A man for some seasons: Andrew Little meets The Spinoff

Andrew Little may have largely succeeded in uniting his party caucus since becoming Labour leader in late 2014, but he’ll need to find an extra gear or two to have a serious chance of becoming prime minister after September 23. In the third of The Spinoff’s election year interviews with party leaders, Simon Wilson talks to Little, and tries to work out if he has what it takes.

Photography by Adrian Malloch, except as noted

Labour leader Andrew Little. Photograph: Adrian Malloch

It was hot and breezy at Pasifika, the vast crowd humming with family-oriented fellow feeling, as Andrew Little, leader of the Labour Party, worked his way around the big ring of stalls in front of the Samoan stage. He pumped hands, posed for selfies, chatted to stallholders and their customers, commented knowledgeably on the tapa designs and made the obligatory jokes about how he wasn’t supposed to eat too much taro. His people, his day. Pasifika vote Labour in higher numbers than any other demographic in the country and Little was on a roll.

Actually, it wasn’t like that at all.

Andrew Little did Pasifika by marching from one national stage to the next, making a short speech with his entourage of MPs lined up next to him, and then moving on. Occasionally people asked for a selfie and he was happy to oblige. But he didn’t do the stalls and he didn’t try to get on a roll, using one selfie to generate the next. At the Cook Islands stage, after his speech, he was even invited into the VIP tent, from which, if he’d stayed in the entrance, he could have charmed them all, one happy family photo at a time. But he fled that tent almost as soon as he entered it. He did not work the room.

To be fair, nor did Bill English, who was also at Pasifika with an entourage. Both of them failed the basic John Key test: get out there, ask them how they’re doing and make sure they get themselves photographed with you.

Andrew Little with Labour MPs and friends at Auckland’s Pasifika Festival, Western Springs. Photo: Simon Wilson

English didn’t have much at stake: he won’t expect to get a lot of Pasifika votes come September. But Little? What was he thinking? They get 60,000 people at Pasifika. How did he not understand that a day among them could have produced a few thousand selfies, which would have turned quickly into many thousands of approving eyeballs on Facebook? How did he not know that this was the easiest crowd in the world for him, that it was the perfect opportunity to turn supporters into voters, which Labour desperately needs to do, and also to work on his relationship skills, which Little also needs to do because there are many tougher crowds to come?

How did he not know that the way to do politics is different now?

We sat down for coffee in Auckland’s Vulcan Lane a few days later and I asked him.

He didn’t agree that was how to do Pasifika. “Pasifika is about getting in front of them,” he said. The speech from the stage was the main thing, because that allowed everyone to “make eye contact”. By which he meant, I think, that they could all see him being a leader.

G’days all round: Andrew Little with Simon Wilson. Photograph: Adrian Malloch

To his credit, that same morning, when we did the portrait shots in a nearby shop, he took the time to go round the room and talk to everyone there. He did the same in the café, with staff and customers, and as we sat in the lane he talked to everyone who caught his eye.

“G’day,” and “G’day mate,” he said to them all. It wasn’t forced. That morning, he was being himself.

Labour has a simple message for this election: health, housing and education. Oh, and jobs. They’re going to focus on social policy.

You may have noticed that after Labour and the Greens launched their Budget Responsibility Rules it’s been the Greens, rather than Labour, that have done most of the promotion of those rules. They’re keen to be identified as the economically responsible party which has good policies for the country. Labour is keen on being the party that will fix social ills while being socially responsible.

A subtle but significant difference, stemming from historical perceptions. The Greens believe their social and environmental credentials are not in doubt, but their primary task is to convince voters of their economic probity. Labour believes the critical issue that will persuade voters to return is if they believe it really will make a difference on social policies.

Andrew Little put it this way: “When I talk to business meetings, the number one issue they’re most concerned about? It’s housing. And after that? Education.”

So, housing, education, health. I asked him about mental health.

“You know,” he said, “in the general meetings I have, the community meetings, that’s the thing that comes up first. Mental health. I’ve started working it into my stump speech.”

A stump speech is the standard speech a politician gives on the campaign trail. A good stump speech, well rehearsed and open to topical events, takes you a long way.

But what will Labour do? “We need to find out how big the problem is. We need an inquiry.”

Is it the biggest health issue? “I just don’t know. There’s also the pressure of an aging population.”

