Collins tops the poll, Muller’s appointment is seen as a mistake, but there is praise for Bridges’ performance
National enjoyed stable leadership, with John Key serving just over 10 years, followed by Bill English, serving one year 77 days until he stepped down just months after the 2017 election.
Tauranga MP Simon Bridges was chosen to replace English as National leader in February 2018. He battled poor individual ratings but maintained popularity for National at around 40 per cent in political polls until the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
In the Herald’s 2020 Mood of the Boardroom survey, CEOs gave Bridges’ leadership of two years 85 days a rating of 2.40/5.
“Bridges was highly ineffectual as a leader and did not engender confidence,” says one company director.
A government relations firm boss said that despite Bridges being a good person, he had little personal connection with voters — “but he got National into a superb position before Covid-19”.
Bridges chaired the cross-party epidemic response committee during the alert level four lock down, receiving praise for his handling of the daily online forums which covered issues from health, media, tourism and the economy.
But he was also heavily criticised for his decision to commute between Wellington and his home in Tauranga during the lockdown to conduct the committee via Zoom. Bridges said then: “I don’t take these things lightly, but I am the leader of the Opposition, I’ve got constitutional duties, I’m running a committee in extreme circumstances where there is no Parliament.
“I have to do that in the best way possible and it seems to me that does mean doing it in Parliament where I have the resources, where I can do it in a professional way, and I’m available to media.”
A Facebook post from Bridges in April also received wide condemnation from the public.“The decision for New Zealand to stay locked down in Level 4 shows the Government hasn’t done the groundwork required to have us ready,” he wrote.
“New Zealand is being held back because the Government has not used this time to ensure best practice of testing and tracing and the availability of PPE hasn’t been at the standard it should have been.”
Of 29,000 Facebook responses the majority were negative. In retrospect, Bridges’ post had merit, but his delivery showed he seriously misread the mood of the nation at that point.
Said a transport CEO: “Bridges was probably an effective leader of the Opposition, but not well liked enough to get elected Prime Minister”.
By May a Newshub-Reid Research Poll showed National’s support had fallen to 30.6 per cent with Labour drawing ahead on 56.5 per cent. An emergency caucus meeting saw the swift removal of Bridges and deputy Paula Bennett as the little known Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller and former Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye were elected as leader and deputy respectively.
Muller has been a staffer in former Prime Minister Jim Bolger’s office. He later worked for Zespri and Fonterra. In a letter to MPs ahead of the caucus vote, Muller said it was “essential” that National win the 2020 election.
“I share the view of a majority of colleagues that this is not possible under the current leadership,” he wrote. “I believe I am best placed to earn the trust of New Zealanders by September 19.”
But Muller’s stint in the top job was short-lived — at 53 days the shortest in modern National Party history. “Unfortunately — a number of misfires with Todd materially challenged through time in the role,” says Deloitte CEO Thomas Pippos.
These included criticism of a lack of diversity on his front bench, distractions over his Donald Trump ‘Make America Great Again’ cap, and the leak of confidential information of Covid-19 patients to media by former National Party president Michelle Boag and National MP Hamish Walker.
A company director said it is difficult to assess Muller because “he was obviously in the middle of a toxic and tumultuous period for the party.” Another wrote he “was pushed by inexperienced colleagues and self-serving advisers into a job he wasn’t up to and that mistake severely damaged National.”
At the time of his surprise resignation he said that the role had taken a heavy toll on him personally and “has become untenable from a health perspective”.
“It has become clear to me that I am not the best person to be leader of the Opposition and leader of the New Zealand National Party at this critical time for New Zealand.”
CEOs rated his performance at 1.77/5.
His successor, Judith Collins, placed both Muller and Bridges on her frontbench as spokespeople for trade and foreign affairs, respectively.
The head of a fund manager probably best sums up sentiment among respondents: “No point going over old ground. That’s in the past now.”
With Judith Collins receiving a significantly higher rating compared to both her predecessors for the same question of 3.52/5 and just 19 days until the election, perhaps that is right.
CEOs say the majority of National’s top 10 need to raise their profile.
“I don’t know them,” says the CEO of an IT company. “Hardly heard of most of these people,” says another. An agricultural boss reckons “many of them are not visible.” From a winemaker: “It is not appropriate to comment — I am unfamiliar with their efforts.”
