Too much coffee with Andrew Little

Too much coffee with Andrew Little

Andrew Little, current Leader of the Opposition stares at the gigantic mug of cappuccino in front of him, “Actually… Yeah, I think this is number five today”.

I try to restrict it to two or three cups a day. Maybe four. In a recess week you’re meeting with a lot of people, and everywhere you go they want to have a coffee with you, so that can catch up to you.” Not that five cups of coffee a day is unwarranted these days. His life has been rather busy lately. In the aftermath of the 2014 election he was catapulted from the very lowest spot on the party list, so far down that he couldn’t even be sure of his re-election until special votes were counted, to the trepidacious heights of Labour Party Leader, the political equivalent of teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts. 

It’s a high pressure job with minimal downtime, where missteps can be catastrophic and mistakes get replayed on the news for days. Little claims he sleeps “About five hours on a good night. I can go for a couple weeks without sleep but then I’ll need a couple days to catch up.” Upon winning the position last year, he says he expected he expected to be home by 5five o’clock, just a couple hours after the announcement was made. Instead, “I didn’t leave office until 10.30. I went up to Auckland early the next day for five days, it was about two weeks before I got the chance to actually go home and spend some decent time with the family and celebrate”. He’ll likely hold this position for three years, and if everything goes right for him, his reward will be a job with ever higher pressure and even less down time: Prime Minister.

Andrew Little sat down with Critic at a small outdoor table at the Green Acorn café on Albany Street. Beside him are three fellow MPs, including Dunedin’s own David Clark and Clare Curran, a staffer and a couple of Young Labour-types who have apparently attached themselves to their leader like barnacles clinging to a whale. The MP’s crisp black suits and matching red ties look completely out of place for North Dunedin on a hot Saturday afternoon (with the possible exception of a Donald Trump costume on Hyde Street). Yet despite this, our strange grouping receives nary a second glance from the pedestrians passing by. The only recognition Little receives is from a Poppas Pizza employee who shows up to offer him a free Margherita, and even that is revealed to be more of a favour to David Clark as a loyal customer than anything else. 

In comparison to the videos of John Key being swamped for selfies in shopping malls during the last election, it shows just how far Andrew Little needs to climb in order to save his party. Not that he’s unaware of the challenges, or afraid of the work he’s cut out for himself. Reorganising and restructuring struggling organisations has been a focus of his since he was 21 years old running for President of the Victoria University of Wellington Students Association (VUWSA).

“I was the business manager of SALIENT [The VUWSA magazine – think CRITIC, but not as good], and kept seeing ongoing issues with the executive. They simply couldn’t make decisions, and we kept electing these people who had barely any connection to the students and no accountability. I consider student unions to be a massively important part of student life, so I really just wanted to see student reps do their job effectively.”

Looking back on his time as President, Andrew calls himself a “reformer”, pointing to a restructuring of executive roles, a challenge to the student radio as essentially a “failed commercial operation relying on massive subsidies”, and proudly pointing out that his executive was the first to ever cut the student association fees.

The following year, he was elected president of the New Zealand University Students Association for 1988 and again in ’89, a particularly rocky time for students due to the Fourth Labour Government’s decision to introduce university tuition fees for the first time, which students responded to with mass protest marches, because it was the 80’s and protesting shit was basically the favourite pastime of students in the 80’s.

As an organiser of mass protests in a pre-internet era, Little would spend hours running telephone trees along with other activists getting the word out to as many students as possible, sometimes as last-minute as the night before an event. This was the case one Sunday night when his rag-tag team arranged thousands of students to attend a rally outside a university building where Phil Goff, Tertiary Minister at the time and now a colleague of Andrew’s, was speaking. Together, they marched behind him the entire way back to his parliamentary office, while Little bellowed into a megaphone and activists led chants which cleverly rhymed ‘Goff’ with ‘Fuck off’. 

When talk of the old protest chants comes up, Little is quick to dismiss, admitting he was “Well aware of them”, but insisting he “didn’t author them and certainly didn’t speak them. Phil’s a great guy”, although they apparently haven’t reached the point where they can laugh about it, “there’s no running jokes about the old days. We’ve never mentioned it. We don’t mention the wars”. 

