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Willow Jean Prime on a red background
Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime (Image: Getty, additional design Tina Tiller)

PoliticsSeptember 14, 2023

‘You’ve got to go hard’: Willow-Jean Prime’s fight to keep hold of Northland

Willow Jean Prime on a red background
Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime (Image: Getty, additional design Tina Tiller)

It flipped to Labour by the thinnest of margins in 2020, but polling suggests Northland will go back to blue come October 14. Stewart Sowman-Lund asks Willow-Jean Prime whether she can win it again.

On the drive into Northland, the highway is littered with political placards. National’s candidate Grant McCallum, a farmer and first time political hopeful, stares out from most paddocks, as do the faces of David Seymour, Shane Jones and even Matt King, the former National MP turned conspiracy figurehead. There are just a handful of Labour signs, many only featuring Chris Hipkins, despite Willow-Jean Prime being the electorate MP since 2020.

Prime has been in parliament since 2017. In 2020, she took the Northland seat off National’s Matt King by the slimmest of margins – just 163 votes – in what was one of the biggest surprises in an election of few. It makes her the first woman to ever hold the traditionally conservative seat and the first time Labour has had control of it since its creation in 1996 (the previous Bay of Islands electorate had not been held by Labour since the 1930s).

But it will be an uphill battle for Prime to retain the seat. A new poll out this week showed support for McCallum was almost twice that for Prime and 22% of her supporters from the last election were now backing the opposition. 

‘It’s not the safest seat that it once was for National’

It’s a few days before that poll result when Prime stops for a drink in a Paihia bar. She’s fresh off a day on the campaign trail and the following morning she’ll head out of town again. Northland is one of the country’s biggest general electorates. Within it are large farms and small towns, a mix of demographics and a broad spectrum of incomes. It seems almost unfair to have the entire region lumped under one member of parliament.

Despite the polling landscape, Prime is campaigning hard. “What I have always believed is if I have the opportunity to put myself in front of people, show what skills and abilities I have, that maybe I could swing some of those votes,” she says. “I didn’t think it would happen as soon as six years, I think I definitely benefited from [Labour’s] vote outcome in 2020.”

It’s fair to characterise Northland as a “true blue” electorate, believes Prime, but notes that it was briefly held by New Zealand First after Winston Peters won it in a 2015 byelection. “I wouldn’t say it’s a hugely marginal seat but I think that was a demonstration [for National] not to take their vote for granted. Since then it’s really been up for grabs, it’s not the safest seat that it once was for National.” 

New cabinet minister Willow-Jean Prime speaks to media
Willow-Jean Prime in 2020 (Photo: Getty Image)

Before politics, Prime was a lawyer with a specialisation in treaty settlements and Māori governance, issues that have ongoing relevance in her current job. Her political career started in 2013 when she was elected to the Far North District Council at age 30. The following year she contested the Northland electorate for Labour but was unsuccessful, as she was during the 2015 byelection.

She entered parliament off Labour’s list in 2017 and was famously pictured just two months into the job breastfeeding her three-month old in the parliamentary debating chamber. Under Jacinda Ardern, in 2019, she was appointed as the parliamentary private secretary for local government. And then, earlier this year, after Chris Hipkins became prime minister, Prime became a minister for the first time. She didn’t just pick up one portfolio, but four: conservation, youth, associate arts and associate health (and, later, associate statistics). They were positions she’d asked for, but she still couldn’t believe it when Hipkins rang her with the promotion. “I wasn’t expecting it but it was a very nice surprise,” Prime says. “All I could hear were more being listed but I had switched off after youth… I was like thank you so much, but sorry can you repeat those again.”

Eight months isn’t a long time to make an impact as a minister, but she’s had a few wins. In July, she announced new funding for local Māori and Pacific pediatric health providers, which she said would be “transformative” for maternity services. And last month, as conservation minister, planned new protections for Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf were released. If Labour is re-elected, Prime will be leading the party’s drive to implement free cervical screening – a pledge she announced just this week.

With baby Heeni at parliament and breastfeeding in the debating chamber, 2017. (Photos: Parliament TV, Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

No more drama

At the Paihia bar, Prime orders a mocktail named No More Drama, which feels appropriate given the internal ructions that have boiled over in Labour’s caucus this year. Ministers have departed in scandal and the polls have collapsed as a result. Prime won’t read too much into the name of the drink, despite some prompting. “Every election campaign is drama,” she says. 

