The former cabinet minister withdrew from National’s list after implying the party had valued his experience below the need for diversity. Shanti Mathias speaks to him in Dunedin as he contemplates what comes after 15 years in politics.
Michael Woodhouse is always repping – both Otago and the National Party. At his office in the Dunedin CBD, his email address is printed on the glass: email@example.com, a nod to the famous Otago colours. “That’s been my patriotic email address for 15 years,” he says, sitting down in a cafe at the Otago University campus. I can’t help but notice that he has a blue floral shirt, a blue watch strap, a blue phone case and a blue umbrella, still dripping from the icy drizzle outside. “I sort of talk about having blue and gold blood running through my veins.”
Woodhouse describes Dunedin as “the city I love, even if it doesn’t always love me back.” This will be the sixth time Woodhouse – importantly different from Labour MP and fellow former minister of immigration Michael Wood – has had his name on the ballot in Dunedin (formerly North Dunedin): he’s lost, to a Labour candidate, every single time. Barring an “electoral miracle”, the same thing will happen on October 14 – he’s kind of counting on it. “It’s far more likely than not” that he won’t be an MP after that, he says.
Losing the electorate vote tri-annually in Dunedin didn’t prevent Woodhouse from becoming a minister in 2013. Under John Key, then Bill English’s premiership, he was minister of revenue, workplace safety, immigration, ACC and police. He voted against same-sex marriage, end-of-life choice, decriminialising abortion and banning conversion therapy. In both government and opposition, he was involved in scandals, including listing “mini-golfing” as a high-risk industry while excluding dairy farming, posing with a toilet seat adorned with former Labour MP Clare Curran’s face and failing to disclose a leak of private health information during the initial Covid response in 2020.
But with his party doing better in the polls than it has for years and Woodhouse comfortably getting in on the list for five terms in parliament, why is he leaving now? Succinctly, Woodhouse describes the shift as “politics”.
When National shared its list of candidates for the election, he didn’t like the position he’d been assigned, or the process of demotion via list ranking rather than conversation – so he decided to not be on the list at all. What followed was a brief news cycle where Woodhouse implied to his local paper, the Otago Daily Times, that he was demoted because he was male. “Frankly, there is a group of hard-working male MPs with secure seats who have been given positions in the mid-50s which puts them at a very very significant disadvantage,” he was quoted as saying.
He’s more diplomatic now, saying that of course the National Party needs to have “the ability to present a caucus in waiting and a cabinet in waiting that looks like the country it serves”. He thinks the party is getting closer to that ideal: “plenty of women can win strong blue seats, albeit we don’t have balance there.” Part of that is selection processes, which are led by the local party branch for the most part. “Our members still tend to select people that look like me in strong blue seats,” he says. Woodhouse is 58, hair salt and peppered, Pākehā.
He’s thought about defecting to a safer seat, too. Perhaps Cromwell, part of the Waitaki electorate, where he owns a “little cottage”. “That’s my tūrangawaewae, if you like, my sanctuary.” But the local focus of the National Party means it doesn’t work like Labour: he mentions the example of Jacinda Ardern, who contested the Auckland Central seat and lost to Nikki Kaye, then moved to a safer red seat in Mount Albert. “Because [National’s candidate selection] is much more membership based, hopping from one seat to the next can kind of backfire on you. I wasn’t sure I would have been selected by the membership, even though I was a minister at the time,” he says, draining his long black.
Woodhouse grew up in Dunedin. He is only 14 months older than his three triplet brothers (and had five other siblings as well), and describes himself as the “fourth triplet”. “As you can imagine, it was a pretty crowded house,” he says wryly. After studying in Dunedin, he lived overseas before returning to work in the health sector, working for ACC, Dunedin Hospital and Mercy Hospital, a big private health provider in Dunedin. He has three daughters and loves rugby, talking enthusiastically about the experience of watching games at the Forsyth Barr Stadium, which he advocated for building as a first-term MP.
In 2008, he was ranked 49th on the list, and squeaked into parliament. “I wasn’t even the last through the door, I was second last,” he says; National had 44.9% of the vote that year, meaning lots of new MPs made it in. Given his career, he’s understandably positive about the MMP system.
“It’s meant that I can live in the city I love and represent the party I love,” he says. “I acted in all respects like an electorate MP, holding constituency clinics – and some of my fondest memories are being able to actually pick up the phone and give people good news.” Advocating for ACC claims and housing waitlists and residency applications, that small, tangible sense of making a direct difference has stayed with him.
There is sometimes, he says, a sense of “ego” and legitimacy to being an electorate MP, rather than a list MP. “That’s been the bane of list MPs since MMP came in.” But, he points out, every list MP can represent a constituency too – an ethnic community, a social concern – without being restricted by geography.
Out of all the portfolios Woodhouse held as a minister, one in particular meant the most to him: his five years as minister for immigration.
“It was the most risky one,” he says. “There’s definitely a graveyard behind the Beehive with the bodies of ministers who have tripped up.” At the time he was appointed, there was net outward migration and calls to increase the refugee quota, and he quickly realised how immigration was a combination of cultural, social and economic issues in one contentious package. “But I loved that portfolio: it allowed me to see parts of the community I never would have seen otherwise.” He made an effort to attend pōwhiri for new refugees at the Māngere resettlement centre. “I remember giving David Seymour a hell of a hard time one day. I got very angry about comments that he’d made about refugees and migrants… that sort of superficial populist comment just really grinded my gears.”
Woodhouse has already started making a slow exit from politics. Searching for his public Facebook page only brings up his personal account, complete with proud-parent photos of his daughters. His central Dunedin office looked empty when The Spinoff went past to check if it had a novelty email address. But he clearly intends to keep watching from the sidelines: he speaks strategically, recalling names and polling numbers from across the country.
“I think it would take a Canute-like effort to turn back the tides of change in this country,” he says, determined that there will be a change of government with Act as the minority partner. “I’m not yet prepared to concede that that is the permanent structure of the centre-right in New Zealand.” He does not mention New Zealand First or Winston Peters.
If lack of experience was his qualm about the National list, does he think that a new government would have a deficit of proficiency? “I’m mindful, as I’m sure the party is, that there will be a number of inexperienced people around the cabinet table, but they’re very talented,” he says diplomatically. He’s positive about James Meager, the Rangitata National candidate who was Woodhouse’s 2014 campaign manager, and happy to send James Christmas, 28th on the list, to electorate campaign events in his stead.
Woodhouse rattles off a list of electorates he thinks are going to flip back to National come October 15: Otāki, Upper Harbour, Northland, Whangārei. “There’s a symbiosis – if we’re winning [seats] the party vote is going up as well… there’s no point winning all the seats and still being on 35% of the party vote.”
Woodhouse has some advice for new ministers, too. “The life of a minister is a short one and you cannot waste a minute,” he says. “Get stuck in. Make mistakes. I did – some of them were quite high profile. You’re human, you’re fallible, accept them, fix them, keep moving forward. I’ll be wishing them all the best for that, if I’m not part of it.”
Woodhouse needs to leave: he’s finished his coffee and is gathering his bag and slightly dried umbrella. He seems sanguine about the way the cards have fallen: “It’s not quite what I had planned for the next three years, but that’s politics.” He doesn’t know what the shape of his life will look like after the election, but he has “lots of energy… I’ve got one more career left in me”. Perhaps another executive role: he has lots of skills, after all, from a decade and a half in politics. He looks at the miserable weather draped over the city he loves, opens his umbrella, and walks back into the rain.