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May 8, 2017 | by  | in Interview | [ssba]

Interview with Nicola Willis

Nicola Willis is the National Party candidate for Wellington Central, and will be fighting a tough race against incumbent MP Grant Robertson and Green Party Leader James Shaw. She’s new to electoral politics, but by no means inexperienced. Salient spoke to her about her background before entering politics, the dynamics of the Wellington Central race, housing, transport, and tertiary education.  The audio for this interview will be broadcast on Salient FM.


Background and Electoral Politics


What was your background before entering into politics?

I’ve spent the past five years at Fonterra as a business leader there. My most recent role was managing a group of farms nationwide, 23 farms, and my job was to make them more environmentally sustainable. I led a team of 100 people who were at work doing that. I also had roles at Fonterra leading global affairs, so trade strategy and the like — e.g. how do we ensure we get the maximum volume of exports at the best price into our key markets around the world. Prior to that I had a career in the public service. I had worked with Bill English and John Key as a senior adviser, both in opposition and government.


Given the considerable concern among people across the country regarding the state of New Zealand’s waterways and freshwater, do you see the connection with Fonterra as a potential negative?

I see it as a real positive, because I’ve got on the ground experience of what it takes to make farming more environmentally friendly. And I think that is an objective that all New Zealanders share. If we’re going to achieve that goal we need to understand the detail and the practical reality of how that happens.


You were previously an advisor to former Prime Minister John Key, 2006 to 2011, what did this position entail and what experience has it given you as a candidate?

My role was to advise John Key on his policy and communication strategies. It was a role that encompassed everything from helping him draft a question in parliament through to accompanying him to the APEC conference offshore. It taught me the power that effective politicians have to make a difference to people’s lives, and it taught me about parliamentary processes and actually what it takes to take an idea through to reality and make change happen. I understand what it takes to get results, and I think that is what voters need from their representatives.


Having had this experience, did it push you toward standing?

Yes, absolutely. I wasn’t a highly political person at university. I wasn’t someone who was a member of the Young Nats. But my time in parliament showed me the moral purpose of being a politician, their power to improve people’s lives, and I saw that was something I really wanted to do. I was very conscious that having only had that background — having graduated from university and worked in parliament for several years — I needed broader life experience. So I was very deliberate in going out and getting business experience and also expanding our family.


The Wellington Central electorate has been held by Labour since the 1999 election (in 1996 it was won by Richard Prebble for the Act Party), and in 2014 Grant Robertson won by a majority of 8,267. How do you see your chances in the 2017 election?

I’m in it to win it. But I know it’s a steep hill and I know it’s a really big ask. There aren’t many electorates around the country where it’s going to be a harder seat to win. There are a couple things going in my favour. The first is that Wellington is a place where National has won the party vote consistently, and in fact Labour trails at third — they won fewer than one in four party votes here. What that tells me is that Wellingtonians don’t necessarily have a high level of confidence in the Labour Party, which Grant Robertson represents. The second reason is that James Shaw is standing in this electorate. There are a number of people in Wellington who support the Green Party and I am sure will put their vote behind James Shaw. That combination of factors means it’s going to be a really interesting race and one to watch.


So you think that James Shaw’s presence could split support away from Grant Robertson to your favour?

Absolutely. Anything that reduces Grant Robertson’s majority plays to my favour. I think there is also a really interesting thing happening in Wellington — we have a lot of people who feel really positively about the future, we have a lot of growth happening in the economy, there are good jobs on offer for people — I don’t sense a real appetite to change the fundamental direction of New Zealand. […] There will be a National-led government, so let’s make sure Wellington has a voice in the cabinet, that’s talking to that cabinet, and saying this is what Wellington needs. I’d be that voice.


Would you also be aiming for a high list position as well? Paul Foster-Bell got in on the list in 2013 (after losing the Wellington Central seat to Grant Robertson in 2011).

My goal is to enter parliament. I can’t be an advocate for the people of Wellington unless I am in parliament, so getting a good list ranking is part of achieving that goal.




In March, Stuff reported that the housing crisis in Wellington had gotten to a point where there was “an estimated shortage of 3500 homes.” If elected, what would you do to ease the pressure on the rental market for students and young families?

