Wellington looks a picture on a sunny, near-cloudless June day, until you feel the bite in the air. A chill wind: it’s as good a metaphor as any for what’s been blowing through the corridors of the Labour Party. There has been the Chris Carter fiasco, the Darren Hughes debacle, the Judith Tizard tizz. But never mind a brisk southerly – Helen Clark was quite capable of producing that effect single-handedly. For all the traction Phil Goff is getting in the polls, he might as well be walking into a force-nine gale.
It’s a measure of the trouble the party is in that one of those most often spoken of as a future leader has yet to set foot inside the House. Andrew Little is a lawyer and a pragmatic union man who stepped down as party president to run for New Plymouth. It’s election year. Little doesn’t hesitate when I call to arrange an interview.
Then something unusual happens. The phone rings. Adelia Hallett, who used to do PR for the Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union (EPMU), has heard I am going to interview her old friend and suggests a chat. Why not? Little has an enigmatic public persona. I’ll take all the help I can get. Cue a pleasant conversation, with some fervent cheerleading. Does Hallett think Little has what it takes to be prime minister? She replies with a story about seeing a documentary on the Clintons. Someone recalls a young Hillary Rodham rushing in, announcing she’d just met a future president. “I thought, ‘Imagine that,’” says Hallett. “And then thought, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You know Andrew.’”
Goodness. That would be a yes, I guess. When we meet, Little is in his final weeks as national secretary of the EPMU before leaving to campaign full-time in New Plymouth. We start at the union’s head office, a stylish renovation within an existing industrial building. The walls are decorated with posters proclaiming Women Against War and World Day for Decent Work. There’s an agreeable collective buzz that evokes another New Zealand. The loos are quite flash.
Little, too, is an intriguing mix of old school and something more contemporary. People sometimes mistake him for being of Goff and Clark’s generation. He does have the sober public air of a man born slightly middle-aged. He’s only 46.
He’s been described as a pinko unionist and as too cosy with employers; as a softly spoken intellectual; and as “hard-mouthed” and ruthlessly ambitious. When we repair to his house to talk, it’s time for cards on table. I’m here, I say a little despairingly, to try to figure him out. “Oh,” he says. “Okay.” There’s little alteration to his union negotiator’s poker face.
First question: did he ask his former PR friend to call? “I didn’t ask her. She used to work for me. She gives me a bit of informal advice every now and again.” He’s getting some media attention lately. “I told her you were interviewing me.”
When I got that call, I say, I thought he was either very confidently proactive or a little wary. “I hadn’t really thought about it at all, to be honest,” he says. Note to self: teasing doesn’t work on him. This is also his stock answer to certain questions. Such as: Do you want to be prime minister? “Oh listen, I don’t think about it.” Really? “I don’t think about that because I don’t think you can. I think a lot about going into Parliament and that’s daunting enough as it is.”
True. He has to walk before he can run. Right over Goff, possibly. “If you commit yourself to the Labour victory this year, which I am as much as any other candidate and as much as Phil is, you can’t think beyond that, and I don’t.”
Little and Goff. As a student politician in the 80s he gave Goff grief over student loans. “There was an official memo leaked to us and we brandished it about on a Sunday night current affairs programme,” he recalls fondly. “It didn’t go down
too well at the time, I understand.” There is the perception that they are still not always quite on the same page or even, at times, consulting the same book. Little recites the litany: “‘Andrew and Phil Goff go back to the student days, hammer and tongs. Therefore that is going to carry on.’ That narrative was well under way on my first day as party president.”
It isn’t all about the past. Little’s presidency was marked by its relatively short tenure and, at times, shorter tempers. There was the biffo between Little and Judith Tizard as she decided whether to take Darren Hughes’s list seat. Tizard talked about feeling bullied by Goff and Little to stand aside for Louisa Wall and questioned whether Goff could “step up” as Prime Minister. Little sniped back: “The question for any aspiring MP is whether they can be disciplined enough to be part of a team and contain their ego accordingly …”
Ouch. Little says he was asked what he thought about the seat and obliged. “Judith Tizard characterised my comment then as bullying her. Now, I rang her and made my apologies. Although it was a reasonably testy conversation at times, I thought we’d ended on a reasonably mutually respectful sort of note.”
Some commentators have accused Little of undermining Goff. “Yeah, I still look for the evidence about speaking out against Phil.” There was the dissonance over the foreshore and seabed policy. And on the four weeks’ annual leave policy, with Goff using the Key word du jour – “relaxed” – about workers cashing in a week while Little was … not relaxed.
Embarrassingly, Little heard about the Darren Hughes crisis not from his leader but from a journalist. He seemed, as then party president, out of the loop. He seemed cross. “I was asked to confirm whether I had been told or not and I had to
say, well, no, I hadn’t been told. That was treated as criticising Phil Goff.” Does he think Goff could have handled the situation better? “Any view I had about that whole matter is between me and Phil and that is all.”