In his post-Uni years, Andrew passed the bar and went to work for the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU), the nation’s largest workers union, first as a contract lawyer and later making his way up the ladder to National Secretary, before working for the Labour Party and eventually ending up as an MP. 

Since landing his current job as Leader of the Opposition, Little says the biggest change he’s noticed has been the constant level of scrutiny he faces, “You’re on show constantly, anyone can take a photo at any time. It means always having to be on your game, because any old thing could come back to haunt you. I respond well to being thrown in the deep end though”. 

That scrutiny is about far more than his politics; internet commentators reported that his fashion choices were a hot topic of conversation among party faithful at the most recent Labour Conference, with much focus given to striking the right balance between ‘everyman’ and ‘statesmanly’ looks. Andrew claims he doesn’t pay much attention to these critiques, saying that “most of my clothes are picked by my wife”, but he does admit there are “certainly attempts to [give him fashion advice]. I often get letters from members of the public who try to give me advice about my glasses or my choice of ties. Actually, I think most recently Sir Bob Jones wrote me saying my tie didn’t match my suits. So yeah, there are some suggestions, but not a huge amount. Actually I’m guilty of it myself, early on I used to give prospective MPs advice on how to dress for campaigning and TV appearances”. 

Unlike David Cunliffe, who upon winning the party leadership sought to assert his dominance by demoting those who had publicly supported his rivals, Andrew Little focused on party unification by bringing his former rivals into the fold. He describes the first few days after the leadership election as conciliatory, but also very forward-focused, “I had one on one meeting with every member of caucus and made it clear I would line up people into roles based on skills not loyalty. They were hard conversations, but I made it clear it wasn’t about me domineering, it was about working with everybody.”

The party appears more unified now than it has in the past few years, and in terms of organization they will almost certainly head into the 2017 election more prepared than their last disastrous foray. That’s not to say the new leader hasn’t had teething problems, Little himself points out Budget Day 2015 as a “pretty poor” performance from him, and the lowlight of his leadership so far. National had been tactically downplaying the Budget in the media, which led to opposition parties overplaying their hand in the face of expected cuts. Instead, the government surprised everyone by announcing increases in weekly payments to beneficiaries. Little admits that he “over-prepped on certain things that turned out to be completely wrong. The $25 dollar a week increase completely threw me, I was on the back foot from there”, but he considers it a learning experience, “I took lessons from that. Bad things happen, you’ve just gotta dust yourself off and make sure they don’t happen again. You can’t dwell on it.”

Little always said that the first year of his leadership would be focused inward on rebuilding and strengthening the party. After that time, he promised he would turn his attention outward and focus on making Labour the ‘40 percent party’ it once was. That first year expired several months ago, and the polls haven’t shown any signs of growth. Two recent polls had Labour falling back under the 30 percent mark. 

The path to government in 2017 looks slim for Labour at this point, it’s going to require Andrew Little to not just release some stellar policies, but to prove himself personally as a competent and trustworthy leader. But he has a plan, and he’s sticking to it. Whether it works out will just be a matter of time.

“The next couple years are going to be a balance of letting people know my personality, and letting them know our policies. It’s about getting out there and meeting people. In the end I think the mistake we’ve made in recent years is that we have a plan, but then we don’t get enough in the polls and we get panicked and change the plan. I’m very much into we have a plan, we stick to the plan. We have a high functioning caucus and leader’s office. I’m also a big believer in sequence, there’s no point releasing polices until we know what we’re doing. And when we release policies, we have to release them right, not in the middle of the campaign. Last election, people simply weren’t hearing them. People need time to get to grips with the big stuff. When people have a sense of confidence that we know what we’re doing, that we’ve organised ourselves, then I’m confident it will show in the polls as well. The polls are a byproduct of us doing everything else right.

This article first appeared in Issue 9, 2016.
Posted 10:55am Sunday 1st May 2016 by Joel MacManus.