Politics

‘I’m a cross between Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor’ – an interview with Labour’s Mr Nearly, Grant Robertson

The Spinoff meets Grant Robertson at the cricket to talk leadership close-miss, caucus divisions on the TPP, the future of work and waffle, and whether John Key is brilliant or Labour just plain useless.

In the 2014 Labour leadership race, Grant Robertson was a whisker – one percentage point – from victory. He was comfortably ahead in the caucus part of the vote, and also led among party members, but Andrew Little came through largely thanks to support from union affiliates. In the 2013 race (won by David Cunliffe), Robertson was also the most popular among fellow MPs – until recently the sole selectors of party leader.

Having twice missed out, Robertson announced he would not be seeking the leadership again. Appointed finance spokesman, Robertson has devoted much of his attention to a new “Future of Work Commission”, which has attracted plenty of mockery from the Government, which could mean Labour are on to something, or simply that it’s eminently mockable.

As part of its own contribution to exploring the changing idea of “work”, The Spinoff travelled to Wellington and the world’s greatest cricket ground, the Basin Reserve, to interview the sport-tragic politician.

At lunchtime on Day One of the first Test against Australia last Friday, after a bad start for New Zealand on a green wicket, we found a quiet spot around the back of the Basin Reserve’s earthquake-mothballed Museum Stand, alongside the shabby old net where Ross Taylor was facing a few throwdowns.

Accompanied by the gentle thud of willow and a wall of sound from cicadas in the Pohutukawas above, Robertson addressed that leadership close-miss, Labour’s low point, caucus divisions on the TPP, the future of work and waffle, and whether John Key is brilliant or Labour just plain useless.

Grant Robertson at the Basin Reserve, Wellington. Photograph: The Spinoff

Grant Robertson at the Basin Reserve, Wellington. Photograph: The Spinoff

The Spinoff: You wrote this morning on Public Address about Brendon McCullum.

Grant Robertson: I did.

And you’re a cricket fan.

I am.

Who then are you in the Black Caps line-up, bearing in mind that we’re five down for fuck-all right at the moment?

I’d like to think I’m a cross between Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor. I’m here to steady the ship. But I’ve been around for a while now, got a few games under my belt. There to do the hard work in the middle order.

Are you then Ross Taylor, the one who was wronged in seeking the leadership, or are you Kane Williamson, the one who’s going to be the leader?

Neither probably. No. I think Ross is in some of the best cricketing form of his life now that he’s not the captain, and maybe that’s the message for me.

Is it, though? Can you envisage a circumstance in which you would end up leader?

No, not at the moment, I can’t. I think Andrew’s doing a really good job. He will definitely be taking us to the 2017 election and I think we’ve got a really good chance of winning that. And he will become the Prime Minister and I’ll be very happy to be there. So, no, at the moment I can’t envisage a situation where I would be the leader.

I don’t want to go on about this …

But you are.

Well, we’ve barely begun. This is just the first over. Under the old rules, you’d have been comfortably appointed leader of the Labour Party. Do you think about that sometimes when you reflect on life?

I think in the immediate aftermath of losing the leadership I did think about that. I think it’s only natural – in anything in life, when you get very close to achieving a goal or winning something, you think about why you didn’t. I mean if I’d been beaten by 20% or something I probably wouldn’t have. But, yeah, I spent a bit of time doing that, but I’m past that now, and I certainly feel, starting off 2016, I feel in a very different headspace than I did in that period immediately after the leadership [contest]. I think it’s natural, when you get close, and you don’t achieve something, to think of what might have been. But you can’t afford to dwell on it for long.

This week, the first week back in Parliament, John Key began by saying TPP for Labour stands for the “two position party”. And he’s right, isn’t he? He’s unequivocally right: there are two positions in the Labour caucus on the TPP.

No. Like any issue, controversial or otherwise, we have one position, and that’s the position the caucus decides. Yes, there are people in the caucus with different views on the TPP, and on any number of other issues. It’s the nature of being a broad, social democratic party like Labour. But we’ve got one position. It’s the position Andrew has articulated – we can’t support the TPP as it stands – and everybody is aware of Phil Goff’s views, and David Shearer has made some comments as well, but we’ve come to a position as a caucus. That’s what political parties do.

Was it a tense process? Were there some heated meetings?

There were some difficult discussions, definitely. As I say, that’s the nature of a party like Labour, because we are a broad church governing party, a party that wants to be in government. The other reason why I think the conversations were difficult is because we are a party that’s supported free trade. And I do support the quality free trade agreements we’ve been able to negotiate.

What’s made this decision and this positioning particularly hard for us is because this is not like an old free-trade agreement. It is a much more intrusive agreement, behind the border, into how we regulate, into how we make policy, and that makes it a different thing. So I think that’s been a tough conversation for Labour, because we are still in favour of free trade, but we’re against this agreement, and that is difficult for some people to be able to understand.

You’ve got a big year ahead, obviously, leading into 2017. Do you feel as though you need to start landing a few more blows on Bill English over the economy?

I think it’s one of my responsibilities to do that, yes, to hold the Government to account. And I do feel I was able to do some of that last year, in terms of their fake surplus, and some of the issues around things like KiwiSaver and so on, but, yeah, it’s one of my responsibilities. The Government is really past the point where it can continually use the “what happened under Labour” excuse – I think they’ve been past that point for a long time.

I think 2016 is going to be a very difficult year for New Zealand in an economic sense, and I think the Government does need to step up in those circumstances and explain to the country what it is going to help mitigate against what is going on in the world.