The first thing is to acknowledge that this is a real challenge and it is something that I have a lot of sympathy for. I know for people who are struggling to find a rental home, that is a really difficult situation to be in. Fundamentally, what this comes down to, is the fact that we haven’t built enough houses to keep up with the growth in our local economy. The really positive things that have happened is that I think the council here has a sense of the size of the challenge and has taken steps to ensure that more housing is coming into the market. That is with the encouragement and support of the government. We’ve also seen the government make legislative changes to ensure that it is easier for councils to release land, and in fact they’re incentivised to do that, and to ensure that it is easier for developers to build the land.

Fundamentally what I’ll be saying is: what can we do to make sure more houses are built, tell me, and I’ll support it. That is what will make it easier for people like you to go and find a house to rent.


What measures do you think should be implemented, from the top down, to encourage more house building?

I think we have two challenges. One is that, at a local body level, any time someone wants to develop a new piece of land from scratch, that costs local government, because they have to put in the pipes, the roads, the infrastructure — sometimes local government isn’t incentivised to do that. We’ve seen in Wellington the debate about whether or not Shelly Bay should be developed. It comes down to these cost questions. The government has put together a fund of a billion dollars to recognise that, and to say to councils: we’ll help you out when it comes to putting that infrastructure in.

Then I think we have to cut through the planning laws which have become a real pain and have made it slow for people to get resource consents. It’s nice to see a consensus emerging in New Zealand, across the House, that the Resource Management Act isn’t delivering in the way we all hoped it would. Further reform of that will be necessary.


Do you think there needs to be more social housing provided by the government in Wellington for those who can not afford private accommodation?

Yes, it’s good to see the government is continuing to build more social housing in the Wellington region. And I support that. One of the things that is really important to me is that the social housing we provide people is of high quality. I was devastated when I advised John Key to go and visit some homes out in Cannons Creek which were state houses and which had mould on the wall. We’ve had a history in New Zealand of letting state houses degrade in quality, and it’s a great achievement of this government that it’s come in and said, that’s not good enough, we’re going to improve the stock of state housing. It’s also meant in some cases that one state house gets replaced with accommodation for four families rather than one, and that’s a positive thing.


On the topic of renting, do you support a warrant of fitness for housing?

I support the government’s moves last year in which they said it’s essential for every landlord by 2019 to ensure that the house they rent out has insulation, underfloor and in the walls, and to ensure that it has working smoke alarms. […] If there are students who are having trouble with the quality of their houses, I’m happy to be their advocate. Any landlord I speak to I say get on with it, insulate those houses.




What do you see as the future for Wellington’s public transport and roading infrastructure?

I think Wellington is overdue for funds to be invested in its transport networks. It’s a wonderful thing about Wellington that around one in five of us walk or bike to work, so we’re not as car dependent as other cities in New Zealand. I think that’s because we have a great public transport network. The government has invested almost half a billion dollars in the rail network and we’ve also got an investment going on right now to a redeveloped cycle way on the Hutt Road. Those investments are really important.

From a long term perspective, there is no doubt that we’re going to have to sort out the road between the two tunnels, the Terrace tunnel and the Mount Victoria tunnel. I’d like to see a solution that allows for improved public transport, improved access for pedestrians and for people biking, but also allows traffic to flow, so that when people want to make a journey it’s predictable timing wise and efficient.  


In 2016, Stuff reported that a group of Wellington City Councillors are pushing to have light rail put back on the agenda and, according to their figures, “modern street trams could link the city to the airport and southern suburbs for $450m to $650m.” Given that light rail would require government investment, what are your thoughts on it as an option for Wellington city?

I’m really keen to see mass transport options developed, but I think that just focusing in on light rail isn’t the right approach. I’ve got a couple of questions about light rail. One is, is it the most resilient choice for Wellington given a prevalence of earthquakes? The second question I would have is, is it the right technology to be investing in at a time when there are advances happening with electric vehicles, with automated vehicles, with other solutions that might work better. Wellington is different from a Vancouver, or some of the bigger cities in the world which have light rail, as its population is smaller and denser. I’d be prepared to consider it but I’d like to see it considered as part of a range of options.


Chris Bishop, a National List MP based in Hutt South, has supported fairer fares for tertiary students. What is your stance on the policy?

I support fairer fares for tertiary students. I’ve backed VUWSA’s campaign and Chris and I did a little video giving our support for it. I think that students and education are a really big part of Wellington’s economy and what makes our city great, so we need to make sure we keep being attractive to students. If you look around the country, student transport is subsidised, and I don’t think Wellington should fall out of step. I’d really like the regional council to step up on this one.