For this reason, a high proportion of respondents gave “Unsure” votes to National’s highest ranked MPs.
For example, MPs including Shane Reti, Chris Bishop, Louise Upston and Scott Simpson all received “Unsure” responses from over 20 per cent of respondents.
Some of this will likely be due to the fact that the leader inevitably overshadows the rest of the caucus — Judith Collins received the top score with an average rating of 3.55/5.
“She is more decisive and articulate than her two immediate predecessors,” says a top lawyer.
“Her leadership qualities were immediately obvious from her first press conference as leader, and from the way in which she ranked her front bench, incorporating both Simon Bridges and Todd Muller,” says a director.
Recently appointed health spokesperson Shane Reti has clearly benefited from the ongoing Covid-19 health and border response coverage. Those who know who he is have given him the second highest score of 3.29/5 — almost eclipsing Collins.
Meanwhile National’s deputy leader Gerry Brownlee received a score of 2.79/5 — taking a hit due to the comments he made around the Government’s Covid-19 response.
In a press conference last month alongside Collins, Brownlee outlined several events and said they were an “interesting series of facts”. They included the Government’s plea to the public to prepare for a possible outbreak, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s visit to a mask factory, and Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield’s public Covid-19 test just hours before announcing the community outbreak in Auckland.
“Gerry Brownlee didn’t do himself any favours by coming across as a conspiracy theorist,” says the head of a commercial law firm. “There is enough of that sort of nonsense around and an apparent endorsement from the deputy leader of the opposition is unhelpful.”
Heading into the 2017 election, Bill English’s top 10 combined received an average rating of 3.34/5 in the Mood of the Boardroom survey. This year, the combined average is 2.99/5.
Some of National’s most high-profile talent have departed politics this term — including Anne Tolley, Paula Bennett, Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams — and comments from some respondents suggest that this may have contributed to the lower score for the top 10 this time around. “This weakened team hardly fills me with confidence,” says a fund manager. “I see no depth in this party and no ability to sing from the same song sheet. I have no idea what they stand for, other than negativity and dirty politics,” says an IT CEO.
“There are pockets of ability and lots of some who haven’t quite worked out where they are going at the moment,” says a lobbyist. “They are a party in transition who — like Labour numerous times in the Key era — panicked over leadership when confronted with a PM with charisma and talent.”
Suggests one professional director: “We need to see the energetic young Nats coming through — Nicola Willis, etc.”
More can be done to minimise the economic impact of Covid, writes Tim McCready
Some 91 per cent of executives responding to the Herald’s CEOs survey want greater emphasis on intensive contact tracing using best-in-class technological capabilities.
The CEOs also want New Zealand to establish secure airbridges with other nations such as China, Taiwan and Australia — so long as we their response is also under control.
“Air bridges should be considered only when Covid-19 is truly under control and contact tracing technology is truly best in class and traces beyond the border,” says a dairy chief executive.
An experienced chairperson reckons that many — particularly older people — will want to resume international travel as soon as possible. “It should be possible on a user pays basis to allow technology-enabled devices (such as ankle bracelets) to allow returning residents and citizens to quarantine in their own homes on return from overseas.”
There is high support — 78 per cent — for public-private partnerships (PPP) for quarantine facilities where essential workers can be quarantined at their company’s cost. PPP isolation facilities for international education students were backed by 75 per cent of respondents; a much higher level of support than PPP isolation facilities for international tourists — only 48 per cent of respondents said that should be a focus.
“The tourist isolation facility idea is similarly impracticable because tourists are unlikely to want to come to NZ and stay in such a facility for 14 days at their expense (not much of a holiday),” says a legal firm boss. “Isolation facilities for students sound good in theory but the numbers involved would make this impracticable.”
Some questioned NZ’s reliance on export education as an economic driver.
“How much was international education just a feeder to the incredibly high immigration levels over the past ten years?,” asks a property boss.
“I really think we have to critically examine this sector’s contribution — painful as that might be.”
A lobbyist believes PPPs would alleviate some of the constraints around capacity.
“Our Ministry of Health isn’t up to handling this pandemic, they have dropped the ball so many times and are very economical with the truth. A future inquiry will not be pretty for some who we rate very highly now.”
Beca Group CEO Greg Lowe emphasised the pandemic is not a short-term problem, calling for a “smart” approach to a safe border. “The Prime Minister called for ‘the smartest border in the world’ early in the crisis but we are not seeing much progress towards this,” he says.