There’s quite a lot more than that. The District Health Board structure doesn’t work as well as it should. There are failures at the primary care level and the resurgence of diseases we should have eliminated – diseases of poverty. Waiting lists. Evidence of dysfunction at ministry level: when Auckland had a typhoid outbreak recently, the minister of health, Jonathan Coleman told us he heard about it on the TV news.

If I’d been Coleman I think I’d have been too embarrassed to admit that, because it suggested he wasn’t in the loop on crisis management. I asked Little, “Why isn’t Jonathan Coleman a laughing stock, like Nick Smith?”

Little said, “I don’t know. He’s certainly not managing the portfolio as well as Tony Ryall did.” Ryall was the health minister for the first two terms of the Key government and widely described as a “safe pair of hands”. He kept health out of the news.

My question wasn’t philosophical. I wanted to know why the Labour caucus hasn’t got Jonathan Coleman stretched on a rack while they tear out his intestines with their teeth. Who has been Labour’s health spokesperson all this time? Until last month, when she David Clark assumed the portfolio, it has been Annette King, she who supposedly, according to Labour lore, can do no wrong.

Why hasn’t Labour scored more big hits on the government in health?

“I think we do,” said Little. “Annette does very well.”

‘In the general meetings I have, that’s the thing that comes up first: mental health. Photograph: Adrian Malloch

OK, so education? Andrew Little can be good and not good talking about policy issues.

He leans in, uses his hands but with not too much waving, isn’t worried about taking time to think but not too much time. What he says is never revolutionary and rarely inspirational and usually it sounds like common sense.

That might seem like a good thing but it’s not. Some politicians – think Winston Peters when he gets it right – can make “common sense” sound like god’s gift. But for most of them “common sense” is hardwired to “irrelevant”. Peter Dunne, for example, likes to say his party United Future is the party of common sense.

Little wants to sound sensible, who wouldn’t? But he also needs to sound competent and motivational. He needs to make voters believe he has the ability to make the right thing happen. So he told me, “The key to education is teachers,” which is true, but blandly so because no one disputes it. He told me, “The biggest changes will come in education,” which is not so much blandly true as just blather.

Labour will make it “easier for people to access education later in life”. Labour will “lift the status of teachers”. How? “Through professional development and pay, and we’re looking at the question of post-graduate qualifications.”

What about performance pay? “No,” he said. “That won’t work. I’m a big fan of performance management. Teaching is a collegial profession, so if you think about that, we need a system that encourages good feedback, that’s constantly upgrading teachers’ knowledge and practice. We need that. We need to invest in teachers.”

This is big and difficult. Little wants to reform teaching without getting grief from teachers, quite a lot of whom he will be counting on as voters. No minister in recent times has done it but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

‘Housing sits at the centre of the inequality challenge’. Photograph: Adrian Malloch

“Housing,” he said, “sits at the centre of the inequality challenge.”

Which is true. The New Zealand Initiative, a right-leaning think tank, has argued that inequality in this country has not significantly widened in decades – if you take housing out of the equation. But factor in housing, as we all have to do, of course, and the gap has widened enormously. If you own property you’re probably getting wealthier, at the expense of those who don’t.

But no, Little said, “we have no plans to bring down house prices”. I pressed him on that and he was clear.

I also asked him, what about a warm, dry home for every child?

“It’s important.”

Why don’t you make it policy? Why don’t you set a date and make it a goal? If you did that and we believed you could deliver, everyone would vote for you, wouldn’t they?

He cited KiwiBuild, the plan to build 100,000 affordable homes announced by David Shearer when he was party leader. Little pointed out that in the 1930s the government, contracting to Fletchers, was able to build 10,000 state houses a year. He said it worked then and it’s doable again now.

So there’s no absolute goal but there is a difference with National: the latter is not at this point interested in building homes. Especially affordable homes. I say at this point, because it’s election year and in May it’s budget time and the government is not going to go into the campaign looking like it doesn’t care about the poor. Is it?

Andrew Little nearly got completely derailed this week, by the defamation case filed against him by hoteliers Earl and Lani Hagaman. They said he defamed them by suggesting their financial support for the National Party might have been a bribe. He said he acted in good faith and had a duty to bring matters of potential consequence concerning government actions – they made a donation and soon after were granted a lucrative government contract – into the public domain. It’s a defence called “qualified privilege”.

Very largely, he won, and when Lani Hagaman announced she wanted to go after him again he released a terse statement saying he was going to focus now on the election. That case must have been tough, not least because his personal financial security was on the line, but he was careful to behave with decorum throughout.