In Stuff on March 5, it was reported that your “passion was education policy,” following your first job with Bill English. How would you coordinate prioritising education policy and student issues alongside your desire to boost business in Wellington?

I think that the important thing is that we focus both on the quality of the education we are providing people, but also that we ensure that it is accessible for people from all kinds of backgrounds. Talking about tertiary education specifically, I think that has been a really great achievement for New Zealand — that we’re seeing more people entering tertiary education than ever before. And it has become more accessible. When I was a student, around 67% of our total fees were subsidised by the government, that proportion has increased to 82%, and that has meant tertiary education has become more accessible.

I also have a real personal concern and passion for kids entering primary school who are from more difficult backgrounds. How do we make sure those kids are nurtured in our schooling system and leave being able to read, write, do maths, and have the skills to get future work? Our education system has gotten better at delivering for kids of all kinds of backgrounds but I’m really open to the ideas of educators and experts about the new things we can do to break through with more children.


VUWSA often references the $2 billion that staff and students of tertiary institutions — not just VUW, the polytechnics and Massey as well — contribute to the Wellington economy. What would you do to support tertiary institutions?

I’ve sat down and I’ve met with Vice-Chancellor Grant Guilford, and I’m due to meet with the leaders of the other tertiary institutions in Wellington. I absolutely want to champion our tertiary providers, I think they’re a key part of Wellington’s specialness and they drive our economy. I really endorse the goal that VUW has to increase its international connections and the number of people who are attracted to come to the university. And also increasing its offering and continuing to attract students from around the country. I will be doing anything I can to champion our institutions as they’re fantastic and contribute to the life of this city.


Just on international connections, what is your stance on the proposed runway expansion?

I support it as a project I’d really like to see in Wellington’s future. The question for me is what proportion of support should come from the company that owns the infrastructure versus ratepayers versus taxpayers. Decisions around that would need to be subject to a business case that tells us how much benefit the groups will get. It’s a project I’d love to see happen and will be supporting, but we need to be really judicious about how much tax payer funding we put in, because any dollar spent on the runway extension is a dollar not spent on other things.


You graduated from VUW with an Honours degree in English Literature. Given recent funding cuts and restructuring to humanities departments at VUW and other universities, are you concerned that the government’s tertiary education policy perhaps focuses more on the STEM subjects to the detriment of the arts? Or do you think it is okay?

I think it’s okay. I don’t think these changes in courses being provided are due to any government policy. It reflects student demand and the choices students are making. I support students saying, what’s going to get me a good job at the end of my degree, and what do I want to study? Ultimately these decisions are made by institutions, not the government. It’s a marker of our tertiary system that the government doesn’t decide which courses are funded, institutions do. […].


What do you see as the major challenges and opportunities for Wellington over the next ten, twenty, fifty years?

We have a huge opportunity to become a hub for tech and innovation. The tech sector is now New Zealand’s third biggest export sector, and it’s really exciting — for every high school job in tech, five service jobs are created around it. It’s wonderful that Wellington has the fastest growing tech sector in the country. What I want to see is that supported, championed, and encouraged. There is real opportunity. We have Weta Digital sitting right there, we have Park Road Post, we have Xero — we have world leading companies. So let’s build some infrastructure around those and ensure more small businesses and startups can grow with them.

I also see a real opportunity for Wellington to become the first city in the world that is predator-free, and it means we can have a renaissance of native birds. Out this window is the Town Belt, it’s a wonderful thing about Wellington and it’s why we’ve decided to raise our family here. Let’s celebrate that and become predator-free.

We also have an opportunity in Wellington to champion and make more of our world class public service. We have some of the best class public servants in the world, they do an exceptional job. They’re leading with really innovative policies that are getting results in ways that many countries around the world are envious of. How can we share what they’re doing and champion it offshore and make more of it.

Those are some of the positive opportunities I see for Wellington, and the challenges are the same challenges we always have. We always need to focus on how we continue to support growth, and we continue to make sure there are good, well paying jobs. How do we continue to make sure the social services we provide in health and education are getting more results for our dollar, and that people are living longer healthier lives, and are getting a better education each year. My belief is that every generation should receive a higher quality of life than the generation before it. […]


What is your favourite colour?

Yellow! The colour of positive energy.


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