Simon Wilson has a lengthy profile of the Labour leader: A man for some seasons: Andrew Little meets The Spinoff
Will Spring be Little’s season?
Andrew Little may have largely succeeded in uniting his party caucus since becoming Labour leader in late 2014, but he’ll need to find an extra gear or two to have a serious chance of becoming prime minister after September 23. In the third of The Spinoff’s election year interviews with party leaders, Simon Wilson talks to Little, and tries to work out if he has what it takes.
A decent bloke who has managed to lead in whatever he has become involved in. Who believes in being true to himself and backs his integrity, although that wobbled a bit over his Hagaman attack. Is struggling a bit with a lack of charisma and inspiration. Believes he can make a difference but so far is fairly vague on how he will achieve that.
Labour has a simple message for this election: health, housing and education. Oh, and jobs. They’re going to focus on social policy.
Little has banged on about these things. It seems that every Labour candidate has repeated the boilerplate phrases when announced.
Labour believes the critical issue that will persuade voters to return is if they believe it really will make a difference on social policies.
Andrew Little put it this way: “When I talk to business meetings, the number one issue they’re most concerned about? It’s housing. And after that? Education.”
So, housing, education, health. I asked him about mental health.
“You know,” he said, “in the general meetings I have, the community meetings, that’s the thing that comes up first. Mental health. I’ve started working it into my stump speech.”
But what will Labour do? “We need to find out how big the problem is. We need an inquiry.”
Is it the biggest health issue? “I just don’t know. There’s also the pressure of an aging population.”
Little and Labour have said they will spend more on a range of big budget items, but they won’t spend much more overall.
Changing teaching without changing teachers
What he says is never revolutionary and rarely inspirational and usually it sounds like common sense.
Little wants to sound sensible, who wouldn’t? But he also needs to sound competent and motivational. He needs to make voters believe he has the ability to make the right thing happen. So he told me, “The key to education is teachers,” which is true, but blandly so because no one disputes it. He told me, “The biggest changes will come in education,” which is not so much blandly true as just blather.
One of Little’s and Labour’s biggest problems right now is having little in the way of definitive policy. Everything is waiting to be announced, or is being deferred until after the election, or waiting on an inquiry.
This is big and difficult. Little wants to reform teaching without getting grief from teachers, quite a lot of whom he will be counting on as voters. No minister in recent times has done it but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Especially not National ministers. If anyone can do educational reform without a revolt by teachers it’s Labour. But what would they reform? Teachers seem to like to be politically active about things that don’t involve them having to change.
“Housing,” he said, “sits at the centre of the inequality challenge.”
Which is true. The New Zealand Initiative, a right-leaning think tank, has argued that inequality in this country has not significantly widened in decades – if you take housing out of the equation. But factor in housing, as we all have to do, of course, and the gap has widened enormously. If you own property you’re probably getting wealthier, at the expense of those who don’t.
But no, Little said, “we have no plans to bring down house prices”. I pressed him on that and he was clear.
He wants to stable the needy without scaring the horses. This seems to be a recurring credibility problem for Labour, they want people to think they can fix everything without being prepared to make hard calls.
No tax cuts
Andrew Little sat at that café table, pointed his knees out and stuck his hands on his thighs, the expansive confident man, and said that was nonsense. “We won’t pull back from our promises,” he said. “There will be no tax cuts. And spending will be phased in.”
That means they will roll out the social programme only as fast as the economy allows, given that they intend, as they did for nine years, to balance the books.
To the chagrin of left wing activists who want rapid social and economic reform.
So, again, if a centre-left government proposes to roll out reforms only inasmuch as they do not upset the country’s existing fiscal settings, which is what centre-right governments do, what is the point of voting for it? Yes, I did ask Andrew Little. Possibly with a little less of the lecture.
He was quick and sharp with his response.
“Three things. One, we’ll review the tax system.” If you earn income you should pay tax on it? Corporates, everybody? No, he didn’t say that. But tax review is a Pandora’s box and Labour is going to open it. Who knows what will come out?
That’s probably what many people think about Labour at the moment. Who knows what will come out before the election or after the election?
“A positive and constructive role for government.” That’s classic social democracy: government is, or should be, on the side of the people. But what will Labour do? Reform the way frontline welfare staff treat their “clients”? Work with local councils on transport policy, give more support to iwi social initiatives, ramp up the campaign against domestic violence, restore the status of the arts? There were no details.
Again, no details.
Is Labour driving away urban liberals? Little said he doesn’t think that’s happening. Party organiser Matt McCarten was more blunt when I asked him about it recently: “Where are they going to go?” he said. “The Greens, that’s where. And that’s fine. Their votes stay on the left.”
But it’s nowhere near that simple. They can choose not to vote. That doesn’t help Labour. They could vote for the Maori Party. For Peter Dunne. Even for National or ACT or NZ First. Politics and vote choices are complex.
Labour and the Māori Party are going at each other so bitterly right now, you’d think it was the main event.
Doesn’t Little want to keep the door open? The Māori Party wants to be a “permanent party of government” and he might need them.
“I don’t see it happening. It’s Greens first, New Zealand First second, and then the rest.”
I said to Little, are you saying that if it comes to it, you would forego the chance to form a government because you don’t want to work with the Māori Party?
“I’m not saying that. But I don’t think it will happen.”
Another thing they are trying to avoid considering.
What does Little think are his skills as leader?
“I’ve drawn everyone together.” That’s true, and if it sounds easy remember he’s the first Labour leader since Helen Clark to do it.
In the Labour caucus perhaps, but it’s far from evident in political social media. In fact division is what is evident.
But it’s only the first requirement, isn’t it? “Yep, that’s the baseline.” He talked about his skill in picking which fights to have. His example, from the week in which we talked, was the vaping debate. Vaping is legal now, but what does Labour think? They never said and probably nobody noticed.
Vaping is a vapid example. Little’s skill in picking fights wasn’t evident in the Hagaman defamation case, and that got a lot more attention than vaping, he was accused of crossing a legal line.
“There are lines not to be crossed. People want to know you won’t do those things.”
And there it was: the heart of Andrew Little. You stay true to yourself. You have political principles to motivate your decisions. And your personality, your way of being in the world, is what it is, so you stick with because that’s how you look yourself in the eye when you’re cleaning your teeth.
He was very confident about these things. He is, generally. Confident of who he is, what he values and what he can do. That’s why he’s a leader.
And yet there’s a problem: the integrity plan isn’t working. Labour is climbing very slowly in the polls and Little himself is stuck.
Labour’s latest attempt to address this has been to promote Jacinda Ardern to deputy leader and promote her alongside Little. It’s risky for a leader to be seem as less popular than their deputy.
He can make a good speech: his state of the nation address this year was a commanding performance and a hint of what he might produce come campaign time. But he is not naturally inspirational. That’s the quality he lacks.
I saw and heard him more or less repeat that speech in Dunedin the following week and it was quite uninspiring. Disappointingly so.
An integrity politician. Do people care?
But Little is probably not seen as having any more integrity than Bill English. And no more charisma or inspiration.
On top of this he has a challenge that his opponent doesn’t. The election is not shaping up as Little versus English.
It is English versus Little and Ardern with Turei and Shaw.
That’s probably why they are promoting ‘change the government’ and not ‘change the Prime Minister’.