#parent | #kids | Todd Muller on his leadership coup, his ‘breakdown’ and the road back to health


Eight months after he quit as National’s leader, Todd Muller is ready to tell the full story of how his world crumbled – and how he’s rebuilding it. Muller speaks exclusively to Jehan Casinader.

“What happens when a guy takes over as a political leader, then clearly has a mental breakdown and leaves after 53 days? Do you frame it as a mental health issue? Or was he in way over his head, he shouldn’t have done it, and his political reputation is stuffed?”

These words are not mine. These words belong to Todd Muller, a man who is still trying to make sense of the most chaotic, painful year of his life.

“Almost all political advice would say not to do this interview with you, at this level of openness,” he tells me. “But I’ve decided that, actually, the best thing I can do is be honest. If that means people judge me in a way that affects my career, so be it.”

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It’s Wednesday evening at Bellamy’s, the plush restaurant in the Beehive. Muller and I are in a private dining room, tucked away from prying eyes and ears. The setting is oddly romantic. Our waiter has dimmed the lights. Muller’s jacket and tie are gone, his phone has been flipped over, and a juicy rib-eye steak has appeared in front of him.

He returned to Wellington in early February, feeling refreshed after a long summer spent “doing manu bombs in the pool with the kids” at home in Tauranga. But when he walked into Parliament, he felt a familiar tremor of anxiety.

“I found it really hard, because there were triggers everywhere. I walked past the leader’s office, which used to be my office. I watched the media scrum before Question Time. I felt a degree of unease – a low-level background noise. And a lingering sense of regret and sadness, really.”

Last year, Muller spent 53 days as the Leader of the Opposition. Now, he sits in the third row of the debating chamber with his back against a wall, watching from afar as the key political players do battle.

“When I came back, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just pull my socks up and get on with it’. But I’ve been reminded by the experts that I’m still recovering. The redemptive story is, ‘You fell, then you got up again’. And yes, I’m getting up – but it takes time.”

Todd Muller endured what he describes as a “very public meltdown” as a short-lived National Party leader. He is now slowly recovering.
ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Todd Muller endured what he describes as a “very public meltdown” as a short-lived National Party leader. He is now slowly recovering.

When he became National’s leader in May 2020, Muller’s name was so obscure that newsreaders couldn’t even pronounce it. An MP of five years, most Kiwis had never heard of him. But in Wellington, there was less surprise that the ambitious former corporate executive had snagged the job.

“From the moment I arrived [at Parliament], there were always some people who said, ‘That guy is seen as a future leader,’” he says. “For better or worse, I walked into this place with a mantle: maybe I was someone to watch.”

In the lead-up to last year’s coup, Muller’s travel costs doubled. It was speculated that he spent months having quiet meetings with his provincial colleagues, shoring up support for a leadership bid. Muller denies this.

“Certainly, through the early part of Covid, I was starting to think about it. But I was very doubtful about the merits of making a change [of leader], and I expected there would be a high cost. I know others might say, ‘Well, that all sounds a bit cute. You were nailing it for an extended period of time.’ I know for a fact that’s not what happened.”

In Muller’s version of events, he began to seriously think about rolling Bridges just “four or five weeks” before he did it. Colleagues were knocking on his door, concerned about the grim state of National’s popularity.

“By then, it was building to a crescendo. The polling was pretty diabolical. We had an election coming up, and a significant number of people were saying, ‘Right, step up’. There was an element of me that was excited about the opportunity, and also an element that was really concerned. ‘Is this the right time?’”

On the third floor of Parliament House, there was a whiff of blood in the air. Simon Bridges ordered MPs to return to Wellington, so he could bring the matter to a head by throwing open his position and taking a vote. Muller arrived, clutching his wife Michelle’s hand.

“I was nervous, but I also had a sense that this was going to be a pretty momentous day,” he recalls. “When the result came in, I didn’t revel in it and I didn’t sit there with glee. I felt a huge sense of responsibility. My mind was whirring. Then, ‘Bang’. Everything speeds up.”

