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Nicola Willis and Christopher Luxon (Image: Tina Tiller)
Nicola Willis and Christopher Luxon (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsAugust 3, 2023

As Luxon’s popularity slumps, Nicola Willis could be National’s secret weapon

Nicola Willis and Christopher Luxon (Image: Tina Tiller)
Nicola Willis and Christopher Luxon (Image: Tina Tiller)

National’s deputy says it’s not her job to make Christopher Luxon more attractive to voters. Even so, she tells Stewart Sowman-Lund, the public is responding to what the leadership duo has to offer.

National’s leader is still struggling to convince the public he’s prime minister material, despite polling now consistently showing that his party will be in a position to form a government come October 14. But his deputy Nicola Willis says she’s not out to make Christopher Luxon more palatable to New Zealand voters, instead arguing the pair complement one another well.

Last night’s Newshub Reid Research poll had the National Party edging ahead on 36.6%, but support for Luxon as preferred prime minister slid further behind Chris Hipkins, down to 15.9% compared to the prime minister’s 24%. Luxon’s polling has consistently been lower than his party’s growing popularity with the public, as he finds himself unable to translate his party’s growing strength in the polls into personal support. 

Enter Nicola Willis. There’s certainly no sign she’s gunning for the top job (though there was a brief rumour in May that she’d been rallying the business community to her side) and nor is she making any waves in the preferred prime minister polling. Instead, speaking to The Spinoff from her parliamentary office this week, Willis says she and Luxon together formed a strong pairing. 

“We… bring different strengths to the table and different backgrounds and different experiences. Quite obviously we are at different stages of life… and I think that gives me a different worldview on a day to day basis,” she says. “I think it is important to a lot of people to see that National contains within our tent a range of views on those issues and that we are able to represent them.”

Unlike Hipkins and his deputy Carmel Sepuloni, and Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson before them, National’s leadership pairing couldn’t be more different. They come from different sides of the party’s “broad church”: Luxon is an evangelical Christian and a social conservative, while Willis has said her views could be “loosely described as liberal”. It’s not totally unusual to have chalk and cheese leaders. The pairing of Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters took a while to appear natural, if it ever did. But that pairing was born out of necessity – a coalition agreement – rather than choice. In the last National government, John Key and Bill English held contrasting social views, as did the subsequent leadership team of Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett.

That Willis isn’t surging in the preferred prime minister rankings either is good news for Luxon. This isn’t an Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern situation. Instead, it’s clear the party wants to promote Luxon and Willis as a pairing, as Labour did when Ardern was deputy to Little. Both Luxon and Willis adorn National billboards up and down the country, while Labour’s “In It For You” banners display only a grinning Hipkins. At parliament, the pair often front media together, including yesterday when they both walked down onto the black and white tiles to criticise Labour’s vote against a paid parental leave bill – put forward by Willis – that had support from across the House.

Nicola Willis and Christopher Luxon (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Willis, however, disagrees with the assertion that her role as deputy is to make Luxon more palatable to the wider public. “I don’t see it that way,” Willis says. Instead: “I think the fact he wants me there as his deputy shows you that he’s really confident in being able to hold those different views within his team.” 

She volunteers the example of Luxon’s view on abortion. While his position (against) pulled him into a media storm early on in his leadership, he has stated on several occasions the existing laws won’t change. Earlier this year, he vowed to resign if he u-turned on that pledge. “He’s been really clear that New Zealand’s abortion law settings are not up for debate and I’ve put on the record that were there to be any question of them being changed than that’s something I wouldn’t tolerate,” says Willis, adding that she is “pro-choice, in favour of end of life choice, [and] someone who has always tried to attend rainbow rallies and the like”.

National’s leader and a handful of senior MPs, Willis included, have been on something of a nationwide charm offensive in recent months. Their “Get New Zealand Back on Track” tour kicked off in Auckland’s Birkenhead in May, and Luxon was questioned by voters on a range of issues at the event. While his performance was relatively impressive, he generated headlines over comments about government departments being given Māori names. That triggered a secondary controversy regarding bilingual road signs.

That same issue reared its head again last month after an edited video of Luxon’s speech at a Nelson event was shared on social media. Luxon called it a “Labour hit job”, claiming his remarks had been taken out of context. And just last week, Newsroom reported comments from Luxon that “sexuality issues should be dealt with in the home, and by parents and within their own family environments in the home”, reigniting concerns in some quarters about his conservative social views.

Meanwhile, Willis has been performing strongly over recent weeks. Just yesterday, she delivered a powerhouse speech on her paid parental leave bill that one political editor described on Twitter as “one of the best speeches the House has seen during this term”. Last week, she grabbed headlines by releasing what she claimed was leaked information from Labour’s as-yet-unreleased tax policy. She won’t deny having more up her sleeve, telling The Spinoff she has “no doubt that over the next days and weeks there are going to be more and more leaks coming out”. She’s also running a competitive, grassroots campaign to unseat Greg O’Connor in Ōhāriu. Her political record is largely clean, though she did take part in the rolling of party leader Simon Bridges in 2020 that ushered in the brief tenure of Todd Muller.

Willis pushes back when asked if she’s frustrated at being drawn into controversies caused by Luxon. While deputies often act as proxies for their leaders, Willis seems to find herself in that unfortunate position relatively often, forced to correct the record or change the narrative after comments Luxon has made. When, in May, Luxon faced backlash for promising to reinstate prescription fees, including on contraceptives, Willis rounded on the government for what she called “ridiculous, baseless attacks”, including Megan Woods’ sharing of a Handmaid’s Tale meme on Twitter. And in June, Newshub reported that Willis “unleashed on journalists” who had taken comments by Luxon about New Zealanders having more babies “out of context”.

“I think the reality of the fast moving parliamentary environment is that someone will get asked something one day, another person will get it asked another day when there’s a bit of water gone under the bridge and more information’s come to play,” Willis says of her approach to steering the party’s narrative. “That’s just the reality of being a leader and a deputy.”

Luxon has promised her the role of finance minister should National be elected in October, Willis says. It was, he told her, a non-negotiable regardless of what coalition partner (or partners) National may need to form a government. However, Willis is unwilling to speculate on another key role she will likely be eying up: deputy prime minister. The Herald’s Audrey Young this week posited that Act’s David Seymour would be best placed to pick up that position if his party propped up Luxon. “That’s a hypothetical, there’s a long way to run until the various votes are delivered for parties,” Willis says. 

And as for the looming spectre of Winston Peters and New Zealand First, there is little Willis will say about that either, opting to reiterate talking points Luxon has repeatedly made. “At this point, New Zealand First aren’t looking as though they’ll make the 5% threshold,” she says. While a Roy Morgan survey this week showed Peters’ party would scrape back into parliament, Newshub’s poll had New Zealand First sitting below the required threshold – just – on 4.1%.

“Those who work around here would tell you I’ve been disparaging about Roy Morgan polls for a long time,” says Willis. “Luxon has made it clear that he thinks that’s a hypothetical at this point, they’re not even in parliament. He’ll have more to say about that in due course.”

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