What drives Nicky Wagner?: After that Tweetstorm, what does MP really think?

MP Nicky Wagner door-knocking constituent Ruth Caukwell in Redwood.
IAIN MCGREGOR

MP Nicky Wagner door-knocking constituent Ruth Caukwell in Redwood.

It all comes into focus when National's Nicky Wagner says she really ought to have been Minister of Small Business. John McCrone reports.

"Dumb, dumb, dumb," she roars, burying her face in her hands at the mention of that tweet.

The vehemence of this instant mea culpa rather takes me aback.It is a damp Friday evening and we are sitting in the front room of National MP Nicky Wagner's smart and glassy central Christchurch townhouse.

A wide gas fire makes pleasant crickling noises.

Wagner seems full of beans even though it is the wind-down hour at the end of a week.

Every question is being answered with the same disarming good cheer.

Remember the post? Our Disability Issues and Associate Health Minister tweeted her lunch-hour view of the Auckland waterfront and remarked: "Busy with disability meetings in Auckland – rather be out in the harbour!".

Three more years: MP Nicky Wagner again fighting the critical swing seat of Christchurch Central for National.
DAVID WALKER/STUFF

Three more years: MP Nicky Wagner again fighting the critical swing seat of Christchurch Central for National.

Cue the righteous howls of outrage, the social media chorus of "gotcha".

READ MORE:
* Minister for Disability Issues Nicky Wagner in Twitter firestorm over 'disgraceful' tweet
* In defence of Nicky Wagner's thoughtless comments
* New Greater Christchurch Regeneration Minister says it's time for a new style of rebuild management
* The year of the door-knock: Duncan Webb's tilt at Christchurch Central

Wagner's Christchurch Central is a delicately poised swing seat in the coming general election and that stray comment played right into her opponents' hands.But you might have expected her to start with the easy excuses. Surely she was just expressing the matey thought of it being a nice day outside?

Remember Shades Arcade?: Small business is what Wagner understands having started accessory store Kudos.
SUPPLIED

Remember Shades Arcade?: Small business is what Wagner understands having started accessory store Kudos.

And check her Twitter account. The post was sandwiched between other feel-good selfies of an MP at work – Wagner at the NZ Artificial Limb Centre, Wagner with the chief executive of the Halberg Trust, holding up a disability strategy document.

Yet Wagner owns the tweet-storm immediately. "I blame myself absolutely. I apologised to my caucus colleagues, I apologised to the Prime Minister. They shouldn't have to be talking about me saying stupid stuff."

The lack of defensiveness is impressive.

Earlier days: Wagner getting ready for her first campaign back in 2002.
DAVID ALEXANDER/STUFF

Earlier days: Wagner getting ready for her first campaign back in 2002.

A common judgement of Wagner is she is a nice enough lady, but a parliamentary lightweight.

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Former National Party cabinet minister Philip Burdon was at it recently, calling her "politically insubstantial".

However you can see why she might come across well with voters on the door-step back in Christchurch.

Justice Precinct: The earthquake recovery will leave Christchurch better off in many ways, Wagner says.
GEORGE HEARD/STUFF

Justice Precinct: The earthquake recovery will leave Christchurch better off in many ways, Wagner says.

UNLIKELY MOVE INTO POLITICS

What appears to sum Wagner up is that she is very Canterbury.

Family values, optimistic, never above herself, somewhat naive in a small-town way.

Working together: Wagner as new Regeneration Minister with Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel.
GEORGE HEARD/STUFF

Working together: Wagner as new Regeneration Minister with Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel.

She and husband David live comfortably, owning a portfolio of commercial properties and other investments.

And she glows at the chance to talk about her two boys – now grown men.

One lives in Blenheim, the other Melbourne.Wagner happens to be home alone after celebrating one of their weddings in Prague.

She had to fly back while the rest of the family stayed on to enjoy the European summer.

But she says she has never been tempted to live anywhere else than Christchurch.

She loves its close-knit nature.

A while back, someone asked her why not Auckland?

"I said, I've got two sons. The phone rings before they manage to do anything wrong."

The mums' network counts.

Her career in politics is beginning to sound even more unlikely.

What brings Wagner's story into focus is hearing that the one job she is sorry to have missed out on so far is being asked to be New Zealand's Minister for Small Business.

SMALL BUSINESS BACKGROUND

Wagner, 64, grew up on Cashmere Hill and went to St Margarets.

Her teacher mother and civil engineer father died in a car crash in their 50s.

Wagner started as a secondary school teacher too, but shifted into the fashion business when she was ready for babies. "I became self-employed to have the flexibility to have a family."

She owned Kudos, an accessories shop in Shades Arcade, during the 1980s.

An uncle was the manager of Beaths department store, so that helped.

The shop became two branches, then morphed into a marketing consultancy, followed by a pioneering adventure in internet retail.

Wagner says it was 1997 and people barely had email.

But she was given a book about disruptive technology and one sentence stuck out. "Transform old industries with new technologies."

So she started a fashion website.

"It came to me, whammo. A full blown idea. So that's what I did."

Before Wagner knew it, she was sharing the stage with Trade Me's Sam Morgan and being profiled for "netpreneur" articles.

