A nice Politician with a capital P: My interview with Grant Robertson

by Lord Sutch

GrantRobertsonAf-fable adj: Pleasant, friendly and easy to talk to; see: Robertson, Grant.

What a nice man that Grant is. First impression: I get to the Beehive and after telling the woman at reception that I’m here to see Grant, she calls Grant’s EA and I’m advised to head up to the third floor of Parliament Building and someone will greet me. So I do just that, and who do I see striding down the corridor of power with a jaunty step? Grant himself. This is unusual; usually it’s the office staffer who comes to greet pesky visitors. But Grant is a man of the people. A big fan of equality.

Again it’s important to declare, Grant bought me lunch. He’s lost a lot of weight, he’s looking good. So he’s trying to keep it off by eating a bit healthily. Healthy options do not abound at Copperfields, so Grant’s options are limited. He goes for a wrap. In solidarity I also have a wrap.

As soon we sat down Grant had to say hello to a lot of people. He seems well liked at Parliament. Fair, he’s a good bloke. He’s hello-ing left, right and centre. I’m sure a political metaphor could be drawn from that expression but I’m not the man to do it.

He opens by complaining that National never sends any of its MPs to political panels around the country. He and Tracey Martin from NZ First share a laugh about the fact that at the last panel, it was only the opposition parties, Labour, Greens and NZ First. No National. I ask him if that’s because National are probably better off shutting up at the moment and he thinks yes, but it would still be great to see them taking part.

I ask him why Labour are hovering around 30 per cent in the polls and don’t seem to be getting any traction. He answers sensibly that if he knew that he’d be able to fix it.

“We are fighting a slick National party though. And John Key is a very popular Prime Minister.”

Does he know why John Key is so popular? It’s a question I’ve wanted to ask senior Labour people for a while. Every time Key does something populist, like recreating the infamous three-way handshake, or pulling the “derp” face, people on the left cry out that he’s demeaning the office of Prime Minister or that he’s just a dick. However those not on the left see a guy who can laugh at himself and has the common touch. Does Grant get this? Sort of.

“Key has a very carefully crafted image. He’s a celebrity Prime Minister in the age of celebrity.”

Nothing there about Key’s ability to connect with the people or that he has any substance. More that Key is the Kardashian of New Zealand politics.

So if Key is little more than a shiny object, what about the National Government’s performance, have they done well? So much of Labour’s rhetoric is just attack, attack, attack. National is a bunch of evil rich bastards who are only here to help out their rich mates. The problem is, this isn’t really being borne out. Other than beneficiaries and students, who National seem to take pleasure in inflicting damage on, National seems to have done a reasonably good job with the economy. They have steered us through some terrible times and we seem to be over the worst of it.

Grant thinks that National has done ok in some parts of the economy, but only for some people. “Under National, more than ever before we are seeing the growth of two New Zealands. There is the group who have done well out of this Government, and those who are struggling.

““The situation for the government coming in in 2008 wasn’t going to be easy for anyone, so they deserve a level of credit for that. However so many opportunities were missed.”

He cites Christchurch as an example of this. In the 18 months following the earthquake it was clear that there would be a need for skills training of the locals to help with the rebuild. This didn’t occur so now we’re faced with a huge influx of migrant labour to get things going again.

He also says that National has borrowed more than any previous government. I put it to him that after a global financial collapse and after the Christchurch earthquake we were always going to have to borrow. And that with global interest rates so ridiculously low, it would be the best time to borrow heavily. He concedes, kind of, but says that any economic growth that has come out of the borrowing has been unevenly felt, so the point in borrowing so much has been lost.