In his first press conference as National Party leader, Todd Muller was widely considered to have performed well.
ROSA WOODS

In his first press conference as National Party leader, Todd Muller was widely considered to have performed well.

With his glasses perched halfway down his nose, Muller delivered a relaxed speech to waiting media. As his staff packed up his office, he appeared live on Seven Sharp, joshing with the hosts. Late that evening, he returned to his Roseneath flat and collapsed into bed, “absolutely stuffed” but satisfied.

Less than 12 hours later, the gloss had worn off. Muller faced questions about the “Make America Great Again” cap displayed in his office. As a fan of American politics, he was puzzled by the outrage – especially because the cap had a Hillary Clinton badge pinned to it. But the story got traction, and he seemed oblivious to the cap’s symbolism.

In his pitch to businesses, Muller promised an economic strategy to help them recover from Covid. But in demanding interviews with TVNZ’s Jack Tame and John Campbell, he was forced to admit that his plan didn’t exist yet. Then he came under intense criticism for the blinding whiteness of his shadow cabinet.

“In my previous corporate jobs, I had experienced extraordinary stress. But I wasn’t on the news each day, I didn’t have an election to win, and I didn’t have 50 cameras up my nose. Now, I was in an environment that was moving way quicker. In all honesty, I hadn’t done the deep strategic thinking that I needed to be successful [as the leader]. ‘What will I do when I get there? Who will I have around me? How will I execute a plan?’

“The level of intensity was greater than I had expected. You get caught in what feels like a huge, rolling surf, and you’re constantly tumbled from one issue to the next. You can barely catch your breath. That’s what it felt like – a massive wave that never broke.”

Soon after what he’d considered an uplifting phone call with former PM John Key, Muller had the first of what would be a number of “incidents” of panic.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Soon after what he’d considered an uplifting phone call with former PM John Key, Muller had the first of what would be a number of “incidents” of panic.

The first “incident”, as Muller calls it, came without warning, just five days into his new job. On a cold winter night, he sat in the back of a Crown limo, on the way home to Tauranga. He had just phoned John Key, who gave him “really positive” advice on how to communicate his priorities. Muller felt good. Then, in a split-second, a sense of panic began to claw its way out of his chest.

“I was hit by a huge sense of deep anxiety. Not like, ‘Oh, I feel a bit unsure of myself’. This was heart-pounding. Just extraordinary. I told myself, ‘Just breathe. Come on!’ But as much as I tried, I could not get on top of it. It went on for 10 minutes. I thought, ‘Oh, God. What’s the driver going to think?’”

In the darkness somewhere between Auckland and Tauranga, Muller managed to stabilise himself. When he got home, Michelle opened the door. Her husband burst into tears.

“There were deep, deep sobs from the bottom of my toes,” he says. “I hadn’t cried like that since my father died, and I couldn’t stop. The kids were around, but they scampered pretty quick. No parent wants to be in that amount of pain in front of their children.”

The next morning, Muller woke up feeling “slightly fatigued, but fine”. In the following days, however, the anxiety returned with increasing severity. Within a fortnight, he was having daily panic attacks. He managed to hide his distress from all of his fellow MPs. The attacks happened at random, often when he was alone in his office.

“It just came in these utterly debilitating waves. I was sweating, dry-retching – it was just hideous. I’d go to the bathroom and splash some water on my face and do some breathing exercises, because I knew that helped. But it was absolutely excruciating.”

Muller struggled on as leader, hiding his mental turmoil from even close advisers.

Getty-Images

Muller struggled on as leader, hiding his mental turmoil from even close advisers.

In the middle of all this, Muller had a skin cancer removed from his head. It turned out to be a minor procedure, and doctors said he could return to work.

“When I went back to the recovery room, I almost felt a degree of regret that I didn’t have something [worse] that meant I needed a few weeks off. When that feeling hit me, I honestly knew I was in trouble.”

By day, Muller tried to focus on Covid, especially during the heat of Question Time (“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life”). At night, he used mindfulness apps to try to relax. He could only sleep for two or three hours. A doctor prescribed anti-anxiety medication and sleeping pills, but that was a “Band-Aid”, he says.

