Interview: Michael Woodhouse - National Party MP

Interview: Michael Woodhouse - National Party MP

Michael Woodhouse is a National Party list MP based in Dunedin. He takes care of both Dunedin North and South, and is the Minister of Immigration, Veteransí Affairs, and Land Information. He is also Assistant Minister of Transport.

Why should students vote for you? What do you want to do for us?
Didnít I answer that? Well, just cut and paste that answer out of the previous [issue in which I was interviewed for Critic]. No, look, I think students by and large tend to be very focused on the here and now. And thatís really important and itís important to me that they have the best education they could possibly get. And I think they do. At the University of Otago we have one of the finest institutions in the country, we certainly have one of the best health science faculties in the world, and the Government wants to make sure thatís the case, and I work bloody hard up in Wellington to make sure thatís the case.

So is there anything specifically you want to do to extend that down here, specifically to Otago and specifically for Otago students?
Well in terms of the University, itís important that we grow Ö so my role is to make sure Dunedin is in the mindís eye and it maintains its status. One of the things it can do, I think, is grow its programmes, so domestically, Dunedin and Otago are seen as the first choice for intending students, and it markets well across the country, but also to international students. Increasingly education and research is international Ö I sense thereís a reluctance here at the University to get too big in terms of international students, and that is true, I think there is a point over which the mix becomes problematic, may potentially undermine the special character that is Otago, but as Minister of Immigration, I work very closely with Steven Joyce to make sure that our international and our export education is growing, and I want to make sure at a micro level that Otago is part of that.

So in a nutshell, whatís the best thing youíve done for Dunedin so far? Like a policy or just one quick Ö
Look, in terms of Dunedin work, Iíve gone in to bat for a whole pile of things. But actually I think the work that I do in the Dunedin office for individual constituents is the thing that Iíll sit in my rocking chair and be the most fond about. And as a list MP, frankly itís a pejorative term, even amongst my colleagues, we are considered lesser beings Ö Yeah, thereís nothing better than being able to pick up the phone and go ďMrs Brown, we got a win for you on ACC.Ē Well not immigration now, actually, I canít deal with immigration, sadly, but you know, whether itís a mental health issue or a housing issue, or Ö theyíre good ones to get. And I also think, and Iím not going to shy away from the other issue, weíve gone through five years of really, really tough economic times. And yep, Clark will tell you that they had successive surpluses and all that sort of stuff Ö well, they didnít, Ďcause 2008 was a dogís breakfast, and the structural spending increases that were bedded in between Ď05 and Ď08 led to projections by treasurers of ten years of deficits. And we had to fix that really quickly. So being back to surplus in year five is, I think, a bloody good result. Particularly when you super-impose Christchurch, Canterbury earthquakes on that. So whatís my goal and role in supporting Dunedin? Itís to make sure that we donít go backwards.

Just to move away from Dunedin a bit, do you agree with your Australian counterpartís policy on asylum seekers?
Well, letís put this in its broadest context. From a regional perspective, New Zealand plays its part in ensuring that irregular arrivals, and weíre talking about maritime arrivals, boat people, are disincentivised, discouraged, and then managed. So weíre talking about three dimensions here, and New Zealand doesnít have, yet, an issue. We havenít had a known maritime arrival Ö I canít judge Australiaís response, because Iíve never been a Minister of Immigration where thousands and thousands of boat people are arriving on shores every month, and I think we need to contextualise that. New Zealand has a good response plan, weíve been exercising Operation Barrier for four years, three years, we finesse it every time we do it, and Iím satisfied to the degree that we can, we are ready if it happens. We have a naval, a medical, a biosecurity, a customs, a police, and a judicial response, ready to go when we need it, and I will lead that. I will be the person. But Iím not going to sit here and judge Australia for what they do and donít do, it would not be appropriate of me to comment on that.

Why wouldnít it be appropriate if it were a question of human rights?
I think itís because I donít understand that context. The geopolitical situation in the North of Australia between Australia and Indonesia and Papua New Guinea is a very difficult one. What I would say, in a more general sense, is that everybody has the right to be treated fairly, consistently, quickly, and consistent with refugee conventions. And as far as I can tell, while thereís been a lot of noise around that particular thing with Christmas Island and Nauru, Iíve seen no clear evidence that there are human rights abuses in those places that is being perpetrated by the Australian Government.

