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Nicola Willis is National’s deputy leader and expert on housing. (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Nicola Willis is National’s deputy leader and expert on housing. (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The BulletinDecember 16, 2021

Nicola Willis on National’s reset and its plan for next year

Nicola Willis is National’s deputy leader and expert on housing. (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Nicola Willis is National’s deputy leader and expert on housing. (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The opposition’s new deputy leader says recent changes have already turned National around and the party is ready to win back the voters it has lost since 2017, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

After two weeks, National says its “reset” is working. Nicola Willis hasn’t moved into the deputy leader’s office yet, but she says the changes made to National over the past two weeks have already turned the party towards success. Willis has hit the road in recent days with leader Christopher Luxon to introduce themselves to supporters in the party’s rural heartland. “People can feel the reset”, she says.

A note on this story: The Bulletin reached out to Luxon’s office numerous times over the past two weeks for this end-of-year series that spoke with all the other major party leaders, but he was unavailable.

National’s plan to fix its ongoing struggle with women. Despite surging in the polls since the Luxon-Willis ticket took the leadership, National is still struggling with one large voter bloc: women. Willis says it isn’t anything to be too concerned about, as support from women has risen and fallen historically. National has a plan to win back their support.

“We need to appeal to women on the issues that matter to them in their everyday lives. Which is, do I feel like I’m getting ahead? Do I feel like my wages are keeping up with the cost of living? Do I see an aspiration that I can have a good future in this country for me, and potentially my kids if I have them?” she says. “The issues that concern women are the issues that concern all of us”.

Luxon’s impact on female voters. Former leader Judith Collins had a detrimental impact on the female vote in the 2020 election. And now Luxon’s views on abortion have raised a different set of concerns. Andrea Vance wrote a column in the Sunday Star-Times on the weekend where she concluded that “Luxon’s views speak volumes about a disdainful attitude to women”. Willis read the column and disagrees with Vance’s opinion.

“I just think that she underestimates the ability of people to see matters of faith separately from matters of policy and it’s been my experience that women are quite able of seeing capability in a leader and to trust in the policies of a party while disagreeing with them on conscience issues like abortion. That was the case with Bill English, who was a very trusted finance minister and prime minister,” she says.

“I think the definitive statement that Chris Luxon has made, that is critically important, is that as prime minister he doesn’t intend to revisit New Zealand’s abortion laws. For me, that’s where it starts and ends,” Willis concludes. Next question.

Attracting more diverse candidates. The party’s list didn’t have any openly LGBTQ+ candidates last year. When will that change? “I hope very soon,” she says, adding that the party has many LGBTQ+ supporters and members. “I see every reason to believe that one of them will emerge as a candidate”.

Should a winning position on the list be set aside for one of them? “I support having the best candidates we can on our list,” says Willis.

The trusty sidekick and the conservative leader. One of the challenges facing the new leadership team is how to balance the party’s conservative and progressive wings. The merry-go-round of recent leaders has tried to solve the problem in different ways. Willis says that while she can speak for the more progressive faction, Luxon has a “modern leadership style” that balances rural, urban and conservative voices. “National has historically done best as a broad church and I guess that’s epitomised by our leadership team,” she says. “My job is to be a trusty sidekick and to ensure that National puts its best foot forward”.

The big changes to the bipartisan housing bill. Mere hours after Luxon became leader he signalled that changes would be coming to a bipartisan housing bill that National was advancing with Labour. The townhouse bill needed to listen more to local concerns about intensification, he said. Focus immediately turned to Willis, who is the party’s most outspoken voice on housing and was a force behind the effort. Did she need to compromise for the changes?

“I think people have totally misinterpreted what’s happened with that housing bill,” she says. “National signed up to progress legislation to reduce the red tape and consenting barriers that have held up housing in urban centres. We’ve said right from the beginning that it was critically important to take on the views of local authorities, stakeholders and residents.” After the changes over the past week, which have left councils with more powers to control development and brought more design considerations into the remaining restrictions, it’s a better law, she adds.

This is the final instalment in our end-of-year series speaking to party leaders.

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