With his beaming face already plastered on election billboards, Muller couldn’t see a way out. As fatigue set in, he became distant from his hand-picked team of advisors. They saw a vacant, indecisive leader – “a guy who was listening to conversations but not distilling what the issue was, or holding a clear view about what needed to be done”.

“National had made this big change, and I was the face of it. I was sitting in meetings, really battling with myself – trying to keep focused and not tip into an [anxiety] episode. My head was going crazy. ‘Are you up for this? You’re not up for this. You’re failing. You’re failing. You’ve spent your whole life waiting, and here you are. You’re failing.’ Bloody hell.”

Muller now admits he should have spoken directly with Simon Bridges about challenging him for the National Party leadership.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Muller now admits he should have spoken directly with Simon Bridges about challenging him for the National Party leadership.

As a kid, Muller was “a shy, quiet fella”, a timid boy who lacked confidence. Although adored by his family, he says he always yearned for other people’s affirmation. He watched his grandparents faithfully serve their community – and receive deep admiration for it. By going into politics, Muller says he was trying to replicate that.

“I remember when John Key made the decision to step down, he said, ‘I like to be liked’. I thought, ‘That’s a remarkable thing to say publicly’. That’s the politician’s creed, but now someone has given voice to it.”

Muller’s own political ambition cost Simon Bridges his job. Now, in a candid admission, he says he regrets not being upfront with Bridges when he decided to challenge him.

“I didn’t do things as well as I should have. The most appropriate way to deal with these things is to have a face-to-face conversation, as opposed to everyone having conversations in the shadows. That never works. I’m disappointed with myself about that… I should have had a face-to-face conversation [with Bridges]. I don’t know how that would have unfolded, but I think it would have had more integrity.”

Having worked in Jim Bolger’s office as a young man, Muller says he was “acutely aware” that shoddy leadership transitions do more harm than good.

“There is only limited value in raking over these coals, but I must take accountability for my part in it. I really needed to be clearer in my own mind: ‘Is this in the best interests of the party? Is this in the best interest of me? If the answer to both is ‘Yes’, what do I need to be effective?’ Instead, I ended up reacting day by day.”

In early July, National was hit by a major scandal. MP Hamish Walker had leaked confidential data about Covid patients to media outlets. The saga implicated key National figures and ended in Walker’s resignation. At this point, Muller was running on empty. He had lost almost 10kg in just five weeks.

“By the time I got home on Friday, Michelle was so concerned, she said, ‘Give me your phone. Just take two days to rest and spend time with the kids.’ I tried to do that, but it was dreadful. With the demands of the job, just 80 days out from an election, you can’t turn your phone off for two days. I’m sure Judith [Collins] wouldn’t have.”

On Monday, Muller faced back-to-back meetings in Auckland, ahead of a big infrastructure announcement the next day. During an early-morning walk with his family, he had a “monumental” panic attack.

“We got to the top of these stairs, and I thought, ‘If I slipped, the pain would stop for a few days’. It wasn’t a suicidal thought, but it was a self-harm thought. Absolutely.”

Todd Muller with wife Michelle after becoming National Party leader.

ROSA WOODS

Todd Muller with wife Michelle after becoming National Party leader.

Muller only just managed to walk back to his mother-in-law’s place, where his family was staying. A car was arriving in an hour, but he collapsed on the bed. His wife rang National’s chief of staff, Megan Campbell.

“Initially, Michelle tried to play for time and said, ‘Look, he has picked up a bug or something. He can’t do anything today,’” says Muller. “Then I rang one of my best friends who studied as a clinical psychologist. He took one look at me on FaceTime and drove up. Megan flew up from Wellington. I think they were both really shocked by what they found.

“They said, ‘Todd, you’re in the fire. You can walk out of the fire, and if you do, you’re still Todd. You still have three lovely kids, your wife and your friends. They loved you before, and they love you now. Walk out of the fire.’ They gave me permission to do that.”