Surely it is the Australian responsibility if they are the ones that put the people in the situation in the first place should human rights abuses be carried out. Surely Australia has some responsibility to deal with that?
What I would say is that anybody who has a person who is detained and detentioned has a valid response under UN convention on refugees Ö [they] do have a responsibility firstly to provide security to its own people, secondly to provide basic physiological and safety needs for the people detained. Thatís nourishment, shelter, general protection Ö but some of the things that have been going on, particularly the destruction of places in Nauru, make that problematic. And of course it wasnít the Australian government that burnt down the detention centre.

No. Iím asking if you think they should have some responsibility since it was their policy that-
Well the question isnít if they should have some responsibility, itís whether they are discharging that responsibility and that becomes a value judgement where the Australian government and Amnesty International will never see eye to eye. So itís not for me to inject myself in that debate.

Okay. Do you have any particular opinion about the recent book that came out that was marketed to possible asylum seekers? It was a comic essentially, made by the Australian government, and the underlying quote was something like ďyou will never come to Australia, you will never live in Australia.Ē It was like a comic book and it was handed out essentially saying ďnever, never again.Ē
No I didnít see it, what I do know is the previous Labour government had a very active, as part of their disruption plan, they did have quite an interesting media propaganda strategy, which did involve, from time to time, full page ads in daily papers in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, hopping off points, basically. To simply say ďdo not come. The smugglers are telling you lies about what will happen when they get there.Ē And I think thatís necessary. So I canít comment on the comic book, but to give you an example of that, we were aware through a four corners programme last year, of two well-known Indonesian people smugglers in Malaysia who were recorded as saying ďwhen you arrive in NZ you will get residence after 35 days, you will be supported, you will get this, that, the next thing.Ē And it was nonsense. And we do need to, because they are seducing vulnerable people, to pass over money and then to put their lives at risk in sometimes very dangerous waters, and they will do that, because theyíre selling the reward. A reward that is non-existent. And I think itís incumbent on us to make sure that is told to anybody, desperate though they are, and I completely understand, you know, some peopleís desire to take that risk. But if they take that risk because of lies told to them, look honestly, if there is a hell, the hottest spots will be reserved for these people smugglers. They are heinous criminals. And I think we need to Ė we sit in judgement from a long way away, on a situation that we do not understand and I hope we donít have to for a very long time. But it would be naive to think that this could never happen in New Zealand.

Can you tell me Ė what was your reason for your vote against marriage equality?
Oh, quite simply this. I donít care pretty much who does what with whom and where. And Iíll state that again. A lot of people think this is some kind of fund[amental]y religious belief I have. Well, thereís nothing further from the truth. And Iím very much a live and let live kind of guy. Probably far more socially liberal than people give me credit for. But that live and let live involves the ability of other people to hold a different view and not to have othersí views forced on them Ö Now, that said, there were a few aspects of civil union legislation, which Iím quite relaxed about, that actually didnít give same sex couples the same rights, and that couldíve been fixed, and I would have supported a civil union law that was for everyone, and then leave marriage for whoever wants to call it a marriage. And hereís the problem, right? Through that whole debate, it was really explaining things losing that stuff, when itís really a hot button socially liberal issue; to try and explain that to anyone is to bore them to tears, so it was way easier to say ďoh, heís a fundy.Ē ĎCause thatís how it was represented by many groups, and I had a lot of social media stuff saying ďplease explain your reason for voting against this bill.Ē how the hell do you put that in a tweet?

Cool. One final question, and itís just a fun one. You travel a lot, whatís your favourite place?
Rome. If I was to say (itís out of a long list, by the way), but if I was to go and plant myself in one place for a few weeks and just explore, it would be Rome. Itís ancient. I like old. I like old architecture. Iíd go to Rome with a friend of mine whoís a classical studies graduate from Otago. That would be my Utopia and some nice Italian wine and good food and my family. That would be my ideal holiday.
This article first appeared in Issue 12, 2014.
Posted 4:32pm Sunday 18th May 2014 by Carys Goodwin.