I return to my point about Labour’s rhetoric. I say that it would be great if Labour didn’t so much focus on the negative, didn’t tell me how shit I had it, didn’t say how rubbish National was but instead told me what Labour’s vision for the country was, and how it was going to get me there. Grant says that Labour does do this. He has a minor grumble about the media. Every time he sends out a press release about an issue, there will always be a positive angle to it (tellingly he says “there will be a constructive part at the bottom of the release,” thus missing my point somewhat). He says the media never reports this, only the negative critical stuff. Curse you pesky media and in your inability to report everything! He prefaces this answer with “I don’t want to blame the media”, then kinda does blame the media.

This photo was too amazing not to include

This photo was too amazing not to include

His lines are all very in keeping with Labour’s positions. He advocates for the State as a partner in the economy. He thinks that’s the major divide between National and Labour. His party wants to be an “active partner”. He wants the State to take a “positive enabling role” which he sees as a wee stumbling block. From his perspective, New Zealanders often see the State as the opposition. This surprised me as I’d always thought of New Zealanders as very welcoming of State intervention, unless it’s telling us what sort of lightbulbs we can use and how long we can have showers for.

He says the trick to Labour winning is to stoke the fires of inequality. He says Labour has to connect with “middle New Zealand”. Provide them with a vision, make it aspirational for them. Give them opportunities and a fair go.

“If you asked New Zealanders who Labour stood for, they’d tell you the working class, the more dispossessed people. That’s great, and we do. But in order to win an election we also need to reach middle New Zealand.”

We start talking about individual politicians. I ask him whether Judith Collins should resign or not. He says unequivocally yes. What she did was a fundamental breach of being a Cabinet Minister. I say that I think politics is a brutal game. That effectively what politicians do is jump up and down squealing that other politicians are shit and should quit. Imagine if someone kept telling you that you were useless at your career and that you should give up your livelihood. Grant paused here. Then got all Godfather on it.

“It’s really not personal, it’s business.”

Days after this photo was taken, David and Grant had their arms separated and for the first time were able to live as individuals

Days after this photo was taken, David and Grant had their arms separated and for the first time were able to live as individuals

He points out that him and Judith (used to) share witty repartee on Twitter. He acknowledges that she has a good sense of humour, something he thinks he shares with her. However he returns to his point, her behaviour was unbecoming of a Cabinet Minister.

He clearly doesn’t think badly of Bill English. He says that Bill has a social conscience, that in Bill’s heart he knows that the Government needs to be a partner in the economy. He also thinks that John Key believes this too – not to the same extent mind. However Steven Joyce seems to be entirely run by a more right wing ideology. He doesn’t seem to think terribly highly of Steven, at one point describing that Joyce’s actions in freezing the repayment threshold for student loan repayments was Joyce being “really mean”.

Grant agrees with me that Joyce’s reputation as Mr Fixer is entirely unwarranted. He says Novopay is a good example of this. Joyce inherited the Novopay issue as it was already being sorted out. The obvious problems were being fixed. The systemic issues however remain. So what has Joyce done?

We also talk about National’s recent announcements that Former Tobacco Lobbyist Todd Barclay will stand in Clutha-Southland, and Former Tobacco Lobbyist Chris Bishop will stand in Hutt South. He says he’s been disappointed in the responses to criticism by both Former Tobacco Lobbyists. He says if you’ve worked for tobacco you’ve either bought into their line of reasoning, or you’re being disingenuous in working for them. The fact that both Former Tobacco Lobbyists have back pedalled from the positions they espoused as Tobacco Lobbyists is a damning indictment on their integrity.

He also thinks both of them should have thought through their career choices when going to work for Phillip Morris. He’s particularly surprised that Chris Bishop did it, believing that he could potentially be a future Cabinet Minister because he’s a bright guy. I didn’t highlight what his omission of Todd may have meant.

Grant wants to talk about the Cabinet Club and paying for access to MPs. He says that National’s fundraising efforts are different to Labour’s because National runs a subscription service that provides access to key decision makers. Also, Cabinet Ministers directly affect law and that providing access to opposition MPs is less controversial due to the relative impotence of opposition MPs.