It’s hard to credit. In an election year, a party leader doing his job gets dragged into court by financial backers of his opponent who are using their wealth in a way that will destroy him if they succeed. No wonder Andrew Little has stress lines on his face.

Here’s one of the weird things about Labour. They are the party of budget surpluses, but cursed with the label spendthrifts. Finance spokesperson Grant Robertson made this point when Labour and the Greens launched their Budget Responsibility package at a breakfast hosted by Kensington Swan and KPMG last month. Andrew Little was there, glad handing, and both the Greens’ leaders, but it was Robertson who took the limelight for Labour because it was a finance spokesperson thing.

Robertson says it goes like this. Labour ran a surplus for every one of the nine years it was last in government. It set up the Super Fund too, further strengthening the long-term economic security of the county. National, on the other hand, stopped payments to the fund, has undone none of the Labour economic policies it used to say were going to wreck the economy, and got us into surplus only once, only this year.

‘There will be no tax cuts.’ Photograph: Adrian Malloch

Why do people say National is the economically responsible party? Is it because National talks about the surplus all the time? Talking makes it a real thing?

Why do Labour’s political opponents call it spendthrift? They say it’s because Labour has a spending programme the economy won’t support. Andrew Little sat at that café table, pointed his knees out and stuck his hands on his thighs, the expansive confident man, and said that was nonsense. “We won’t pull back from our promises,” he said. “There will be no tax cuts. And spending will be phased in.”

That means they will roll out the social programme only as fast as the economy allows, given that they intend, as they did for nine years, to balance the books.

So, why really do Labour’s political opponents call it spendthrift? Because they know if they keep saying it we’ll keep thinking it might be true.

Still, if Labour isn’t going to adjust the fiscal settings of the country, what exactly is the point of a centre-left government?

Since the end of the second world war – I know, it’s going back a bit now – the pattern of our politics has been that Labour reforms and National beds in the reforms, keeping the economy ticking over in the interests of whoever benefits from the status quo. That’s still largely true.

But the reforms have become very mild and for six terms now, under Helen Clark and John Key, we’ve had governments largely satisfied with reinforcing each other’s mild fiscal adjustments. And while that’s happened we’ve let poverty deepen, schools fall behind, the economy become badly distorted by property, the cities become ever more blighted by traffic, the challenges of climate change lie largely ignored.

Worst of all, we’ve allowed the economy to be captured by an activity that is ruining the countryside and subverting our ability to adapt to the modern world. Yes, dairy. The success of dairy is now so intrinsic to the success of the country we do not know how to stop the ravages it causes.

And while the country was shocked to discover, this time last year, that our social services “safety net” had so many holes in it families were living in cars, little has happened since then to change the situation.

So, again, if a centre-left government proposes to roll out reforms only inasmuch as they do not upset the country’s existing fiscal settings, which is what centre-right governments do, what is the point of voting for it? Yes, I did ask Andrew Little. Possibly with a little less of the lecture.

He was quick and sharp with his response.

“Three things. One, we’ll review the tax system.” If you earn income you should pay tax on it? Corporates, everybody? No, he didn’t say that. But tax review is a Pandora’s box and Labour is going to open it. Who knows what will come out?

Which links to Little’s second point. He said there would be “more capital for investment, not land and buildings”. As National has already shown us with its bright line test for property investment, there’s more than one way to tax capital gains on property.

His third point: “A positive and constructive role for government.” That’s classic social democracy: government is, or should be, on the side of the people. But what will Labour do? Reform the way frontline welfare staff treat their “clients”? Work with local councils on transport policy, give more support to iwi social initiatives, ramp up the campaign against domestic violence, restore the status of the arts? There were no details.

Little did say there was a difference between him and the prime minister: “English is ideologically committed to small government. I think government has a role to play.” English himself, I’m sure, would agree with the first statement but say that he also thinks government has a role to play.

Little also said, “We’re being clear about this,” which I didn’t really think he was. Being clear would be targets and timetables. Little is not promising the moon but nor is he making no promises.

‘Maybe we could have done it differently but there was a story to tell.’ Photo: Adrian Malloch

Did he regret the “Chinese-sounding names”?

He answered this question like a man trying to keep his feet dry as he crossed the river, not sure which stone to jump to next. But determined to cross anyway.

