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Former finance minister Grant Robertson speaks during a Covid-19 announcement at parliament on March 17, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)
Former finance minister Grant Robertson speaks during a Covid-19 announcement at parliament on March 17, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)

PoliticsFebruary 21, 2024

Grant Robertson’s career in nine moments 

Former finance minister Grant Robertson speaks during a Covid-19 announcement at parliament on March 17, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)
Former finance minister Grant Robertson speaks during a Covid-19 announcement at parliament on March 17, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)

Charting the Labour stalwart’s rise from an over-performing political staffer to the man in charge of our economy. 

Former deputy prime minister and finance minister Grant Robertson is leaving parliament, drawing to a close a 15-year career as an MP. If you take into account his time working behind the scenes at parliament, it’s the end of an even longer era.

From his earliest days in parliament as a staffer, through to his tenure as a minister, Robertson has made an indelible mark on politics in New Zealand. But now, he says, it’s time for a change of scene.

“I gave every single inch of myself to the jobs that I’ve had in parliament,” Robertson told reporters yesterday. “And arguably a little bit more than that in the last six years.” Much like Jacinda Ardern, Robertson’s comments suggest he had little left in the tank. Certainly not enough for another three years – or potentially a lot longer – on the opposition benches. 

As Robertson prepares to step down, spend a few months on a beach somewhere and then head off to be the vice-chancellor of the University of Otago, here are nine key moments that defined his career.

July 26, 2005: An election-winning student loan policy is unveiled

Long before fees-free came along, Robertson was instrumental in developing another policy designed to encourage more people to head to university. As a staffer in then prime minister Helen Clark’s office, Robertson played a key role in developing the proposal of removing interest from student loans. Announced two months out from the 2005 election, which Labour was at risk of losing, this particular policy was widely observed as what secured Clark’s government a third term. Robertson was also involved with the introduction of KiwiSaver – another move that targeted median voters.

Reflecting on this during a debate in 2012, Robertson said it had been “unfair” to charge interest on student loans while you were studying. “Then the government followed that up by removing interest altogether, and saying to people ‘What you borrow is what you will pay back.’ That is a fair system. It is a system that was designed to encourage people to come and stay in New Zealand and make sure that they contribute to the economy.”

It’s appropriate, really, that Robertson’s next career move is at the University of Otago.

November 8, 2008: Wellington Central gets a new MP

In 2008, fresh-faced Labour hopeful Grant Robertson was picked to run in the Wellington Central electorate, succeeding Marian Hobbs who had held the seat since 2002. Robertson beat his National competitor Stephen Franks, who had previously been an Act MP, by a margin of 1,904 votes. It’s a seat Robertson would hold until last year when he opted to become a list-only candidate for the 2023 election, a signal that he did not want to stay on in parliament for much longer.

As an aside, 2008 was the same year that several high-profile members of the last Labour government first entered parliament, notably Jacinda Ardern.

April 17, 2013: The marriage equality bill passes into law

While Labour’s Louisa Wall was the face of the campaign that saw same-sex marriage legalised, Robertson was a driving force behind it. “Quite simply, we will not succeed as a country or a society if we continually find reasons to exclude people,” said Robertson in parliament during the final reading of the marriage equality bill in 2013. “The only place that takes us to is division and hatred. Why on earth would we want to stop a couple who love each other and who want to make a commitment to one another from doing that? Why would we want to exclude some people from a cherished social institution?”

Reflecting on his upbringing in Otago, Robertson told parliament: “In 1986 there was a 14-year-old young man sitting in Dunedin who read the newspaper about the law to decriminalise homosexuality, and he cut out of the newspaper the names of those who voted for and those who voted against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. And that gave him – me – hope that maybe his life would be alright.” 

Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern in 2014 at their leadership campaign launch (Ardern was running as Robertson’s deputy) (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

At the same time this debate was raging on in parliament, Robertson was a serious leadership contender within Labour. He was openly being talked of as a future prime minister. Putting himself forward for the leadership triggered questions as to whether New Zealand would be accepting of a gay prime minister. 

“There are gay bus drivers. There are people in all walks of life. It is important that people understand that. That’s one of the issues we have to get past: believing that there is a particular type of gay person,” said Robertson, speaking to The Listener at the time. As for whether he would be the first gay PM, he added: “I thought about, is New Zealand ready for there to be a gay Prime Minister, or a gay leader, and I actually think we are. The next question was, am I ready? Is this where I should be?”

