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Former finance minister Grant Robertson delivers the budget on May 20, 2021 in parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Former finance minister Grant Robertson delivers the budget on May 20, 2021 in parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

PoliticsFebruary 20, 2024

Grant Robertson quits politics, takes up role as Otago vice-chancellor

Former finance minister Grant Robertson delivers the budget on May 20, 2021 in parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Former finance minister Grant Robertson delivers the budget on May 20, 2021 in parliament (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The former finance minister will return to lead the university where he was once student president.

Grant Robertson is standing down as an MP and returning to lead his alma mater as vice-chancellor at the University of Otago.

A former deputy prime minister and minister of finance, Robertson will stand down in a month, and take up the new post on July 1.

“I am extremely grateful for the privilege of being a member of parliament for the last 15 years,” said Robertson in a statement. “The opportunity to represent the people of Wellington Central, and to be a minister has been an enormous honour.”

Robertson had “given absolutely everything I have had to these roles, but now is the right time for me to move on to a new set of opportunities and challenges”, he said.

Born and educated in Dunedin, Robertson studied politics at Otago and served as president of the students’ association in 1993.

A message to university staff from the University of Otago Council confirmed Robertson’s appointment was “unanimously supported”. It continued: “We acknowledge he will be the first non-academic candidate to be appointed to the role. This was a decision the Council considered carefully during a robust and extensive recruitment process.”

The university had “conducted an extensive international search for this role, supported by independent search firm Perrett Laver”, the message continued. “Grant’s extensive senior leadership experience at the highest levels of government, understanding of the machinery of government, deep capability and experience in financial management, strategic thinking and ability to navigate complex issues during challenging times made him a standout candidate.”

David Murdoch stepped down as vice-chancellor in June last year after less than 18 months in the role, having been on sick leave since March. In June the university said it was conducting a “global search” for Murdoch’s replacement, with medical academic Helen Nicholson acting in the role in the interim.

Otago and other New Zealand universities have been facing huge budget deficits, and in 2023 proposed to lay off hundreds of staff members and cut a number of courses.

As a student politician, Robertson protested the introduction of university fees and in 1993, became the president of the association. He was at one point arrested, though not charged, during a student demonstration. Robertson entered parliamentary politics in 2001, as a Question Time coach for the embattled Labour MP Marian Hobbs. He was recruited by prime minister Helen Clark’s office as an advisor, working heavily in relationship-building with the minor parties in coalition.

In 2008, Robertson entered parliament as an MP, winning the Wellington Central electorate, the same year Jacinda Ardern entered on the party list. He twice stood unsuccessfully for the Labour leadership. He became a core part of the Covid response, serving as deputy prime minister and finance minister in Ardern’s cabinet.

“I want to thank everyone who has supported me over these last 15 years,” Robertson said. “As MPs and Ministers we are blessed with extraordinary people who give time and energy to us. I am especially grateful to those who I worked directly with in my electorate, parliamentary and ministerial offices – top class people who so often went above and beyond the call of duty.”

He added: “I want to acknowledge the wider Labour whānau and my Parliamentary colleagues over 15 years for their support. In particular, my friend the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern who led our country through the unchartered waters of a terrorist attack and a global pandemic. I was so fortunate to serve alongside Jacinda and Chris Hipkins as prime ministers and have huge admiration for how they performed their roles. I know I leave a Labour caucus in good heart, with strong leadership and a clear focus on the issues that matter to New Zealanders.

“I also want to acknowledge the support of friends and family. The life of a politician’s family is far from easy as they are caught in the crossfire of politics. To Alf and the rest of my family I am so humbled by your love and support for which I can never thank you enough.”

Robertson said he was “immensely proud of the work that we did, guiding New Zealand through the global pandemic to save lives and livelihoods, focusing our work on improving the wellbeing of our people and addressing long standing social and environmental issues.”

Of the new role, Robertson said: “The university gave me such a fantastic start in my life and career, and the opportunity to give back is an exciting prospect. The staff at the university are incredible. The work they do teaching and researching and running the University is world class. I am relishing the opportunity to work with them, iwi, students, alumni and friends of Otago to build on 154 years of excellence and make everyone in the community proud of this institution.”

He added: “There is no doubt that there are challenges ahead for Otago and the wider tertiary sector, but I am looking forward to being a constructive player in addressing those for the good of all New Zealanders.”

A Labour front bench reshuffle is expected imminently. Robertson’s decision not to stand for a sixth term as MP for Wellington Central means no byelection will be required. His place in parliament will be taken by former New Plymouth MP Glen Bennett, the next on the Labour list.

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