Meet the Woman Vying to Take the Reins of New Zealand’s Economy

(Bloomberg) -- In practice debates before previous New Zealand elections, Nicola Willis used to play the role of formidable female politicians.

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She acted the parts of Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern when preparing the leaders of her National Party for their head-to-head clashes during the 2008 and 2017 campaigns.

Now she’s getting ready to become a political heavyweight herself.

Should right-leaning National win the Oct. 14 vote, which opinion polls say is likely, Willis will become the nation’s first female finance minister in 30 years and just the second in its history.

She would inherit a recession-hit economy and a government budget that’s deeply in deficit, scarred by the costs of the Covid-19 pandemic and a destructive cyclone earlier this year. Scornful of what she calls the current Labour government’s “wasteful spending,” Willis is vowing to run a tighter fiscal ship.

“I’ve been someone who’s come up through the National Party and has been very proud of our track record,” she said in an interview. “We are known for managing the books well, for being disciplined, for being conservative.”

There’s no playing stand-in parts for Willis these days. As National’s deputy leader and finance spokesperson, the 42-year-old mother of four is front and center in the party’s election campaign alongside leader Christopher Luxon.

Tax-Cut Criticism

Rising in the polls, National appears on track to oust Labour and form a government with the support of the right-wing ACT Party.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing.

National has promised tax cuts that would be partly funded by allowing foreigners to buy houses worth more than NZ$2 million ($1.2 million) and charging them a 15% tax for the privilege. Critics say the plan vastly over-estimates the number of houses that could be sold, leaving a big shortfall in revenue.

Willis has stood by the policy and said last week she would resign as finance minister if National failed to deliver tax relief.

Willis grew up in the affluent suburb of Point Howard across the harbor from New Zealand’s capital city Wellington. She studied English literature at Victoria University and was an active member of the debating club, where she met husband Duncan Small.

After university, Willis took a job with the National Party as a researcher. She worked for Bill English, who was opposition education spokesman at the time, before moving to John Key’s office as a senior adviser in 2008, when he defeated Clark to become prime minister.

That access to the highest levels of government helped springboard her into a role as government affairs manager at dairy giant Fonterra Cooperative Group in 2012. She stayed for five years before leaving to become a National Party candidate in 2017, when she helped to prepare English for his debates against Ardern.

English and Key remain her political mentors.

Willis also looks to English, who has six children, as a guide for managing a large family and a political career.

“I’ve watched how Bill English did it and he had 50% more children than I do,” she said.

Willis and her husband view child raising as a responsibility to be shared. Duncan currently works part-time as a consultant and is the primary caregiver for their children, who are aged between seven and 13.

‘Feminist Footsteps’

Willis is proud of her great-great-grandfather, Archibald Willis, who after emigrating from England became a Member of Parliament in 1893.

That was the year that New Zealand gave women the vote, becoming the first nation in the world to do so.

“My great-great-grandfather voted yes to women getting the vote,” she said in her maiden speech to parliament. “Today, I follow in his feminist footsteps.”

New Zealand has become something of a trailblazer for women’s rights, particularly in politics. It’s had three female prime ministers as well as female governors general and chief justices.

Yet if Willis becomes finance minister, she’ll be only the second woman to hold the role. The first was National’s Ruth Richardson, between 1990 and 1993, who is best remembered for producing the “mother of all budgets” and for her free-market policies that were dubbed “Ruthanasia.”

“Sometimes people compare her and me in a pejorative way on the basis that because we share the same gender I will necessarily make the same policy decisions that she did,” Willis said. “I utterly reject that. She made her decisions in her time, 30 years ago.”

When Ardern unexpectedly resigned at the beginning of the year, much was said about the vitriol and misogyny that female politicians face. Willis says she wastes little time worrying about it and that “robust criticism” is part of the job.

A confident speaker, Willis rattles off statistics and facts without sounding robotic — a criticism that is often directed at Luxon, a political novice with a corporate background.

She is on the liberal side of the National Party, in contrast to Luxon’s more socially conservative views, and has been touted as a future leader.

Willis is careful with her words when asked about her ambitions, choosing to focus on Luxon’s success in “galvanizing” the party and her own commitment to being finance minister.

“I’m loving this role,” she said. “And I’m grateful that with Chris Luxon as leader, I could have the opportunity to do it.”

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