National’s new deputy leader has long been talked about as one of the party’s stars in waiting – but her rise to the top has not come without controversy, Sam Sachdeva reports

The life of a deputy leader is a relatively thankless one.

In Chris Luxon’s first press conference atop the National Party, his newly anointed second in command Nicola Willis was barely called upon – to be precise, she had about 30 seconds of speaking time in a roughly 24-minute event.

She smiled approvingly and nodded along with Luxon, until (just) one question was directed her way: who is Nicola Willis?

“I am a mother of four beautiful children with an incredible, supportive husband, I am someone with a hard head but a soft heart, and I’m someone who wants to work with this man to make this country a much better place for all of us.”

But that is under-selling both Willis’ background and the political nous which brought her the deputy leadership.

Purely in terms of elected office, Willis is not all that more experienced than Luxon.

After a false start following the 2017 election, when preliminary results had her securing a seat via National’s list only for the final tally to leave her short, the Wellington-based MP made it second time lucky in April 2018 after the departure of Bill English and Steven Joyce.

But Willis’ time in Parliament stretches back to 2003, when she joined English’s office as a researcher shortly after he had been rolled by Don Brash in the wake of National’s disastrous 2002 election.

She moved onto Brash’s team, then that of his replacement John Key, with former National chief of staff Wayne Eagleson telling Stuff earlier this year of a memorable mock debate ahead of the 2008 election when Willis “absolutely dealt to” the Opposition leader.

Nicola Willis, pictured in 2017, started off her career as a researcher for Bill English after he was deposed by Don Brash in 2003. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“We had to stop the debate at one point because we thought we didn’t want John’s confidence to be knocked,” Eagleson told Stuff.

“If you look back to that election, the fact John was widely considered to have won that first leaders’ debate against Helen Clark was a really big deal, and Nicola played a big part in it.”

Sir John has gone some way towards repaying the favour, having provided guidance and acted as a mentor – before Luxon’s arrival, it was Willis who was seen as the Key protégé most likely to become National leader and potentially prime minister.

Her ascent has been suitably stratospheric: last May, she rose from 45th to 14th on the party’s caucus rankings after Todd Muller ousted Simon Bridges, then a spot further to 13th when Judith Collins succeeded Muller.

The latter promotion came despite Willis’ role as a lieutenant in Muller’s ill-fated coup, one of the few black spots on her resume.

Bitterness about her role led to some in the party coining an unflattering nickname, ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ (one with more than a tinge of sexism, given no epithet seems to have been attached to fellow liberal Chris Bishop who played a similar role in elevating Muller).

But there is no denying that Willis has earned her rapid rise, most recently through her battles with Megan Woods in the housing portfolio.

Speaking to Newsroom earlier this year, Willis said housing issues loomed large in most of the social challenges facing New Zealanders.

“When you think about education, one of the indicators of a lack of educational achievement is transience, and why are people transient? Well, they’re having to move from house to house because they can’t afford the rent on offer.”

She has grilled the housing minister over a number of issues, most recently Kāinga Ora’s attempts to obscure its knowledge of a paid advertorial involving a Labour candidate (resulting in a Public Service Commission investigation) and the housing agency’s apparent ban on the eviction of those in state housing, despite threatening behaviour from some tenants.

But Willis has also proved adept at collaboration as well as competition, working with Woods on bipartisan legislation to streamline housing intensification in a bid to head off nimbyism. 

Nicola Willis and Chris Luxon have vastly opposing views on social issues. Photo: Sam Sachdeva

The reforms have attracted more than their fair share of criticism, including from some within her own party (National MP Simon O’Connor last week expressed some concerns about the bipartisan accord).

Even before Luxon’s equivocation on Tuesday, Willis had indicated that some changes would likely be made following the select committee’s impending report – but exactly how wide-ranging any amendments proposed by National are, and the party’s response should the Government decline to adopt them, will be an early test of her sway over its direction.

Given deputy leaders often take on some caucus disciplinary duties, it will also be interesting to see if Bridges and any others harbour resentment at being kept in line by one of the people they blame for the party’s misfortune.

Then there is the issue of the Luxon-Willis pairing, and whether they have the necessary chemistry and relationship to manage the highs and lows of life in opposition.

Luxon told reporters he had known his deputy since her time at Fonterra in between parliamentary stints. Exactly how they became acquainted was left unclear, but in addition to their mutual admiration of Key there is an Air New Zealand connection; Willis’ husband Duncan Small served as the airline’s head of government and industry affairs from 2015 to 2018.

As a supporter of abortion rights, gay marriage and euthanasia, Willis’ social liberalism contrasts with but also complements Luxon’s religious conservatism – a fact leaned on by the new leader as he was grilled by RNZ’s Lisa Owen over his views.

Her experience on the parliamentary precinct could also help the leaders deal with any procedural snafus brought about by his inexperience.

On the other hand, you cannot discount the risk of Willis “doing an Ardern” and outshining her leader, even if Luxon is a very different man to Andrew Little.

But if she can bring the same rigour to the deputy role that she has to housing, and if she can fend off any intra-party backbiting, Willis may well be the perfect sidekick.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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