At first glance, Nicole McKee doesn’t quite fit with ACT. The Maori netball player and top-flight competition shooter who lived on the DPB for some years might seem more comfortable in Labour or NZ First.
But instead, she is something of an ACT poster girl.
During the 2020 election campaign, the party took a busload of its candidates around the South Island and had them explain what they termed their “journey to ACT” at their campaign meetings.
Most had come along a predictable path, a frustration with regulation or bureaucracy and regulation in their business or professional lives.
But McKee was not about frustration; she was about possibilities. Her own life was her inspiration.
Originally from Wellington, she returned to the capital after school in Rotorua to become a legal secretary, and at 24, with her childhood sweetheart, she was about to have a child.
“The whole idea was that I was going to have this child stay home for three months, then he was going to look after the baby,” she said.
“I was going to go back to work.”
But tragedy struck. Her partner was killed in an accident a week before the birth.
“So my life got turned upside down, and I ended up on welfare, the domestic purposes benefit.”
And it is maybe at this point that her journey to ACT began.
“I used it the way it should be used, which is as emergency welfare to help me get back on my feet and sort myself out where I was going and how I was going to do it,” she said.
“So six months later, I went back to work.”
And then she met her now-husband and quickly had three more children. They imposed their own challenges.
“I was a netball player, but it was very awkward to play network when you are constantly pregnant.”
So to replace netball, her husband introduced her to target shooting, and she not only loved it but became highly proficient and won championship after championship.
But then her world turned upside down again; her husband, a builder, decided to go to University to do a law degree.
He would do one year at University, then one year building and then back to University and so on until he qualified. It would take nine years.
But plainly, this was going to have a financial impact on the family.
No problem. A friend introduced Nicole to hunting, where she could employ her shooting skills and put food on the table.
“It was so great to be able to just drive over to the Wairarapa in the morning, get a couple of red deer, chuck them in the back of the truck, drive past Parliament, come home, and hang them over the gate in Hataitai.”
There she would skin and butcher them.
She then became a firearms safety instructor, but that ended when the firearms safety system was restructured.
So she went back on the DPB but again used it as a stepping stone before setting up a firearms safety training company and ended up getting a big contract with the New Zealand police.
She got involved in politics as the spokesperson for the Council of Licenced Firearms Owners (COLFO), which was set up to oppose some asp[ects of the Government’s clampdown on firearms after the Christchurch Mosque shootings.
So she arrived in Parliament in 2020 with a reputation as the gun lady.
“I’ve come into the role being labelled as the gun lady,” she told POLITIK.
“But I have always thought there’s more to me than that.”
The country quickly learned that when she was caught on camera knitting in Parliament, and she found a new and somewhat surprising constituency.
“The amount of support I got when I got caught, knitting in the house, you know, I had a lot of older women writing me letters, handwritten letters or sending emails saying, congratulations, I’m really glad to see that there is somebody knitting.”
And she sees it as a strength, not just of her but of ACT.
“It’s from one extreme to the other with the firearm owners along with the knitters, and it just goes to show the diversity that ACT can bring in so many different groups of people.”
With her background as a long-time legal executive, she was a natural fit to be ACT’s Justice spokesperson and in what seems to be a recurring pattern in her life that has also set her off in new directions.
“The justice portfolio that I have is just absolutely taken over everything,” she said.
“I’m still doing work on the firearms reform in the background, but justice is huge, and I never realised.
“What I think I need to do is learn more so that I can tackle issues in a better way rather than at the moment.
“When I came, it was how do we tackle issues and what is the process and what is the procedure and not having a university education I also thought maybe I was dumb, too dumb for this job, but I realised pretty quickly that I don’t need to have an education to be able to be successful in communicating the thoughts of the country.
“So I felt quite good about that. I’ve also just taken on University as well, so I’m doing the Parliamentary Education Trust’s government policy paper in the hope that if I learn more about policy, how it’s written, how to implement it, what to think about the consequences of risk aversion, ethics, Treaty of Waitangi, all of that sort of stuff, it’s got to be good to help me further myself when we go into 2022, 23 and beyond to be able to write better policies on other subjects as well.
“So rather than just saying I want to change the world, I want to learn how to make New Zealand a better place.
“And to do that, I need to educate myself, and I need to learn more about how this place works and the process and procedures around making really good legislation.”
McKee reflects an ambivalence in the fact that she is Maori.
“I missed out on a lot of my heritage and my whakapapa, but I haven’t lost it.
“It’s still there, and they are still waiting for me to come in and talk and learn, and I do it at every opportunity that I can get.
“So being Maori is about understanding all of your heritage, not just a portion of your heritage, and that includes my European side as well and having respect for both.
“And that’s why I think that inclusiveness is really, really important because I don’t like being told I have to either be a racist and a colonist or be a Maori.
“And effectively, that’s what I’m hearing.
“That’s not inclusive of either side of who or what actually makes me.”
It is only 11 years since Don Brash was ACT’s leader; a post he arrived at after his infamous Orewa speech questioning the Treaty of Waitangi.
But now, along with McKee, ACT has three other MPs who can whakapapa back to Maori ancestors; David Seymour, Karen Schur and Toni Severin.
McKee notes this matter of factly and says it is more evidence that ACT is changing with the times.
“So it’s more really about the here and now and what we are able to do for the country, and those that are stuck in the past will always remain stuck in the past. But we can’t go backwards. We can only go forwards.”
Perhaps it stems from her own time on welfare, perhaps because she is Maori, or maybe it is a reflection of the overall softening of ACT’s policies which has happened under Seymour, but McKee is no hardliner when it comes to social issues.
“We hate gangs. I want to get rid of the gangs. Totally,” she said.
“But you’ve got to have a network before the gangs.
“So what is it?
“Well, one that comes down to education as well.
“A lot of people join gangs because they’ve had events happen in their life that have been so horrible, so nasty that they are seeking a new family.
“When you seek a new family that’s just involved in violence and drugs and alcohol, then you’ve obviously got some problems going on.”
Her answer, apart from education, is much improved mental health services.
“We think that if you can offer better opportunities for mental health, better opportunities for education, then it’s better opportunities full stop.
“If you look at the Maori that go over to Australia and get in the mines, they do so incredibly well.
“And I know that we all have the ability to do incredibly well. It’s just we shouldn’t have to leave the country to do it.
“And I think a big part of that is they don’t have any incentive to do well because they can be handed everything on a plate, whereas my mother brought us up to get educated and get out there and make a difference.”
That defines Nicole McKee. (and explains why she is in ACT)