“We have three problems currently: getting an effective system of border control robustly in place, getting a contact tracing system in place that uses technology not people to capture contact data, and developing a plan that increases safe border processing capacity.”
“Maybe we can build world-class Covid management businesses out of this,” suggests Precinct Properties chair Craig Stobo.
“Government-run facilities have had their challenges, and they’re just the issues you get when you need tens of thousands of people to follow processes where, if it goes wrong, people die,” says a real estate boss. “Add the inherent risk of lots of people and processes to a profit motive and I just can’t see the Melbourne situation not happening again.”
Opening the door to new industries
The Covid-19 crisis has had a severe impact on two of New Zealand’s leading service export industries: international tourism and education.
Professional director Pip Greenwood says “now is the time to leverage NZ’s attractiveness as a place to live and work to attract investment.”
CEOs were asked what alternate areas New Zealand should look to increase investment in.
Agritech is the most promising area say NZ’s top executives. A fund manager says Covid could allow New Zealand to “double down” on its premium food producing status. “Move up the quality/pricing curve to drive greater yields from our premium products and sell direct to consumers via digital gateways.
Technologically-led businesses were also supported.
Spark CEO Jolie Hodson says rather than making big bets behind a small few we should be investing in building the capability, productivity and effectiveness of all businesses. “Particularly small and medium-sized businesses who would benefit significantly from going digital,” she says.
Decarbonisation of the economy and the development of a green hydrogen industry received 3.62/5 and 3.54/5, respectively. New forms of public transport such as electric planes, received a score of 3.07/5.
The latter was the top pick for Green co-leader James Shaw at the recent BusinessNZ election conference.
He said there were NZ companies doing this, including those involved with the America’s Cup.
“We do have a niche industry that is starting to emerge here, which I would like to see grow.”
“Our biggest opportunity for decarbonisation is electric vehicles. We have enough consented and existing generation to power the nation’s vehicular fleet at circa 30c per litre,” says one professional director.
“What has happened to Helen Clark’s ‘knowledge economy’?” asks Beca Group’s CEO Greg Lowe.
“Development of alternative transport solutions, the potential of alternative fuels like hydrogen to provide a new export market, export of digital solutions and services — we should be working to build a stronger national plan to advance all of them.”
But respondents caution New Zealand not be too quick to write off our traditional export earners.
One said that realism is important in this situation, noting that tourism and export education will return.
“There is no real strategy to transform the economy either from a production perspective or around decarbonisation — it’s all hopes and dreams stuff currently.”
With the recent announcement that New Zealand will no longer host world leaders for APEC Leaders’ Week next year, but will instead take the Summit digital, I took a look through the news archives to see what we are going to miss out on.
When NZ hosted APEC last in 1999:
👮🏻♂️ NZ security guards mistook Hillary Clinton’s mother for part of the public crowd and pushed her aside – twice.
🏉 Clinton told Sir Edmund Hillary – then aged 80 – that he might be ready for a new challenge: “I hear the All Blacks may need a new fullback.”
🛍️ Suburban shopping centres were busier than ever as the public were encouraged to avoid the city centre.
📰 International media published some bizarre stories about New Zealand and our culture.
THE POWER OF APEC
As Auckland was preparing to host APEC in 1999, the news was dominated by East Timor and its recent vote in favour of independence. The aftermath of the referendum saw mass violence, killings and destruction targeted at the East Timorese.
APEC 1999 was due to be held just days later, with Indonesia present. This introduced a challenge for New Zealand: APEC has strict rules around it that govern what can and cannot be discussed – APEC is about the economy and not about foreign policy.
At the time, New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley said: “You only get leaders of economies to come if they know that their foreign policy won’t be objected to scrutiny or interfered with. But having said that, the power of APEC, where you’ve got leaders and foreign ministers together physically in a country was always potentially going to be useful.”
Making a tough call
It was decided that an emergency meeting of foreign minister would take place in Auckland before APEC officially began. Shipley had to phone Indonesian President B.J. Habibie to let him know the plan, and said it was a difficult phone call.
“I had a number of officials in the room with me and I held the phone out at one stage where I was being yelled at. But the thing that changed was that not only Western-aligned economies within APEC but also Singapore and others in the region felt that this was something that had to be progressed.”