But it’s fair to say, at least for now, that Prime’s political career has benefitted from a messy year for Labour. Her most recent ascension up the party list was to fill a list position vacated by departing minister Kiri Allan. It was hard watching what happened to her friend, Prime says, especially since the two shared so much in common. “We have done really similar things in our lives, and seeing and knowing she was going through a tough time – that’s not how she would have chosen for things to have unfolded.”

Prime says that despite the circumstances that propelled her off the backbench, she had earned the promotion. “Anybody could fill that gap, there are so many capable people in that team. While I don’t want to be whakahihi [arrogant] about it, I believe that I have worked hard to be where I am and to even be considered for those roles,” she says. “You don’t get there without merit and I believe I have worked hard, demonstrated I’m a team player and naturally things happen in politics… but again, never take anything for granted. I don’t take it lightly, it’s a huge responsibility.”

The biggest concern Prime’s hearing about from voters is the state of the roads. It’s not surprising. This year’s severe weather saw the region almost cut off entirely, and the main highway to Auckland is littered with potholes. National has made repairing the roads a priority should it be reelected, but Prime says the Labour government has been investing millions as well. Still, it’s a difficult argument to win, she admits, because no matter how much you are pouring into the infrastructure, “people don’t see it and feel it. They’ll probably only notice it when it gets even worse.”

Housing has also become a major issue in the region, and Prime expresses frustration that some Kāinga Ora developments have been stalled due to opposition from locals. A recent project in Kerikeri was downscaled after residents expressed concern over density and a lack of open space. Prime’s heard this raised by locals before. “They’re like, we can’t service more population or more housing,” says Prime. “If that is your argument, are you also saying there should be no sub-divisions [and] no retirement villages? Because all of those people have the same pressures. Or is it just that you don’t want any Kāinga Ora houses?” 

Co-governance opposition has also reared its head in the electorate. When she made a call-out on social media for questions related to her Northland campaign, Prime says none were asking about co-governance. But at a recent public meeting, she estimates 95% of the questions were from those concerned about the issue. She isn’t afraid to confront it when asked by potential voters. “I’m like ‘please tell me more so I can understand where you’re coming from’. It is misinformation [and] it is strongly held views. When I debunk what they are saying, they don’t like it. They are not accepting what I’m saying,” she says, referring to the recent meeting. 

She’s worried because the demographic most concerned about the issue is also more likely to vote. “What I said to some of those people the other day was: I believe you are intelligent people, you should be able to see that this is dog whistling happening, you should be going to find the accurate information. And once you’ve been given it, and you still hold that view, then I think you’re just racist. I said that.”

Willow-Jean Prime entertains Jacinda Ardern’s daughter Neve at Waitangi (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

‘It’s a different vibe out there now’

While many politicians thrive during an election campaign, Prime is less enthusiastic when asked if she’s having fun. She’s fed up with the polarisation and the personal attacks and believes it’s getting worse. There seem to be no boundaries, she says. Recently, Prime says she was ambushed by someone while at a public playground with her daughter in Whangārei. “I was in the car and I could hear [a woman] say ‘oh that fucking Willow-Jean Prime, she’s useless’. My daughter came running back from the playground and jumped in the car and the lady realised I was in the car, saw my child and then she yelled at me: ‘I hope you lose Willow-Jean Prime!'”

“My six year old says ‘Mum, why is that lady yelling at you?’ Of course I’m not going to have an argument in front of my six year old.” Her husband pointed out a sticker for Democracy NZ – Matt King’s party – on the woman’s car.

People seem to feel entitled to be as rude as they like, says Prime. “I’m used to people not voting for you or not being supporters, but the way they are expressing that now is different. It’s a different vibe out there now.”

The woman who yelled at her certainly encountered Prime out and about in the community, but many residents have complained that she’s not present enough around the electorate. The complaints have made their way to her on social media and been brought up in public meetings too. Her lack of hoardings likely doesn’t help – though Prime thinks signs on their own aren’t enough to convince people to vote – but she says people aren’t getting the full picture.

Partly, she says, the size of the electorate means it’s impossible for her to be everywhere all the time. But it’s also because she’s balancing the job of campaigning with the job she already has, that of local MP. “I like to spend my time connecting with communities and communities who are doing things and need representation and a voice,” Prime explains. “Sometimes a community will say ‘well we don’t really see you here’ and sometimes I think that’s more a reflection of them than me, because where the communities are doing things I am there supporting those things.”

With just a month left of the campaign, Prime says she’s committed to the community no matter the outcome of the election. She wouldn’t consider quitting politics if she loses or if Labour leaves government. Don’t get her wrong, she would much rather be a politician in government. “But I was a lawyer before I came to parliament, so I reckon I’d be a pretty good [opposition MP],” she says. “Their job would not be easy.”

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