One Question Quiz
Nicola Willis on a coloured background
Nicola Willis (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsAugust 17, 2023

Nicola Willis and the race for Ōhāriu

Nicola Willis on a coloured background
Nicola Willis (Image: Tina Tiller)

National’s deputy leader has her sights set on winning the western Wellington seat in what would be her first electorate victory. Stewart Sowman-Lund joins her for an afternoon of door knocking.

Nicola Willis is ordering coffees. “Three long blacks, four flat whites… Want anything?” She looks over at me. “I don’t think it’ll change your coverage,” she adds. In that case, a flat white would be great. It’s a Sunday afternoon in the Wellington suburb of Churton Park and the deputy leader of the opposition is preparing to hit the campaign trail. While she’s been up and down the country supporting her party’s broader campaign to form the next government come October 14, Willis has been balancing that work with her goal of becoming an electorate MP for the very first time.

It’s something she’s always wanted. In her maiden address to parliament back in 2018, Willis, then a backbencher brought in late off the list after a resignation, acknowledged her loss in the Wellington Central seat and said she would still fight to represent the capital. “While I do not currently represent an electorate here, I will always work hard on their behalf. Wellington is my home, and I want it to succeed,” she told parliament.

Now, Willis is far away from the back bench. Her rise into politics was swift, owed perhaps to the “political apprenticeship” she had working as a staffer under both John Key and Bill English before entering parliament herself. There are parallels to Jacinda Ardern, who went from political staffer under a popular prime minister to a series of failed campaigns in an inner-city electorate before being propelled to deputy leader of an opposition party. Willis, similarly, climbed through the ranks in the post-English years, before being pulled up alongside Christopher Luxon to form a contrasting leadership duo in late 2021 as deputy leader. And as the election draws closer, she’s now mounting a competitive campaign to finally have an electorate of her own – but it’s not Wellington Central. 

After two losses in that seat, she’s now set her sights firmly on Ōhāriu, the expansive electorate that encompasses much of the western suburbs of Wellington, including Khandallah and Johnsonville, and parts of Lower Hutt. Rumours swirled even before Willis became deputy leader that she wanted to contest the seat, though her campaign formally launched in November of last year. 

Nicola Willis (centre) with some of her volunteers (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

For years, Ōhāriu was synonymous with Peter Dunne, the long-standing leader of United Future. But since 2017 it’s been held by Labour’s Greg O’Connor, who swept easily back into parliament in 2020 with a 12,000 vote majority. While the “red wave” of the last election means O’Connor’s victory may have been somewhat inflated, Willis realises she’s still got a mountain to climb if she wants to unseat him. “It’s clearly a very sizeable majority… and the combined vote on the left is pretty significant,” she tells me. O’Connor appears quietly confident, having opted not to run on Labour’s list, though he’s certainly not complacent about going up against a high-profile opponent. “Every election is new,” he says over the phone. “And as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t treat every election as a 50-50 then you shouldn’t be there. Every vote is earned and re-earned, so it’s a little bit like when you’re advised how to select a financial adviser. Previous success is not necessarily an indicator of future success.”

There are about eight National Party volunteers – plus a campaign manager – in the cafe with us. Blue T-shirts and badges are being distributed and there’s an initial air of suspicion as to why a journalist has decided to tag along (Willis instructs any talk of an impending policy announcement to be kept to a minimum). Willis has been out and about in the electorate pretty much every week since the start of the year, and even a bit in 2022. “It’s my favourite part of campaigning, ’cause you get that really granular feedback,” Willis says. “I find it really energising, that personal connection and meeting people.” While anyone could be a politician, says Willis, many are naturally extroverts and tend to enjoy the part of their job that involves getting out of their office and into the public eye. 

Door knocking with Willis’s team is a well-organised affair. An app records which streets have already been flyered and if there’s any known information about particular voters on particular streets, like those who may be on the fence and should have a follow-up visit (and those who definitely don’t need to be visited again). Paired up with a volunteer who Willis says has been a fixture on her last couple of campaigns, we drive towards our first stop. “Woah,” says Willis, pointing at a prominent billboard with her face on it. “That’s a brilliant sign, everyone in Churton Park will see that.”

We park at the top of a quiet suburban street overlooking the sprawl of Wellington. Willis is wearing a party blue campaign jacket and carrying a stack of flyers. “I am a mum of four school-aged children aged seven through to 13, a successful member of parliament and proud Wellingtonian,” they read. “A vote for me is a vote for an energetic advocate with a proven track-record who will get things done for you.” 

Greg O'Connor arrives at parliament
Willis’s main opponent in Ōhāriu is Greg O’Connor (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Many of the issues raised over the afternoon are those being reflected in the national political discussion. The cost of living, crime, healthcare, and a smattering of more tense social issues. On crime, one woman describes to Willis the toll of repeated break-ins at her partner’s work, including the fear that it will keep happening and the protectiveness they feel for staff. At one house, a man clocks that it’s Willis and excitedly calls out for his wife – a big fan – to join him on the doorstep. Willis politely declines a cup of tea, but nevertheless spends 10 minutes talking to the pair. “I feel abandoned,” the woman says, her eyes visibly welling up. Her retirement savings are being dissolved, she says, with healthcare eating into more and more of their bank balance. They’re worried about paying the bills and the thought of going on a holiday, something they haven’t done for years, is a distant dream. Her neighbour echoes these concerns. “Sometimes it feels like you’re being punished for working hard,” she says.