As Foreign Minister Don McKinnon noted, bringing leaders to one location forced them to take a position on Indonesia’s behaviour they could otherwise have simply avoided.
As a result, after lobbying from Australian Prime Minister John Howard, the United States announced it would no longer support the IMF bailout of Indonesia unless their army withdrew and allowed peacekeepers in. Within hours Indonesia changed their stance, and an Australian-led peacekeeping force left for East Timor just eight days later along with support from New Zealand troops.
THE STAR OF THE SUMMIT
US President Bill Clinton’s appearance at APEC 1999 marked just the second time a US President visited New Zealand (Lyndon B. Johnson visited in 1966 and met with Prime Minister Keith Holyoake). Clinton was warmly received by the public, using his innate ability to charm the crowds during walkabouts.
It was reported Clinton was so fascinated by Māori culture at Auckland Museum that he asked Shipley if she would arrange for the museum’s shop to open for business because he wanted to “buy it out”. With shop staff off duty for the gathering of leaders, it fell on the museum director to open the store for the President. Clinton and the United States National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, were reputed to have spent “a lot of money” during their 25-minute unscheduled shopping spree, with Clinton sporting one of his purchases – a circular greenstone pendant – around his neck during his time in Auckland.
On another shopping trip, he took daughter Chelsea Clinton on a two-hour trip to Parnell and Queen Street where they bought a handmade clay ocarina (wind instrument), a black pottery cat, a $400 crystal vase, two $49 oil bottles and a $27 vanilla-scented candle.
Clinton attracted thousands to the streets to catch a glimpse of him – and not just in Auckland. A crowd of 5000 came to the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch; hundreds
waited for three hours outside a lakefront Queenstown restaurant to spot the popular president.
For one of his appearances, Clinton shared the stage with Sir Edmund Hillary. He told the audience he was thrilled to share the stage with the adventurer and said he was “referred to in our family as my second-favourite Hillary.” He suggested that Sir Edmund – then aged 80 – might be ready for a new challenge: “I hear the All Blacks may need a new fullback.”
Speaking about the upcoming America’s Cup challenge, Clinton remarked: “We even let you borrow the America’s Cup from time to time. We hope to reverse our generosity shortly.”
New Zealand’s hosting of APEC also marked the start of a thawing rela
tionship between the US and China – with both superpowers reopening talks while in Auckland after the US bombed China’s Embassy in Belgrade.
Another big meeting was between Clinton and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – it was the first time they had met as leaders.
In a briefing to reporters following the meeting, it was said Clinton warned Putin that corruption could “eat the heart out of Russian society.” Those comments followed reports that Russian mobsters siphoned millions of dollars out of Moscow and laundered it through the Bank of New York. It was said Putin agreed that Russia had problems and suggested a cooperative approach.
Throughout the summit, many large offices in the city centre were operating on skeleton staff, heeding pleas for the public to stay out of the city if possible. Streets and schools in Auckland, Manukau and North Shore cities were closed and many city workers were given a day off. For those that needed to come into the city centre, many travelled earlier than normal resulting in lower than usual peak traffic volumes.
This resulted in the outer suburbs of Auckland being busier than usual, while the city centre ground to a halt – impeded by presidents, protests and police.
“They should have APEC every day,” Lynnmall Deka store manager Struan Abernethy told the media – standing in the toy department and surrounded by the buzz of family shoppers. “It’s the busiest Monday we’ve had for a long time!”
A FORUM FOR FREE TRADE
One of the key themes of New Zealand’s 1999 year of hosting was lifting the support from the public for free trade – although the success of this was limited.
US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky outlined the problem with a warning that public opposition was the greatest threat to the world’s multilateral trading system.
“Unless that public support is regenerated, I think the World Trade Organisation is going to face tough sledding in the years ahead,” she said.
Clinton also warned of the need to put “a human face” on the global economy.
Trade Minister Lockwood Smith said the commitment to a new global round was the meeting’s biggest achievement, but export subsidies were the single biggest trade issue for NZ. While the benefits were some years off, it was important to get the world to put the abolition of the subsidies on the agenda.
Shipley joked during the Summit that she had fed President Clinton as much lamb as possible during lunches and dinners – including Manawatu lamb loins and Canterbury lamb noisettes. “I’ve eaten it all,” he joked when asked about lamb tariffs.