The next morning, just after dawn, a “ping” echoed across the country. An email from National’s press team announced that Muller had quit, because the job had become “untenable from a health perspective”. His phone began to light up with hundreds of supportive messages, including from his colleagues.

“I felt an amazing sense of gratitude that I was cloaked in love and support, which a lot of people aren’t,” he says, “There was relief, and then unbelievable fatigue. I could barely keep my eyes open.”

For a week, Muller hid away at his uncle’s lake house – sleeping, reading and staring into the water. He didn’t watch the news or go online. The panic attacks stopped, but he knew his recovery was just beginning.

Muller says he’s had to deal with “very understandable anger and grief” from National Party colleagues.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Muller says he’s had to deal with “very understandable anger and grief” from National Party colleagues.

When we leave Bellamy’s just before 10pm, the bar is packed with MPs and staffers, drinking and nattering. Muller leads me to National’s deserted offices. The red carpet in the hallway stretches for miles until we reach his modest room. The “Make America Great Again” cap has been replaced by a “Buy New Zealand” cap – a cheeky gift from his old mate Winston Peters.

These days, other National MPs aren’t knocking on Muller’s door. In fact, “they walk right past”, he jokes. The caucus has offered its full support as he recovers. But Muller also accepts that his brief foray into leadership had an impact on the party.

“I was Leader of the Opposition, and this is one hell of a fall from that position. I had to deal with the very understandable anger and grief of my colleagues about our election result. It’s not all at my feet, but I acknowledge that I was a contributor to what we experienced.”

Muller is nervous about this article. He worries that pundits will think he is trying to rewrite a painful chapter in National’s recent history. (“They’ll say, ‘Can’t you talk about trade? Talk about your job, not your feelings’.”) But he agreed to this interview – at Stuff’s request – because he wants to encourage people to ask for help, rather than bottling up their emotions.

In many ways, Kiwis never got to meet Todd Muller. Anxiety grabbed him by the throat just five days after he landed the job. In person, he’s warm and engaging. I got a sense of what National MPs must have seen in him when they elected him as their boss.

Is he still grieving? There’s silence for a moment. “Probably.” But Muller remains enthusiastic about politics, and says the caucus is united around Judith Collins. He’s eyeing up a role in a future government.

“People will say, ‘What’s he going to be like if the pressure comes on? Does he have the capacity to step up and be a senior minister?’ Well, when you’ve been through something like this, you’re still fragile and you can have moments of vulnerability. But I certainly feel a whole lot better than I did. And if my story helps people, that’s fantastic.”

Some days, if you look closely, you’ll catch a glimpse of a tall man leaning into a bracing Wellington southerly as he strides up to the Botanic Gardens, breathing deeply all the way.

Muller is finding the road back to himself. He sees a psychologist every few months. He contorts his stiff 52-year-old body into yoga positions. And he spends plenty of time at the beach with Michelle and their three children – the people whose votes really count.

“When you talk about tough things, your kids want to see that you have a lightness about you. During summer, my youngest said, ‘Well, Dad, you lived your dream. It might have been a short dream, but you lived it’.”

Where to get help

  • 1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor.

  • Anxiety New Zealand 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

  • Depression.org.nz 0800 111 757 or text 4202

  • Kidsline 0800 54 37 54 for people up to 18 years old. Open 24/7.

  • Lifeline 0800 543 354

  • Mental Health Foundation 09 623 4812, click here to access its free resource and information service.

  • Rural Support Trust 0800 787 254

  • Samaritans 0800 726 666

  • Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

  • Supporting Families in Mental Illness 0800 732 825

  • thelowdown.co.nz Web chat, email chat or free text 5626

  • What’s Up 0800 942 8787 (for 5 to 18-year-olds). Phone counselling available Monday-Friday, noon-11pm and weekends, 3pm-11pm. Online chat is available 3pm-10pm daily.

  • Youthline 0800 376 633, free text 234, email talk@youthline.co.nz, or find online chat and other support options here.

  • If it is an emergency, click here to find the number for your local crisis assessment team.

  • In a life-threatening situation, call 111.



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