the Bay of Plenty.

A source connected to the party said Muller was “one of the boys” and easily fitted into the bevy of young men who ran Bolger’s office during the 1990s.

“At a time in the mid-90s where it [Government] was being run by boys, he was one of the boys.”

It all came to a crashing halt in 1997 when Jenny Shipley rolled Bolger and loyalists had to look for something else to occupy their days.

For somebody like Muller, who wanted a future in conservative politics, the next obvious step in an age of corporatisation was establishing some sort of business career.

However, Government was never far from many of the private sector roles he took on.

“At that time that wasn’t happening that much at Fonterra. And it was striking that was how he wanted to ground himself.”

Jager said when Muller joined Zespri in 1998 his work was focused on the corporatisation of what had once been the New Zealand Kiwifruit Marketing Board. 

When Muller jumped over to Fonterra he took on a relatively low-level position then worked his way up to being the co-operative’s head of government relations. 

Willis said during his time at Fonterra Muller had also started to integrate more elements of te ao Māori into his work. He wore a korowai and used te reo Māori when he spoke for the first time to his new team of 200 people. 

“At that time that wasn’t happening that much at Fonterra. And it was striking that was how he wanted to ground himself.”

He emphasised that side of himself during his first speech to reporters after taking over the National Party on Friday.

“[At] my first school I was the only Pākehā boy in a Māori convent.

“I come from the New Zealand communities that basically define this country and I’m very very proud to represent my people. And I’m very very honoured to be given this opportunity to lead such a fine team.”

Muller has never made a secret of his long-held political ambitions. During his maiden speech to Parliament he recounted his early childhood aspirations to become President of the United States.

Jager said if you wanted to know how much Muller wanted to be Prime Minister from the very beginning all you had to look at was the large pay cut he took to become MP for Bay of Plenty in 2014.

“I suspect that in his heart of hearts the opportunity to be Prime Minister has been there, but it is not in his nature to overreach or talk himself up.

“I’m absolutely sure that he’ll bring everything to it.”

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