September 29, 2014: Robertson throws his hat in the ring one last time 

Speaking of those leadership aspirations, Robertson put himself forward to be Labour leader on two separate occasions. The first time (in 2013), he lost to David Cunliffe. The second (2014), he lost to Andrew Little. On both occasions Robertson was the caucus favourite for the top job – it was the wider party membership, and in Little’s case only the unions, that backed those who ultimately took on the role.

After the second failed tilt at the top job, Robertson ruled himself out from further leadership battles. “I am taking the idea of me running off the table. I am not going to do it.”

He kept his word for the rest of his career, even opting not to put himself forward to succeed Jacinda Ardern in 2023 despite being the obvious choice. “My position has not changed. I have been a close up witness to the extraordinary work that Jacinda has done as leader and prime minister,” he said.

“The level of intensity and commitment required of a prime minister is an order of magnitude greater than any other role. It is a job that you must unequivocally want to do in order to do it the justice it deserves. I have every confidence that there are colleagues within the caucus who are both capable of doing the role, and have the desire to take it on. They will have my full support.”

Robertson stayed on as finance minister, and later finance spokesperson, under Chris Hipkins.

April 17, 2019: The death of the CGT

The capital gains tax has died and been revived what seems like a thousand times in recent years (Labour’s new finance spokesperson Barbara Edmonds was already fending off questions about it just hours into holding the post). But in 2019, the CGT died its most memorable death, with then PM Jacinda Ardern ruling it out for her entire tenure as leader.

Robertson had been a designer of the policy as finance minister and been a vocal advocate for it in previous elections. It was a bitter pill to swallow and one that Robertson accepted diplomatically. “What the prime minister said was, having campaigned in 2011, 2014 and 2017 on this and put it to a group of experts, it was time to accept that there wasn’t a mandate there to pursue it,” he said at the time.

James Shaw, Grant Robertson, Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters ahead of Budget 2019 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

May 30, 2019: The wellbeing budget

As finance minister, and alongside Ardern as PM, Robertson helped spearhead a “wellbeing” approach to government funding, seen most prominently under his successive “wellbeing budgets”. This first began in 2019, with five key areas being targeted including mental health and child wellbeing. 

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Robertson said he was “proud” of the former government’s wellbeing approach and the decision to fully embed this into funding decisions. But, he said, “Covid really got in the way of the full roll out of the wellbeing approach”. 

Robertson said he was also proud of how the wellbeing budgets ensured targeted support for areas like Māori health and education and Te Matatini.

Finance minister Grant Robertson with the 2019 budget (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

March 17, 2020: The first Covid-19 wage subsidy is announced

As finance minister, Robertson was in charge of developing proposals to help combat the economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. This included the wage subsidy scheme and the later cost of living support payments. 

“This package is one of the largest in the world on a per capita basis,” said Robertson in a media statement at the time. “It represents 4.0% of GDP and is more than the total of all three Budgets’ new operating spending in this term of government put together. “The global economic impact of Covid-19 on New Zealand’s economy is going to be significant, so we are acting now to soften that impact.”

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Robertson said that out of his entire time in politics, he was proudest of “getting New Zealand economically through Covid” and for ensuring the focus was on “saving lives and livelihoods”.

While the “health challenge” of Covid was immense, Robertson said he was focused on addressing the economic challenges posed by the virus. “I remember the day a briefing came through from Treasury that said unemployment was going to go above 10%, and I said I’m not going to let that happen… That was my job and I’m very proud of it.”

August 3, 2023: Robertson’s hole enters the public consciousness

Robertson was always electric in the House, capable of throwing meme-worthy zingers out in the same sentence as complex GDP figures. 

There are many standout Robertson moments from the debating chamber, but the past 18 months have been particularly exciting – and often amusing – to watch. In Nicola Willis, the now finance minister, Robertson found his most worthy opponent. She’s not just an equally formidable debater, but an equally unwitting accomplice in creating headlines very unrelated to the economy. 

The prime example? “How big is his hole?”. That was the question asked of Robertson in question time by Willis after reports of a fiscal hole in the then government’s revenue.

“That is not in the public interest, I can assure you,” retorted Robertson, as parliament erupted with laughter.

Speaking yesterday, Robertson acknowledged he had always enjoyed “the robust bits” of politics, which felt like a wee bit of understatement.

February 20, 2024: The decision to leave

We don’t have a precise date yet, but Grant Robertson will leave parliament “in late March” after announcing his retirement yesterday afternoon. He’ll then take a break and start his new position at the University of Otago from July. His place in parliament will be taken by the next person on Labour’s list, former New Plymouth MP Glen Bennett.

Keep going!