Interview: Grant Robertson
Deputy Leader of the Labour Party
Deputy Leader of the Opposition Grant Robertson has recently declared his candidacy for the leadership of the Labour Party. Zane Pocock spoke to the former OUSA President about the leadership contest and his plans for the Party.
Why should a university student Labour member vote for you?
Because I think I represent a new generation of leadership for the Labour Party: I would be the first Labour leader born in the 1970ís. It might seem a long time ago to a University student in Dunedin, but I think I represent a person who can unite our party, I think Iím a person who can communicate clearly and directly with the voters of New Zealand about Labourís values of a fair go, of making sure everybody gets a fair chance to achieve their potential, and making sure New Zealanders hear from Labour loud and clear why we would be a better Government than the current one.
Would you address the issue of student allowances being taken away from postgraduates? Would you pursue a universal student allowance?
On the first point, when I was tertiary spokesperson and this came through I was very clear that my belief was we needed more postgraduate students and that taking allowances away would reduce that. So it is my strong belief we should continue to have allowances for postgraduate students. On the wider question, Iíve long favoured an expansion of people who are eligible for student allowances; I have never understood why it was that students were the one group in society who were required to borrow money to eat, which is effectively what we do. So yes, I favour the expansion of student allowances. We have to balance that against the other things that we will want to do when we get into Government: you know, the need to provide warm, dry houses, to lift children out of poverty, so it will happen alongside that. But my commitment, and it has been since I was a student politician at Otago, is to expand the number of people who get student allowances.
How about VSM? Do you think this has turned into a non-issue or would you look to reverse it?
I would certainly look to remove the law thatís there. I think OUSA has probably done the best out of the studentsí associations in terms of the deals that have been done, but that situation is not the same around the country, especially at polytechnics where student representation has disappeared in a lot of them. What I would like to do is sit down and work with student groups on the kind of law that would have some durability, that wonít chop and change with a change in Government. The idea that I was discussing with student representatives last time when the Bill went through was whether we move to some sort of Kiwisaver-style opt-out scheme. Because when you enroll Ė Iím just gonna have to move my car or else Iím going to be arrested Ė not arrested, given a parking ticket Ė the um, yeah, the Kiwisaver-style opt-out scheme that isÖ sorry, Iím just distracted by another phone call Ė yeah, that allows you to say at enrollment that you wouldnít be, but otherwise you would be, and I think that would get rid of some of the heat from the issue, it would give studentsí associations some security of funding, and my biggest concern about all of this remains the fact that studentsí representation is undermined by being beholden to the institution. So they are effectively beholden to what the institution is prepared to agree to. Where youíve got good negotiators like OUSA did, you will do alright, where you donít, students will not be represented properly and thatís not right.
OUSA currently has a President threatening a career in politics by running for the DCC. What did your time as OUSA President and as an Otago student teach you for your own career?
Loads of things! It taught me how to campaign, how to organise and how to stand up and fight for the issues that I believed in. It also taught me the importance of having a good team around you and making use of all of the talents of the people that were around. And also I guess it taught me that if youíve got an issue that you really believe in then youíve got to stand up and fight, which is the situation that Labour is in right now.
What is the single biggest strength you would bring to the leadership of Labour over other competitors?
The whole question of a comparison is one weíve got to be careful about and itís up to others to judge. What I know I will bring is someone who will stand up and fight and someone who will unite our party. And we desperately need that.
Yeah, and talking about uniting the party, is such a leadership contest necessarily the best thing for Labour going forward? Does it not serve to remind the public of the liberal leftís tendency for in fighting?
I think this contest has the potential to be really powerful for Labour, I mean look at the last few days. All of the news headlines are about us and I think if we handle this well, we show respect to each other as candidates, if we talk about Labourís values and policies and we talk about whatís wrong with John Key and the National Government and how out of touch they are with New Zealanders, this can be a real positive for us. So look, thereís huge anticipation among the membership and among the unions about this contest, itís revitalizing the party organisation and I think overall itís a bit of a positive for us.
What is your response to John Keyís allegations that you were undermining Shearer?
[Laughs] No, and I think if you talk to David Shearer and if you talk to my colleagues, they will tell you that I have been very loyal to David Shearer, I have worked hard with him, and John Key himself is of course not exactly an unbiased commentator when it comes to the Labour Party.
I agree Ė I mean, in more general terms, why is Key currently acting like a Labour insider? Is there more cross-floor talk going on than the public is led to believe?
No, John Key is simply trying to stir up trouble. He knows that the Labour Party is not that far away from being able to lead a Government that will bring him down, and he wants to undermine that. The reality is he is quite frightened of what a unified Labour Party with members and supporters alongside it will do in terms of the 2014 election. I think we will be pretty unstoppable actually, if we can come out of this election unified, strong and clear about our message.
And is it refreshing to see a Labour leadership contest with only one David?
Well as Iíve told Critic before, I managed a band at Otago University called Too Many Daves, and weíve struggled with so many Davids in the caucus that yes, only having one will be a lot easier for people.
Do you think your Facebook likes could indicate an early advantage over Cunliffe the pundits arenít taking into account? That, and the fact your banner doesnít look like it was made in Microsoft Paint?