She recalls the young Auckland journalist who thought this Christchurch housewife couldn't possibly be the person he had been sent to interview.

"But of the five entrepreneurs who were in the story with me, I was the only one still there five years later."

Wagner bounces on the sofa, laughing at the memory.

However she says her own experience of how tough it is to manage a small business is what has shaped her politically.

Like farming, small business is the backbone of the country.

"Something like 85 per cent of companies in New Zealand have less than five employees.

"And they've got the same overhead costs, processing costs, health and safety, PAYE – all that sort of stuff – as a bigger one."

The early 2000s were particularly a time of struggle as well.

"It was the winter of despair for small businesses. We were really getting a slapping around."

Wagner was part of the Chamber of Commerce but wanted to do more.

So she rang up Roger Bridge, the local National Party chair, and told him she wanted to run for Parliament.

Wagner confesses she did not realise Christchurch Central was such a safe Labour seat at the time.

But she did well enough that she made it as a National list MP in 2005, then won the seat on a count back in 2011.

MINISTER OUTSIDE CABINET

It is starting to be obvious why Wagner may not receive respect in all quarters.

She also doesn't inspire a lot of fear.

Politics up in Wellington is a game for the big beasts.

Wagner admits that both as a woman and a business owner, you get used to being the agreeable sort.

"I'm much more collaborative. I come from small business where you work in teams and make things happen in a soft way, because you're not the dominant market player, you're not the person that's got a lot of control."

Wagner has had a string of ministerial postings outside Cabinet – roles in tourism, youth, environment, customs.

Close to the power but never quite inside the tent.

"I'm quite flexible. So I've just been slotted into those flexible sort of spots," she explains.

Of course it would have been nice to be minister of her natural constituency.

But still she has delivered some major bits of work.

"As Customs Minister, we rewrote the whole Customs Act. That's just about to come into Parliament."

And the disability portfolio has been rewarding as it is the chance to actually change individual lives.

Wagner is proud of Project 300, a trial in Christchurch to persuade employers to take on more staff with physical and intellectual handicaps.

One of its innovations was setting up informal meetings so employers could get to know job candidates ahead of time, see that there could be a potential fit.

Wagner says research showed there was an embarrassment factor that was stopping the disabled even getting a first interview.

"Employers want to meet the disabled person before a job comes up because they don't like to say – if you're the disabled person coming for a position – no, I don't want to employ you."

The goal was getting 300 people into work and Wagner says the scheme managed double that. Relabelled EmployAbility, it is now being rolled out elsewhere in the country.

Last April, Wagner took on a new responsibility as the cumbersomely titled Minister supporting Greater Christchurch Regeneration.

She was stepping into Gerry Brownlee's shoes. Yet still outside Cabinet, it seemed as if she is only there for the final mop up.

Wagner agrees she has to share the sign-off on the big decisions, like the South Frame and Convention Centre, with Finance Minister Steven Joyce. However there is much to do. And her style as a recovery minister will be very different.

COPING WITH CRITICISM

For a start, Wagner meets with Mayor Lianne Dalziel at least once a week. She says an advantage of not being tied up in Cabinet meetings on Mondays is she has the time to develop that relationship.

And what do they talk about? Wagner laughs. Making Christchurch a better place, of course.

"We're working through how we going to do the cost share agreement, how we're going to manage the Metro Sports Facility, what we're going to do in terms of our city leaders forum, what we're doing about tourism."

So council and central government acting hand in hand. And Wagner feels positive about the Christchurch that is emerging.

The old Christchurch was stagnating, she says. She knew that as both a parent and business owner. "The young people were leaving."

Wagner says it may be hard to appreciate just yet, but some developments – like the new Justice Precinct – are astounding.

"There is no way before the earthquakes that we could have got Corrections, Police and the Courts together in the one building," she says. Each would have fought tooth and nail to maintain their independence despite the obvious benefits of being connected.

"And then think of the back end of that which is Civil Defence, Fire, Police and St John's – again impossible without that push of the broken buildings."

Wagner says the Government has copped plenty of criticism because Christchurch residents expected the city to be put back together in just a few years.

Her eyes suddenly misting with tears, Wagner remembers a farewell party for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) staff in 2016.

So many talented people came who wanted to do their best for the city, she says. "And they suffered from that hero to zero mentality."

Clearly a personal moment. Wagner says she hopes one day their contribution will be better remembered.

CHALLENGE OF POPULATION CHURN

Back to business. How is Wagner feeling about her election chances this time around?

After 2011's tiny margin of just 47 votes, she manage to raise her majority to a comfortable 2320 in 2014, even though boundary changes had made her nervous.

Wagner says the composition of the constituency is much the same this year. It depends on how the party vote holds up nationally, of course, but she always wants to do better.

With the weekend coming, she will be out knocking on doors and handing around leaflets at the mall. A hard truth of politics is you really have to push to get name recognition.

Wagner says the population churn rate for an electorate like Christchurch Central is about 20 per cent a year. That is a lot of new voters to reach. You can't sit back.

"I keep thinking that I've been working at this since 2002 and still people don't know who I am," she exclaims in mock frustration.

So then, sunny side up. Wagner doesn't pretend to be more than she is. She knows who she represents. Onwards to September 23 and yet another general election.

 - Stuff

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