The big splash from Labour so far is the three-free-years tertiary education policy. There have been comparisons drawn with the 2005 Labour policy to scrap interest on student loans, which is widely credited as having been your brainchild. Was this your idea, too?

I was part of this, absolutely. But like all good ideas there’s no one parent, and there are a lot of people involved. Actually one of the real impetuses for this policy has been that future of work project that we’ve been doing, and in the discussions that we’ve been having with businesses, with employers, with students, with young people generally, there’s been a growing understanding that in the changing world of work, with new technologies, and different work patterns and different work experiences, that there is a greater importance on education and training.

I liken it to the first Labour government, with Peter Fraser saying secondary school education needs to be available for everyone, we can’t have a world where not everybody gets secondary education. You fast forward to the 21st century, I believe that applies to post-secondary education. So we’re trying to do something here that is about shifting New Zealand to what is going to be required for us to have decent jobs and a high standard of living. So I’m really pleased we’ve done it. Obviously I’ve been banging on about this issue for about 26 years now, in terms of the cost of education, so I’m very pleased about that, but this policy’s a bit broader and a bit wider than that.

The Labour Party has changed a lot, as have many similar parties around the world, since the Rogernomics period. But do you think this policy is, symbolically as much as anything, a real repudiation of the fourth Labour government?

It quite clearly goes against what the fourth Labour government did, which was to introduce upfront fees. Now, they introduced upfront fees in a restricted and minor way compared to what then happened under National, but, yeah, it is quite clearly going in the other direction. I was at high school when that policy came into force. What I know about the world that we live in today is that we need to ensure that every New Zealander gets the opportunity for post-high-school training and education, and that is critical for their future. I don’t want to see any barrier set up.

So I’m not sitting there with a checklist of Roger Douglas’s things that I’m unpicking. I don’t care about that. I’m looking at the situation we’ve got now. But quite clearly it goes in the opposite direction.

You talked about the future of work project, which is obviously a big deal for your party and for you, and then education policy is tangentially connected to that. Are there going to be big ideas, big programmes that come out of that, because it seems to me there’s a danger that it just comes across as waffly. Are we going to see something big like a universal basic income, something like that?

We are looking at that. The goal of this project is to give us the set of policies that we can take to New Zealand and say, here’s how Labour thinks that we’re going to be able to ensure that every New Zealander has decent work and a good standard of living in the future. You can’t do that if you’re not proposing big ideas. You said “tangentially”, but I’d challenge that. This is core. The three-years-free policy is core to the idea of how New Zealanders adjust to the future of work and the importance of high skilled workers for a productive economy. I know that sounds like jargon but it’s real. So this is part of the future of work, and you will see other policies that are like this.

When we do our final report of the Future of Work Commission in November, it will be a mixture of concrete, specific policies, some big, some smaller and more practical, and some directional stuff, because there are some things that we can’t really resolve right now, today, and some of those are around issues like taxation and so on. But one of the topics already out in one of our discussion papers is should there be a universal basic income. At the conference we’re holding at the end of March in Auckland, Guy Standing, who’s written this book The Precariat, who’s an advocate of a UBI, he’s one of our keynote speakers. So, you know, we are prepared to look at that.

I didn’t make the comment light-heartedly at the start of the year that people should expect some radical thinking, and I think we’ve shown that with the first announcement.

Back to the Prime Minister. Third term, people are talking about a fourth. Is he brilliant, or are Labour useless, or is it a bit of both?

It bedevils me every day. I wake up in the middle of the night and – no, I mean, if I stand back I can see that he is a gifted politician. And I mean that both pejoratively and slightly enviously, in the sense that, you know, you don’t win three elections if you’re not a good politician. And he clearly is a good politician.

Do you think some people in Labour didn’t appreciate that early on?

Certainly, in the beginning, I don’t think we did. I think really honestly – I remember where I was when he was elected leader of the National Party, and I think we all thought: they’ve elected a money trader, etcetera, etcetera, and then we had the global financial crisis, and it was all blamed on people like him, and surely people would come to see who this man is. Well, it wasn’t the case at all. So I do think we underestimated him. As my mother would say, he’s all map and no compass, in that he can follow the feel of where he thinks the electorate is, or what’s going to work, but I don’t think it’s driven by a great feeling of where he’s taking the country and the importance of the direction we go on.

So I still fundamentally believe his approach is flawed and wrong. But I appreciate the fact that he’s won three elections and he’s clearly tapped into something in the New Zealand political psyche that’s made him successful.

Clearly we didn’t go well at various points over the last eight years, and the election campaign, or the election last year, was the nadir of that. So we’ve also got to look closely at ourselves and we’ve done that. That’s one of the advantages of the leadership process that we’ve now got – you’re put in a position of needing to look at things differently, and Andrew’s done that as the leader, and I think he’s done it well.

You talked in your post this morning about the current Black Caps team being unlike previous teams made up of individuals who would clearly rather not be in the same room as each other, saying McCullum’s was the opposite, and that’s something you can’t fake. Looking around the Labour caucus room, to draw the obvious comparison, and I guess I know what you’re going to say –

Of course you do, but I’ll say it –

is that similar, seriously, hand on heart?

Yeah it is. And that’s what last year was about. Andrew was very clear with the caucus, and he set a very simple goal: that we would be a unified team. We would work on making sure it happened, addressing why it might not happen. And we are. There will be blips from time to time, but the caucus is functioning and working together as well as it has in the eight years I’ve been there, and that’s a hand on heart answer.

And what’s going to happen this afternoon?

Jesus, I don’t know. Actually I’m feeling OK, because the pitch is flattening out, so I’ll say we’ll get to 187.

[New Zealand were bowled out for 183.]

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