This is verbatim, and it took him three times as long to say as it will take you to read. “I can’t think of a way we could have. I mean we talked about. When you get information showing the huge investment of, showing what it did, there were Chinese buyers, they’re a much smaller percentage of the population. Maybe we could have done it differently but there was a story to tell. An important story to tell. Is there evidence of overseas buyers, their impact? Of course, yes there is. We knew the anecdotes of agents waiting at the airport, picking up their clients on the first flight, taking them round to the auctions, catching the last flight out at night. There’s evidence Chinese immigrants buy 40 percent of the property for sale in Auckland, but they’re only nine percent of the population.”

Is Labour driving away the immigrant vote, or is it counting on immigrants agreeing the system is too loose? Labour’s policy is that foreign investment in property is very welcome as long as it goes into new housing stock. It’s hard to see why that would alienate anybody.

Is Labour driving away urban liberals? Little said he doesn’t think that’s happening. Party organiser Matt McCarten was more blunt when I asked him about it recently: “Where are they going to go?” he said. “The Greens, that’s where. And that’s fine. Their votes stay on the left.”

That’s a vitally important thing about centre-left politics this year. With the memorandum of understanding between Labour and the Greens it is very clear that a vote for either party is a vote for the same coalition government. If you’re inclined to either, you’ll vote on the basis of which you want to give more weight to.

‘It’s Greens first, New Zealand First second, and then the rest.’ Photograph: Adrian Malloch

Labour and the Māori Party are going at each other so bitterly right now, you’d think it was the main event.

Doesn’t Little want to keep the door open? The Māori Party wants to be a “permanent party of government” and he might need them.

“I don’t see it happening. It’s Greens first, New Zealand First second, and then the rest.”

So the Māori Party is no different from any of the other National support parties. Why?

“Their problem is that in 2008 they didn’t want a bar of Labour. They stood aside and allowed a whole heap of things to happen. We pushed for an inquiry on homelessness. They said nothing. Criminal justice. Education. They refused to support any of it.”

That’s absurd. The Māori Party was newly installed as a supporter of the Key government in 2008 – why would he think they were going to sabotage that relationship from the get-go?

Little ducked and said he didn’t expect them back in parliament anyway. He’s not alone in thinking Labour’s six sitting MPs in the Māori seats will all be returned, but most commentators expect Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell to hold Waiariki. Not Little. He said Tamati Coffey has an excellent ground game and will win. Coffey was the Labour candidate in Rotorua in 2014, a seat that used to belong to Labour, but he failed to win it back.

Labour is still hurting from the Māori Party and it regards their support for National as a betrayal of the progressive policies they claim to stand for. There’s also an iwi overlay: the Māori Party is more closely aligned with iwi leaderships while Labour is stronger among the non-iwi urban Māori organisations. The fight will be bitter right down to election day, but after that?

I said to Little, are you saying that if it comes to it, you would forego the chance to form a government because you don’t want to work with the Māori Party?

“I’m not saying that. But I don’t think it will happen.”

‘I think the mayor of Auckland should sit on a cabinet sub-committee.’ Photograph: Adrian Malloch

He agreed Auckland was critical to the election and went on a bit about it. Auckland is important to New Zealand and vice versa, there are “infrastructure shortfalls”, “governance problems” and “new funding methods are needed”. These things are all true but, again, easy to say.

“This is a personal view,” he said, “but I think the mayor of Auckland should sit on a cabinet sub-committee.” He mentioned Paris, where, never mind the sub-committee, the mayor is actually a member of the cabinet.

What does he think of Bill English?

“Everything English says, either he kicks it down the road or sets a 2040 target. Which might as well be no target at all.”

Scorn is the prevailing sentiment among our MPs about their opponents. They all wade in, one way or another.

Is Labour fighting fit?

“We’ve got a very good team. We’ve put a lot of hits on Nick Smith. He’s always on the back foot.”

Low-hanging fruit, surely. Nick Smith puts the hits on himself.

The good thing about having a good team is that you go out and impress everyone and smash it. But a good team can be a liability if you don’t have a galvanising leader. When the leader falters, anyone else who shines merely shows them up. That’s why Labour deputy leader Jacinda Ardern is both a blessing and a curse. When Kelvin Davis commands easy headlines he casts a shadow over Little.

What does Little think are his skills as leader?

“I’ve drawn everyone together.” That’s true, and if it sounds easy remember he’s the first Labour leader since Helen Clark to do it.

But it’s only the first requirement, isn’t it? “Yep, that’s the baseline.” He talked about his skill in picking which fights to have. His example, from the week in which we talked, was the vaping debate. Vaping is legal now, but what does Labour think? They never said and probably nobody noticed.

