Don’t be afraid to speak about mental health problems says Todd Muller

“You can sense the pain because you have gone through it”: Todd Muller in Parliament (RNZ Photo by VNP/Phil Smith)

Johnny Blades
RNZ (The House), Wellington, July 30, 2023

If there is one thing this retiring MP would change about Parliament, it is that more members would access services to help them manage their mind and body health to be resilient for the tumultuous times that come and go as part of the job.

Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller is leaving Parliament at the end of this term, wrapping up a nine-year stint which many will remember for the brief period in which he took over as Leader of the National Party, then stood down in the face of a mental breakdown.

He survived to tell the tale and finishes up as an MP with a knack for bipartisanship and thriving in select committees, and an advocate for recognising the human factor in the Parliament game.

Mental Health pressures

Events last week related to the resignation of Cabinet minister Kiri Allan have brought renewed focus on mental health pressures facing MPs. Muller has spoken in support of Allan with empathy for the difficult position that she has been undergoing. He admits that the past few days have been triggering.

“You can sense the pain because you have gone through it. It just brings elements of it back, because certainly in my case – and I can only ever talk about my case – mental health recovery is a journey. It is not like flicking a switch. You do not fall over then have a pill or two, or go for a walk and do some Yoga, and the switch gets flicked up again. It is a long process of self-reflection and building resilience, and having days which are not as good as other days, and realising actually that is okay, it is just being human,” he said.

The events of 2020 – at this exact point in the election cycle during the previous term – have been well documented already. If replacing Simon Bridges as Opposition Leader was dramatic, the move to step down after seven-and-a-half weeks was even more so.

Mr Muller’s openness about walking away was remarkable, and the care of close friends and family was a testament to him.

There was general respect for his need to have time and space to heal.

“The support from National MPs was limited”: Todd Muller on reflection (RNZ Photo by Samuel Rillstone)

Limited National support

But did his National Party colleagues offer much support?

“It was limited. A couple of phone calls were well received by then-leader Judith Collins, but I was largely left to my own devices. Arguably, having space to have true love and support around you is caring, although… it is a fine balance. The short answer is it felt very lonely.

“I think there was a number within the National Party who felt extremely let down and were angry, because from their perspective they could see my actions, in standing initially and then walking away, as having a materially detrimental effect to their political career,” Mr Muller said.

With an accomplished corporate career, including roles at Zespri and Fonterra under his belt, Mr Muller entered Parliament in the third term of the John Key-led government.

It was 2014 and the National Party’s 80-year brand was on a high, leveraging the popularity of their leader. Mr Muller was among a new wave of fresh faces coming through in Team Key T-shirts.

“When you start as an MP, and you are a backbencher at the back of a confident and popular government, in some ways it is quite an easy transition because it is very clear who the leaders are. It is very clear what is expected of you,” he said.

Mr Muller described it as feeling very much like a boarding school in the sense that there was a well-defined hierarchy, and he had his place. Muller pointed out however that he did not attend boarding school. It was Tauranga Boys College for him.

Opportunities to contribute

However, opportunities come along with time. Select Committee work was the ideal avenue for the Bay of Plenty MP to learn the ropes and get opportunities to contribute.

“Your ability to contribute to a Select Committee conversation, have the personality and competence to be able to manage, both the public when they turn up, but also your own colleagues and other opposition MPs, I guess the leadership look for that.”

During his three terms, Mr Muller has been on Foreign Affairs and Trade, Environment, Social Services and Education Select Committees. In the latter, he was the Deputy Chair, working eye-to-eye with Chris Hipkins, which he described as a “great learning curve.”

“Probably the Committee I was most proud of and learnt the most in was chairing Foreign Affairs and Trade. David Shearer was on it, Annette King was on it, and so these are formidable Opposition MPs when you are chairing, and I learnt a lot about having humility, being very clear around what we needed to achieve as a government as a majority on that Committee, but also acknowledging the skills and expertise and experience in the room, and I think I did that quite well,” Mr Muller said.

Working with the Opposition

His role in these conversations marked him out as “someone who had the ability to walk across and work across both sides of the house.”

The reputation was further forged by Mr Muller’s work as an Opposition MP on the Zero Carbon Act with Climate Minister James Shaw, committing extensive time and energies to navigate the complexities of a major issue in a bipartisan approach, which he said should be applied to other critical areas for the country.

“We started from that premise that actually, climate change was a multi-generational challenge. Parliament needed to, as an institution, have the capacity to deal with it with the largest breadth of support possible, and frankly, the two main tribes, if you like, of New Zealand politics, Labour and National, have to be broadly aligned around how we deal with it.”

Mr Muller’s Parliamentary career has been an arc, and there ought to be an acknowledgement that by putting his hand up about mental health issues and showing it is okay to seek help, he did everyone a service. He is grateful for the specialist support that was on offer in the Parliament system.

“At Parliament, we have employee assistance programmes, and so I lent on that. It made me realise that often the support systems are here. It is just that people do not use them. And I think that politicians in particular do not use them, because it will be seen as a weakness, either to themselves or let alone if anyone else found out if you are using those support structures. That is the bit that needs to change about this place,” he said.

Gratitude and Excitement

The 54-year-old said he was leaving Parliament with gratitude and excitement about the next stage of his life. Before we parted ways, I asked if he had any advice for new MPs coming in or those staying on.

“Don’t take it too seriously at one level. The job is important but you have got to be able to laugh at yourself. The other thing is, be really interested in other people and build relationships because we are all here trying to do a job, and actually understanding the story behind the public face is fascinating,” Mr Muller said.

Johnny Blades is a Journalist at Radio New Zealand based in Wellington. The above article was covered under ‘The House,’ journalism focused on Parliamentary legislation, issues and insights, with funding from Parliament’s Office of the Clerk.

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