Grant has only been an opposition MP. His rise is relatively meteoric. He was elected in 2008, in an election that was a big swing away from Labour. He was 46th on the list then, but had a relatively safe seat in Wellington Central (he was also up against notorious anti-animal-marriage proponent, Stephen Franks). Since then he’s been health spokesperson, deputy leader, economic development spokesperson and leader contender. Is only being an opposition MP a bit crap?

Grant says that the first three years it’s fun, because everything is new and exciting. But the second three years has been tiresome. So he’s really hoping for a chance to be in Government. He talks about the Greens being a natural coalition partner, and speaks as though it’s a fait accompli. I didn’t have the wherewithal to ask what was up with rejecting the overtures from our environmentalist friends to make campaigning as a coalition more formal.

One thing I’ve always wanted to know, is when you’re heading into an election and it’s becoming pretty clear that you’re not going to win, do MPs ever go “fuck it, we’re clearly not going to win this one.”

Apparently this is an excellent question. Thanks Grant! He says that the short answer is no. You never reach that point.

“I genuinely believe what I’m doing, I believe in what we’re doing.” He implies that he thinks people will understand that Labour is the best party and that people will eventually coalesce around them. This goes back to a conversation I had with a senior National MP some time ago. He said the problem with the Labour party was that they assume they are the natural party of Government. That when they lose elections, it’s an aberration and that the people will figure it out and the flock will return. This MP said that he understood that National wouldn’t be in power forever, and that each election requires work to win the people over.

Grant also says that due to MMP, no election is clear. Even 2011 which he obviously believes was not a good election for Labour, it was only one or two seats away from forming a Government. How does he think New Zealand would react if a party that got two thirds the number of votes as another party ended up in power?

He conceded this would be met with some degree of scepticism and says it would be “unusual”, but that “people would get used to it.” Then he adds as a caveat “obviously we want to be the dominant party though.”

Never giving up on the election isn’t quite consistent with his perspective on the leadership race. I ask him if he thought he’d win that, he says “no, David was always the presumptive nominee.” Does he still want to be leader?

“I’ll tell you what I already said, I would like to be leader after David has served two or three terms as Prime Minister”

Yes, clearly then.

Before every interview, I put it to my Twitter followers and ask them what questions they’d like asked. I don’t always use all of them, but the one I was really keen on getting an answer to was the question posed by Graeme Edgeler. He wanted to know where Labour stood on drone strikes and extra-judicial assassinations.

I thought this was a great question, and particularly timely with the recent news that New Zealander Darryl Jones was killed as collateral damage when an American drone strike assassinated a known terrorist. John Key’s response has been flippant; he’s basically said that Darryl Jones had it coming, fraternising with known terrorists. Key is also “comfortable” with the use of New Zealand intelligence providing assistance to the drone strikes.

Grant is less comfortable. He falls short of outright ruling that sort of thing out under a Labour Government, but he hits all the right soundbites. He has no doubt that the murder of non-combatants has been deemed a breach of international law. He says that he thinks it’s awful that New Zealand intelligence was used in this capacity, but does that mean Labour would never do that?

Well no, not quite. He would like to “find out” what New Zealanders think about the role of our intelligence overseas. He says there is certainly a place for the military, and indeed a place for military intervention. However “my bar for that activity is very very high.

“I’m very uncomfortable with getting involved in other people’s wars unless there’s a UN mandate to do so.

So maybe, but no confirmation.

Grant’s a politician. Through and through. Every comment, every anecdote, every position I hear from him seems to have passed through a political filter before leaving his mouth. He’s very polished. It was difficult for me. During my interviews I like to get a sense of the subject as a person, but I don’t know if I got that from Grant. He’s certainly a great guy, really pleasant, clearly smart and good company. But he is the most politician-y politician I’ve dealt with so far (Cunliffe interview pending).

This isn’t to say that Grant has no self-awareness. At one point in the chat he said “I realise that just about every answer I give you has a caveat attached to it.”

“It’s noted” I told him.

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