Clinton said the United States was the “champion of free trade,” despite his decision to impose tariffs on New Zealand lamb. He said these were “appropriate” given that the recommendation from the International Trade Commission had been made under United States law.
But he said he would study the “very interesting idea” of a free trade agreement between Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore and the United States.
Singapore & Chile
In bilateral conversations, New Zealand announced a free trade agreement with Singapore and a scoping study of a similar deal with Chile.
Business leaders from Chile and New Zealand also met during the APEC summit to discuss the prospect of a free trade agreement between the two countries.
One of those leaders was Carter Holt Harvey chief executive Chris Liddell (now assistant to President Trump and deputy chief of staff for policy coordination in the White House). He and other leaders cautioned at the time that business deals between New Zealand and Chile have had hiccups – including an investment dispute between Carter Holt Harvey and Chilean conglomerate Copec.
250 executives attended the CEO Summit, including around 60 of New Zealand’s most eminent businesspeople. International delegates included General Motors chairman Jack Smith and Raymond Cesca – who was responsible for handling world trade for McDonald’s.
New Zealand’s delegates to the CEO Summit included just four women – Wilson & Horton corporate affairs manager Fran O’Sullivan (who was also the CEO Summit’s deputy chair), professional director Rosanne Meo, Wellington Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Claire Johnstone and education publisher Wendy Pye.
The chair of the Summit, John Maasland, said businesspeople were keen to work closely with APEC political leaders to increase the pace of reform and make sure a gap between developed and developing countries did not widen.
Attendees called for critical trade issues to be tackled quickly, including speeding up planned moves to achieve free and open trade and investment throughout the world by 2010 for developed countries and by 2020 in developing economies. They also called for economic governance, development of greater transparency and accountability in the financial sector and a regional approach to building infrastructure in APEC economies.
The attendees recognised that APEC politicians would need a lot of courage if they were to deliver the policies that corporations want – but if that courage was not shown, then free trade would flounder, economies would contract and people would suffer.
“We are certain that the benefits to all APEC communities will become increasingly evident if these specific actions are taken speedily and forcefully,” Maasland said.
The chief executives said their near-term challenge was to make sure the things they had talked about in Auckland over the past two days were turned into some firm policies that could be delivered in the following year’s APEC meeting in Brunei.
UNEXPECTED GLOBAL HEADLINES
There was some disappointment that New Zealand didn’t get the level of promotion that it had hoped for in international media – it was the East Timor developments that dominated the headlines. But some of the international media mentions New Zealand received included:
- The Los Angeles Times told its readers that New Zealand was “an island nation”
- The Los Angeles Times also ran a piece on its website explaining what a hongi is – alongside a photo of Clinton greeting Sir Hugh Kawharu: “the gesture is called a hongi, a native welcoming gesture”
- The Newsweek website mentioned plans for the leaders’ banquet: “In New Zealand, where sheep outnumber people 15 to 1, folks know how to party. Five top chefs have been dispatched across fjords and throughout the forests to find the best ingredients for a massive feast”
- The Boston Globe reported on New Zealand security guards mistaking Clinton’s mother-in-law, Dorothy Rodham, for part of the public crowd – twice pushing her aside during the President’s shopping walkabout. “The confusion didn’t stop Clinton from going on a buying binge. At one point he stopped in a store called Out Of New Zealand and bought an ocarina, a small traditional flute made of clay.”
- The Boston Globe also reported that New Zealand would be the first country in the world to celebrate the millennium.
SHIPLEY OUT, CLARK IN
Following the APEC Summit, a TV3/CM Research poll saw her rise from 14 per cent to 20 per cent as preferred Prime Minister – two points ahead of then-Labour leader Helen Clark.
In the same poll, 38% said they had a better opinion of Shipley after APEC, with 8% saying they now had a worse opinion of her.
However, the National party’s support didn’t shift significantly post-APEC. The poll saw its support rise only one percentage point to 33 per cent. Labour polled 39 per cent (compared to 40 per cent one month earlier). Support for Alliance was down one to 6 per cent, support for New Zealand First remained at 7 per cent, Act’s support lifted one to 7 per cent, support for the Greens fell from 2.6 per cent to 2.4 per cent.
The 1999 New Zealand general election was held on 27 November 1999 – two months following APEC. The National party, led by Shipley, was defeated, replaced by a coalition of Helen Clark’s Labour party and Alliance – who led New Zealand until 2008.