The Muller Trap

A speech by Todd Muller at the Te Puna Rugby Club last June told voters everything they need to know about the New Zealand National Party. It was, arguably, the most coherent statement on political philosophy by a National leader in the MMP era. Interwoven with the usual platitudes about small business and family was a quaint, 19th century vision of ‘the self-made man’.

“My passion in politics is that all of us can choose our own paths and stand tall as New Zealanders in whatever we seek to do, fulfilling our own dreams and our own potentials,” Muller told the adoring crowd. He might have been pigeonholed as a ‘social conservative’ for his views on abortion and euthanisa but Muller’s outlook was inherently liberal. 

Everyone should have their basic human needs met, he clarified. But we are not all the same. And once given an opportunity to grow, individuals should go out into the world and compete. Tellingly, Muller did not see New Zealand under Labour as ‘internationally competitive’ or ‘agile’ enough to meet the challenges of the 21st century. 

Kindness, he said, was not enough. One must also be competent and bold. Here was a leader who embodied the spirit of his party’s founding fathers – names long forgotten, like Forbes and Hamilton. These were men who extolled the Protestant work ethic and opposed the corrupting influence of welfare. 

A thoroughly modern Catholic, Muller would never be accused of puritanism. But his speech was a reworking of the imagery, themes and arguments that have defined National for 85 years. Yet there was a palpable sense that Muller and his speechwriter, Matthew Hooton, were stuck in the past. 

Having tapped into a rich political tradition, they failed to adapt the language and thinking to new realities. This became clear when Muller gave a sermon and reaffirmed his belief in ‘New Zealand’s basic macroeconomic framework’. The articles of faith were low taxes, near-zero inflation, balanced budgets, and cheap labour. 

Muller’s political identity had congealed around the legacy of decades-old ‘neoliberal’ orthodoxy. He personified better than Simon Bridges, or even Judith Collins, the ideological cul-de-sac National found itself in. His dramatic resignation just one month later would have no impact on the party’s direction. National is yet to escape the Muller trap.

A quarter of the electorate might have shared Muller’s romanticisation of individuality, and the moral imperative behind it. However, most New Zealanders yearned for something else in 2020. Jacinda Ardern did what Bridges, Muller and Collins never could – refurbished the neoliberal state with a veneer of kindness and instilled new confidence in the status quo.

Her greatest accomplishment has been to give most New Zealanders a sense of security within the Mullerian ‘macroeconomic framework’. House prices are testament to this. While thousands sleep rough, and many others struggle to pay the rent, a narrow majority has seen its wealth and privilege entrenched under Labour, despite a global pandemic and the worst recession in living memory.  

Homeowners cannot be said to lack a social conscience. Whereas Sir John Key once persuaded New Zealanders there was no housing crisis,  Ardern has fulfilled a different psychological need. The Prime Minister’s compassion, and her belief that we are ‘making progress’, absolve the middle-class of responsibility. Having elected a kind government, they have done their part. The only thing left to do is acquire hard-earned capital gains. 

Unsurprisingly, the market has failed to provide social and economic security for those in the lower strata. Housing costs relative to income have soared in the past 20 years. While the average house price has quadrupled since 2000, household incomes have merely doubled. Leaving aside the Kiwi dream of homeownership, this unequal growth has made life incredibly hard for those on the margins.

A significant number of New Zealanders rely on government subsidies to pay their rent or mortgage. More than 370,000 received the Accommodation Supplement in 2020 at a cost of $2.6 billion. While having a roof over their heads, many still experience material hardship and financial stress. But that is to say nothing of the countless people now living in emergency accommodation or on the street. 

The most obvious solution is for the state to use its immense power and financial resources to develop low-cost housing on a massive scale. But doing so would almost certainly lead to a fall in house prices and, in effect, the transfer of wealth from existing homeowners to the unpropertied. That idea is anathema to right-minded centrists who believe there is virtue in doing nothing.

Thus, Labour has outdone National in its defence of the status quo. It might not have been obvious at the time, but Muller’s Te Puna speech was the perfect eulogy to Sir John’s National Party. Having failed to offer an alternative to Labour’s ‘kinder’ approach, at a time when so many feared for their livelihoods, National ceased to be relevant in the public mind. 

Judith Collins, or her successor, will need to be imaginative if they are to escape the Muller trap in 2023.

This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.

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