[Laughs] Yeah, I havenít actually looked at where the likes are up to now! Social media is forming an important part of this campaign already and yeah; if Iím going to be a new generation of Labour then I guess Iíve got to have good graphics, donít I?
If you win the leadership contest, what do you think will be the proportion of people voting for you from each group in the 40%, 40%, 20% split? Give us a breakdown of how you think you will win?
I wouldnít even hazard a guess, Zane! We will just have to see how it plays out.
Wellington is seen as a dying city, and Dunedin is a city some would say is struggling to recover. Let alone ChristchurchÖ What are your plans regarding New Zealandís struggling centers?
We absolutely have to invest in our region. We cannot afford the two-speed economy that National has created where the Christchurch earthquake recovery and property speculation in Auckland are the only two things pushing the economy along. I grew up in Dunedin and I know that when it thrives it plays a really significant part in New Zealandís economy, so to see Hillside, just down the road from where I grew up, close, to see the jobs go at Invermay, thatís wrong and itís unnecessary so Labour will have, under my leadership, a strong regional development policy. We did this when we were last in Government and we can do it again. But New Zealand can not afford centers like Dunedin to start declining the way they are under National.
Does NZ need to pivot more towards China and other international centers?
Oh look, China is a massively important market for New Zealand and a growing market for New Zealand and weíve got to pay a lot of attention to that. I hope that the kind of economy that we can grow is one where weíre developing products that are of a high value, and that means our markets for those products will be all over the world. Yes, China is a large market with a growing middle class, and a lot of our products go there. But we should also be wanting to sell into Europe, to sell into North America with goods that are developed, that are at the cutting edge of technology, that are using science, that are using the enormous capability that weíve got in New Zealand. So sure, letís develop the growing markets, but letís make the products that everyone wants to buy.
In the event you win the leadership battle, where would David Cunliffe end up in your caucus? Heís a well-practiced shit-stirrer and could be risky to keep close?
I want to make sure that we make the absolute best use of Davidís talents if Iím elected as leader and Iíve said to him and Iíve said publicly that I would see him playing a key role.
And would Dunedin North MP David Clark climb higher in your team?
Other than about David [Cunliffe], because itís relevant in the leadership contest, Iím not making any comments about where people are or where people will be. What I will say is I believe David [Clark]ís had a fantastic start to his parliamentary career and heís a great advocate for Dunedin North.
New Zealand is wonderful for how liberal and open-minded it can be. However, if you are running for Prime Minister next year, it is more than likely that the press will ask difficult questions about balancing your sexuality with foreign relations. For example, Muslim nations may not invite you to be a guest and enter trade talks. Have you begun to address the potential issues that may arise in this context? How will you respond to this?
I donít think that it will be that big an issue, I think that the way international relations works, and obviously Iíve worked as a diplomat so Iíve been part of that scene before, is that countries will treat each other with respect and that the issues that will be discussed will be about our relationships with other countries, not about our personal circumstances. Look, you know in the past people have raised similar concerns about whether a woman leader of a country would be able to be treated in a respectful way, and when Helen Clark was PM of NZ she was welcomed all over the world and Iím sure I would be if I was PM.
When it comes to a televised debate, do you think you have the oratory skills to match John Keyís remarkable talent for bullshitting?
What I think I do is I have the skills to challenge John Key and I think I have shown that in parliament and actually the debates will be a terrific occasion to expose John Keyís bullshit.
What song do you imagine winning the 2014 election to?
[Silence] UmmmmÖ Iíd have to think about that, I mean the thing is that in 2014 I want to be contemporary so I want to make sure that itís a song thatís around at the time. But the song that was in my head this morning was a song by Don McGlashin called I Will Not Let You Down and thatís the message that Iíd be sending to New Zealand.
Would you consider entering a coalition agreement with the Civilian Party?
[Laughs] I suspect that Ben and the Civilian Party would want to stay on the cross benches, however I would entertain putting him into the cabinet as a Minister for Satire.
How about the Pakeha Party?
Um, no, I think you can rule that out.
What character in Game of Thrones are you?
I knew I would get a Game of Thrones question! I just have been too busy to engage in the Game of Thrones area so I will leave you and your readers to give me a character. What character do you think I should be?
Well in truth I am actually in the same boat as you.
Whatís the biggest animal you could take on in a fight?
Itís the little animals that you have to look out for. He says looking at the dead wasp on his dashboardÖ
And finally: shoot, shag or marryÖ
Aw come on, Iíve done this before!
But itís a different combination! John Key, Robert Muldoon, Kim Dotcom?
I am in the middle of a leadership contest but what I do know is that the first two of those people have such similarities; it would be very hard to choose between them.
Do you think we can push you slightly further on that?
Well, is there any final statement you would like to make to the students at Otago University?
Well I guess what I would say to students is please enroll to vote in next yearís election, please listen to what the different parties are saying, and vote for the party that best reflects your values. And you know, the values of the Labour Party are about giving everyone opportunities and giving everyone the chance to make the best of themselves. And for some people that will mean going to university, for some people that will mean taking up a trade. But everyone deserves a chance, and in New Zealand today there are a lot of people who arenít getting that chance so I just really urge students to get involved in the political process and vote for the party that reflects their values.
Thank you for your time and good luck.