While Willis starts off her speech similarly at each door – a variation of “I’m campaigning to be your local representative in Ōhāriu” – she’s masterful at reading her potential constituents. For example, she explains to me, if she “senses there are kids in the house” then she’ll quickly bring up National’s policies around childcare and education, name-dropping colleagues like education spokesperson Erica Stanford. Or if they seem like a working couple, she’ll switch to talking tax relief. “It’s very common for people to say they’re busy and then you just have to keep talking,” Willis says. 

Then there’s the promise of being a senior minister, should National win the election. Willis is in line to become finance minister in a Luxon-led government, though the presence of a coalition partner like Act means she’ll probably miss out on becoming deputy prime minister. At most homes, she tells the occupant she’d like to be “your representative in cabinet”, explaining that Ōhāriu always had Peter Dunne relaying concerns back to the top brass of government. 

O’Connor isn’t a cabinet minister and hasn’t been since entering parliament in 2017, though he dismisses Willis’s strategy as nothing more than a “slogan”. “When you’re in cabinet, you’re owned by your portfolio. Your ability to service your electorate and to have that broad brush understanding of issues across the board is relatively limited,” he tells me.

Nicola Willis and her campaign car (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

Not every house on the quiet cul de sac is excited by Willis’s unexpected visit, though the reception is on the whole warm. One occupant is on the fence about voting for her, but there’s enough of a flicker of interest that Willis tells her volunteer they “will definitely be hearing more from us”. Another person raises environmental concerns around National, allowing Willis to speak passionately about her “blue-green” credentials. In her maiden speech, Willis mentioned James Shaw, another of her former competitors in the Wellington Central seat, and noted that she would “continue to persuade [him] of the merits of a ‘teal deal’.” 

The door is slammed on Willis at another house almost immediately – the only overtly angry response Willis receives while we’re out door knocking – with the occupant aggressively condemning remarks made earlier that week by Christopher Luxon. “[His] comments about sexuality in schools… we’ve just had a long conversation about that,” the man says, gesturing to his young child. “You guys are bad news.” (Our visit was just days after Luxon had told a public meeting that “sexuality issues should be dealt with in the home”.) Then, at the next house, a woman expresses her fear that her daughter may have to use a bathroom with someone who wasn’t born a woman. Willis pushes back, gently, saying she hadn’t heard of any instances of girls being unsafe – “but I think it’s important that I listen to you”.

“That’s amazing, two houses in a row with completely different views,” Willis says as we walk back towards the street. “I promise I didn’t set that up.” It’s an issue that’s raised with her a lot, and one that’s tricky to navigate, says Willis. “There isn’t a set curriculum for sexuality in primary schools. There are some guidelines that have gone out and schools are interpreting them in incredibly varied ways, so there’s quite a wave of parents saying ‘I’m not happy about what’s being taught, how has this happened?’”

Willis won’t disclose whether or not National has done any polling in Ōhāriu, but says she judges her success on what people are telling her in person. “I think the shift that I’ve noticed is that in my initial stages of putting myself forward as the candidate, a lot of the doors that I knocked on, people would say ‘it’s great the deputy leader of the National Party’s on my doorstep… tell me who is your candidate in Ōhāriu?’ and I would say ‘it’s actually me’.” She’s also been receiving a lot more correspondence from people asking for her particular stances on issues in the electorate, noting that National’s position on the long-gestating Let’s Get Wellington Moving proposal (scrap it and focus on new motorways and an additional Mount Victoria tunnel) has been well received. “That tells me that our campaign is gaining momentum,” she says. 

Former Ōhāriu MP Peter Dunne (Image: Getty Images)

Whether that momentum plays out is hard to predict at this stage. Earlier this year, Peter Dunne said in a column that which way Ōhāriu would fall on election night was a “toss-up”, but suggested Willis may have the upper hand. “Ōhāriu matches Willis’s profile far more closely than the incumbent, the oldest MP for the area since Harry Combs 70 years ago,” he wrote, noting that National would be going “all out” to win the seat. 

Due to Ōhāriu’s limited history of MPs – just three since its creation in 1978, including 30 years of Dunne – the seat can hardly be referred to as a bellwether. But Willis says it’s a microcosm of the country, one that’s equally as concerned about the broad picture issues that National is focusing on this election. And she’s driven by a desire to take those concerns into government as both a minister and a local MP. “I think the honour of truly representing people – being able to be the one that fights for a constituent, no matter what the issue is, removed from left and right politics but more ‘how can I be your advocate’ – there’s something very rewarding about that.”

Keep going!