Little’s right that’s he’s kept the party from getting distracted. But they’ve lost a few headlines in the process.

He’s been wearing a suit for most of his working life without ever losing that New Zealand male thing: the collar looks like it doesn’t fit and he looks like he wants to rip the whole thing off.

But he doesn’t have the other traits. He’s not boyish. There’s no combination of dumb-roguish-exasperating-loveable charm floating around in there. He’s like the kid who didn’t quite get it. Not handsome, and you wouldn’t pick him as class captain. Except, Andrew Little has always been the class captain. He’s risen to the top in every job he’s had: student union president, union boss, party president and now party leader. And he’s done it without anyone suggesting he’s a ruthless backroom operator.

So how come? Why does this guy want to be prime minister and how did he get so close to making it happen? He doesn’t even seem to have the right personality for the job: quick to anger, not deft with the humour, not warm, not the kind of guy you’d want kissing your baby.

He said he was wary of personality politics, but hello.

What does he think about Paula Bennett?

He screwed up his face, which was quite a sight: he’s got very elastic features. “She’s not obvious National Party,” he said, which may have been a real point of view but was probably just a put down. He tried again. “The whole Westie thing wears a bit thin. Her personality is fine, but it’s what you do that counts.”

Her personality is fine? Jacinda Ardern might beg to differ.

Maybe he was merely inviting the battlers, all those Westies in thrall to John Key, back to Labour.

He was leaning in, now, hands clenched between his thighs. He said the thing about personality is that “there’s a fine line, you don’t want too much”.

What about David Lange? Is there really such a thing as too much?

He deflected it onto Key. “Those gags with the soap and suchlike were a big turnoff.”

But were they, to the people who liked him?

“There are lines not to be crossed. People want to know you won’t do those things.”

And there it was: the heart of Andrew Little. You stay true to yourself. You have political principles to motivate your decisions. And your personality, your way of being in the world, is what it is, so you stick with because that’s how you look yourself in the eye when you’re cleaning your teeth.

So what about those “Chinese-sounding names”, which sounded awfully like Labour’s integrity had just got trampled in the mud. And, for many at the leftward end of Labour, “social reform as economic circumstances allow” sounds like that too: whatever happened, they ask, to the Labour principle that social reform will create better economic conditions?

Little argued the case on both that morning, in his steady, reasoned tone. He said there’s no reason we should not have a tighter immigration policy, and it was in fact important that we do. He said economic stability and social reform go hand in hand.

He was very confident about these things. He is, generally. Confident of who he is, what he values and what he can do. That’s why he’s a leader.

And yet there’s a problem: the integrity plan isn’t working. Labour is climbing very slowly in the polls and Little himself is stuck.

‘We’ve got a very good team. We’ve put a lot of hits on Nick Smith.’ Photograph: Adrian Malloch

I wrote earlier this year that he needed training from a theatre director and a good clothes adviser and so on, but it turns out he has all those things. He just doesn’t do what they say.

Andrew Little is who he says he is. Doesn’t have money sitting in trusts, hasn’t exploited the property market, argues for the rights and wrongs he believes in. He got himself contact lenses over summer but there’s no big makeover. He sat in court for the Hagaman trial, on his own, waiting, hoping that he would not, in almost every way, be ruined. For doing his job the way he believed it should be done.

When you sit with him for any time, he seems lonely. I don’t think that’s uncommon among political leaders, actually. And yet he is more comfortable leading than following and he believes that what he wants to do will make this country a better place. He can make a good speech: his state of the nation address this year was a commanding performance and a hint of what he might produce come campaign time. But he is not naturally inspirational. That’s the quality he lacks.

And yet, decidedly, he is not a flake. You can’t say that about all leaders, in politics or anywhere else.

The great hero of integrity politics is Thomas More, who refused to help Henry VIII defy the Pope and went to the executioner’s block because of it. The lesson from More is a bitter one: integrity, staying true to yourself in all times and all circumstances – he was “a man for all seasons” – doesn’t make you an effective politician. The lesson from Little is more rueful: you can’t even count on integrity to make you popular.

But the lesson from both of them, whether Little gets his head chopped off in September or not, is a lesson for us. It’s right to be true to yourself, isn’t it?

An integrity politician. Do people care?

Read our previous Election 2017 leader interviews:

The incremental radical: Bill English meets Duncan Grieve

The art of the deal: Metiria Turei and James Shaw talk to Toby Manhire


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