Ardern opponent learning from John Howard

Ben McKay
New Zealand Opposition Leader Todd Muller aims to topple Jacinda Ardern for the top job

The man out to replace New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has studied at the hand of Australia's most successful modern-day Prime Minister, John Howard.

In a hint to how Todd Muller, elected as National leader by his partyroom in an Australian-style coup last month, might approach September's election, the 51-year-old doesn't hesitate when asked to name his most admired Australian leader.

"I'm hugely impressed by Howard," he tells AAP.

"It's his clarity around values, and how they inform his view of what Australia can be, then what the appropriate policy prescription is, and his commitment to seeing it through.

"He was highly tuned to where the the average Australian was in terms of their thinking and expectation of government.

"His ability to articulate the distinction between the liberal view of the world and the others was just breathtaking."

The opposition leader said he spent an hour with Mr Howard on a recent trip to Australia, learning "the importance of constantly listening", as Mr Howard did through radio talkback.

Mr Muller, a student of politics, has spent many years listening, reading and waiting for this moment.

A member of the centre-right National party since university, and staffer to former Prime Minister Jim Bolger, Mr Muller eschewed a chance to enter parliament in his 30s.

Instead he forged a career in agribusiness, including dairy giant Fonterra, before entering parliament in 2014.

When Ms Ardern's masterful handling of COVID-19 led to National slumping to decade-lows in the polls, Mr Muller seized the top job from Simon Bridges.

He is tight-lipped on his reasons for doing so, but agreed it was more to do with Mr Bridges' popularity, than his policies or style.

"I had reflections with colleagues and I had a view that we needed to have a change of leadership to be able to maximise our opportunities come September," he said.

"Obviously, the party room reflected on that, and agreed with me."

Mr Muller's language - to 'maximise opportunities' rather than 'win the election' - is telling.

The New Zealand electorate hasn't denied a first-term government at the polls since 1975, when larger-than-life Labour leader Norman Kirk died in office.

Still, National won't be acquiescing, and Mr Muller has already forged a different path from the government on two key issues affecting Australia; the trans-Tasman bubble and deportations.

Mr Muller has called for Ms Ardern to name a date for the establishment of business-as-usual travel between Australia and New Zealand, giving business certainty amid a contracting economy.

"Opening up a trans-Tasman bubble will be a lifeline to our tourism and hospitality sector so they can better plan their future. The government needs to lay out a timeline immediately and work hard to achieve it," he said.

Mr Muller has also promised a different approach on the thorny issue of Australia's deportations to New Zealand.

In February, with the Sydney Opera House as a backdrop, Ms Ardern stood alongside Scott Morrison and excoriated her Australian counterpart, telling him "do not deport your people and your problems".

Mr Muller shakes his head at the memory.

"I wouldn't have done it," he said.

"It was done for an entirely domestic audience.

"I thought it was a grandstanding swipe in front of the prime minister. I just don't think that adds value to the New Zealand case.

"You can do that. But that will come with cost. That cost will be subtle and it'll be informal, and it will be a strengthening and further resistance, I suspect from the Australian side to concede any of the substance of the issue."

Despite that setback, Mr Muller concedes Ms Ardern and Mr Morrison have an effective working relationship as "brothers from different mothers. I shouldn't say that but I've heard that saying before," he laughs.

On another hot-button issue, climate change, Mr Muller counts his lucky stars to be on the eastern side of the Tasman Sea.

Whereas Australia cannot find a bipartisan approach to the existential policy issue of our times, New Zealand has done so, in no small part to this work.

Mr Muller's first portfolio was as National's climate change spokesman, and he used the role to negotiate his party's support for Ms Ardern's Zero Carbon legislation.

When it passed parliament last year, it did so with the support of all major parties, establishing an independent authority to guide climate policies and removing climate change from the political fray.

"It's just extraordinary," Mr Muller says of the partisan divide in Australia.

"What I like about the framework of our Zero Carbon Act is it provides independent expert analysis, which says 'let's look at where the globe is heading in terms of temperature rise and the requirement to abate that over time. What makes sense for the New Zealand journey?'

"We're not always going to agree on the policy prescriptions there, but the fact that we have that independent sort of assessment of what is possible in New Zealand ... that's useful."