Summer Newsroom

The sure things: Nicola Grigg

With the next election looming, Summer Newsroom profiles the candidates seen as "shoo-ins" for the next Parliament. Dileepa Fonseka talks with former National Party press secretary Nicola Grigg, now the party's candidate in the safe Selwyn seat.

When Nicola Grigg walks into Parliament - which she will very likely do next year as the new Selwyn MP - she passes by a plaque dedicated to her great-grandfather. If elected, she will give a maiden speech nearly 80 years after her great-grandmother did the same.

Yes, it’ll take an election to put her there but most observers think that walk to Parliament will be a leisurely stroll - except Grigg herself who is taking nothing for granted.

“Obviously I need to work really hard at building up my own name recognition so that I can hopefully win the seat.”

“It's not a given, I'm very new, nobody knows who I am.”

Nicola Grigg says her election to Amy Adams' Selwyn seat is not "a given". Photo: SUPPLIED

But with a National party logo beside her name in the seat of Selwyn that seems unlikely to matter, even though she’ll be replacing the well-known Amy Adams

“I've never ever questioned my alignment with the National Party and National Party values."

National have held Selwyn since 1946 and Nicola, like her future constituents, has never considered voting for anybody else.

“I've never ever questioned my alignment with the National Party and National Party values."

“I've got a number of really good friends from across the political spectrum, we have the most robust, hilarious debates at times and at the end of the day we all accept each others differences.”

Her great-grandmother Mary Grigg had few doubts either - she was elected to the electorate of Mid-Canterbury as National’s first female MP in 1942 after the death of her husband Arthur, who formerly held the seat, in World War II.

In her maiden speech Mary called for a unity government and better prices for Canterbury’s farmers. 

“The first matter with which I wish to deal is the problem of wheatgrowing. I dare say that will not surprise members. This is a matter that concerns very nearly the electorate I am so proud to represent, and which is so dear to me—mid-Canterbury; but it also affects the whole of New Zealand; for, whereas wheat may seem purely a farmer's problem, when wheat becomes bread it concerns every man, woman, and child in this Dominion.”

And Grigg’s pitch to the Selwyn electorate might not end up being all that different:

“I'm obviously a Cantabrian I'm from a rural background my parents and my family all farm up in the Canterbury foothills that's a very important aspect of my life.”

“What has ultimately led me into politics is that sector and wanting to be a representative or an ambassador for that sector and the families and the communities that form a part of it.”

Mary Grigg, left, with second husband William Polson. Photo: National Library

She grew up with the occasional story about Mary from her grandfather but it’s only in recent years that Nicola has tried to find out what she stood for.

“I've got a number of her speeches that I've downloaded from Hansard, particularly debates in the house, and her maiden speech."

"The thing I find incredible is the things that she was standing up for at the time, women and the rural sector and rural women... are the same things that I'm also deeply passionate about.”

“It's quite extraordinary that all these years later we're still dealing with similar issues.”

From the farm to the press pack

A career on the farm or with animals was what Grigg originally wanted her life to be.

But the 1990s were not a great time for farming, the slashing of agricultural subsidies during the 1980s had up-ended the sector and her parents discouraged her from joining a “sunset industry”. 

Becoming a vet was out too despite her love of animals - “I was useless at science” - so it took a career advisor at her high school to break the deadlock. 

The advisor told Nicola she talked a lot, was good at English and really should apply to the New Zealand Broadcasting School.

“I loved newsroom environments, I loved the cut and thrust, the fast pace, the dynamism of it.”

The story of what happened next can be told through the pictures of politicians of the time.

As they grappled with the Christchurch earthquake, South Canterbury Finance, and Pike River Nicola was often pictured right beside them sticking a directional mic from Radio New Zealand or Newstalk ZB in their face. 

“I loved newsroom environments, I loved the cut and thrust, the fast pace, the dynamism of it.”

She interviewed National MPs and Ministers and got to know them well as they lurched from one South Island crisis to the next. 

And the MPs started to recognise the woman on the other end of the directional microphone too.

“A lot of them knew my family because my family's been involved in the National party for a long time and a lot of them were sort of saying to me ‘oh you should come to Wellington you'd love Wellington’.”

“And I was sort of in my mind thinking ‘no, no I want to be a journalist, a defender of the truth’.”

By 2014 Energy Minister Simon Bridges was looking for a press secretary and approached Nicola to see if she’d be interested - an offer she initially resisted.

Former journalist Nicola Grigg says she initially resisted becoming a Press Secretary. Photo: Supplied.

That is, until she saw Bridges and John Key talking to the Pike River families about the prospect of re-entering the mine.

“It was just the way they'd handled it, I'd been really, really impressed with the rationale, the thinking, the empathy, the approach to the decision and I thought actually this is a team I do want to get on board with.”

“And so in-between interviewing Simon about that decision I sort of sidled up to him and said yes I'll take the job if it's still there.”

A “career highlight”

But in the end she would spend just five months in Bridges’ office before jumping to a press secretary role in Minister of Finance Bill English’s office - a job that turned into a “career highlight” when John Key resigned and English became Prime Minister.

“I just absolutely loved working for him and working at that level of government...and being able to watch one of, I think, the best political operators of our generation.”

Grigg, as a National party press secretary, watches as Paula Bennett talks with reporters. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

National Party staff members who knew Nicola during that period single her out as someone who was diplomatic, honest, and on top of everything.

As for the electoral loss Nicola said the party faced an uphill battle wrestling a victory from Labour after “Jacindamania” arrived, not to mention the difficulty of trying to persuade voters to back the same party for a fourth time. 

Still, National “won the party vote” by becoming the biggest party in Parliament, she said.

“We as staff, or as a National government, always knew it was going to be a difficult election.”

In Nicola’s eyes that election changed the trajectory of the country even in the electorate of Selwyn - which, she noted, was one of the wealthiest in the country. 

“We don't have, in Selwyn, huge numbers of people requiring social housing and yet the list has doubled in the last year or so, and equally we don't have huge amounts of people requiring MSD (Ministry of Social Development) support and yet those numbers are climbing.”

Nicola Grigg was press secretary when John Key handed over the reins to her then boss Bill English. Photo: Supplied

Slowing economic growth will be part of the message she uses as she hits the campaign trail and tries to wring out every last party vote from Selwyn in 2020. 

And in doing so she won’t be the first Grigg to play the economy card:

“There is no doubt that the wheat farmer is having a very difficult time, and if wheat is to be produced, he will have to have a lot more encouragement and a better price,” Mary Grigg told MPs in 1942.

“As I have said, the farmers do not want to make unfair profits. They are very anxious to do their bit.”

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