Over and out. But there’s no escaping an appearance of disharmony. MP Damien O’Connor’s rather alliterative addition to Labour’s woes was to declare that list selection is dominated by “self-serving unionists and a gaggle of gays”. “Oh, I think those are aberrations. In fact I know they are aberrations. Chris Carter was an aberration,” says Little, as near to blithely as a serious guy gets. “I think there’s a lot more behind his conduct than meets the eye. I think Damien’s comments were a pretty emotional reaction to a disappointment that he felt.”
But those polls. Surely it’s panic stations backstage. “No,” says Little valiantly. “I think those polls showing the gap are a good motivator. People are working pretty darned hard at the moment. That alone gives you cause for confidence.”
As for the allegiance a party president owes a leader, Little is, as ever, pragmatic. “The party’s role is by all means to represent the policies that the party machine has agreed to. But it’s also got to be respectful of the need for the parliamentary party to manage its needs in the parliamentary bear pit. Sometimes there can be a little friction,” he says, “but that’s healthy.”
Friction and aberrations: not necessarily words you want to hear in an election year. As well as the “gaggle of gays” jibe from within there was this question on Q+A from Paul Holmes: “Are there enough ordinary blokes in the Labour Party … in the Labour caucus?”
Holmes might be relieved to know that chez Little things could scarcely be more ordinary. Little’s wife, Leigh Fitzgerald, dashes into their Island Bay bungalow to start dinner before picking up 10-year-old Cameron for after-school activities. Little should really be packing – he’s off to New Plymouth before flying out to a conference in Geneva.
Little’s own background is less conventional. In fact it would make a novel. His “High Tory” parents came from Britain. His father, Bill, I heard, was a spy. “I don’t think he was a spy,” he laughs, which is something he should do more often. His dad did work in British Army Intelligence. “The apotheosis of his army career was in the Middle East after the war. The funny thing about my father, as a very strong conservative, is that he became very pro-Palestinian.”
At home, Little got an early education in political friction. Father and son were on opposite sides over the Springbok Tour. For his father, “there was no connection between the prejudice and oppression that he saw in the Middle East and the situation in South Africa. I think the reason for the path I’ve taken is that my father could not argue very well. So when, as a cheeky, irreverent teenager, you started challenging your parents, there was a lot of ‘Well, this is the way it is.’ A lot of, frankly, prejudice.”
Brought up posh but mostly by his grandparents, Little senior was something of an eccentric. “He was right into his fitness. He used to run along the beach really lifting his knees up.” The movie adaptation of The End of the Golden Weather, with oddball dreamer Firpo’s Pythonesque running style, brought a shock of recognition. “That’s exactly how Dad used to run.” Little and his four siblings would bury their mortified heads in the sand.
He and his father weren’t terribly close. “We were his third family. He wouldn’t talk about it. I suspect there were things in the UK that he left behind.” Little didn’t discover until the age of 18 that he had four half-sisters. “Two of them we didn’t make contact with until after Dad died.” Was meeting them emotional? “I remembered being elated about it. You felt an immediate closeness in a way you wouldn’t with a person you were meeting for the first time.” The rift wasn’t entirely his father’s choice. “He had attempted to make contact and that was rebuffed.” That’s very sad. “Yes.”
He was, muses Little, quite supportive. “In his funny way.” Was his dad proud of him? “He said it to me once. My mother said he was.”
On Little’s living-room wall is a small John Reynolds. He got it at an auction, couldn’t resist. It reads: “Politics is the skilled use of blunt objects”. Little can be blunt.
I ask about rebuilding Labour’s relationship with the Maori Party. “That’s a two-way street. With all due respect to Tariana Turia, she cannot bring herself to deal with a lot of Labour people and that’s not a reflection on the Labour people at all, in my observation,” he says.
He can see the other side. “With the Foreshore and Seabed Bill, what had alienated a lot of Maori was that they had their right to test their claim in court taken away from them.” The party has to take some responsibility for that. “Not to beat ourselves over the head with it in sackcloth and ashes but simply to acknowledge that was a real issue amongst many Maori.” It’s not going away. “Irrespective of what’s happened before, the new Marine and Coastal Bill doesn’t fix the problem.” But there are, he thinks, personality issues, too. So, what’s the way forward for Labour? “It’s probably a generation away. It’ll be a generational change with the leadership.” He means the Maori Party leadership.
At least Maori are a real presence in government with National, I put to him. Visibly around the table. “The remaining question, then, is what are they doing around that table? If it’s feathering a limited range of nests and not helping Maori generally, what has it achieved? I think that will be the question the Maori Party gets asked in the election.”
Politics is increasingly about the skilled use of that very blunt instrument, the media. Although I hear he’s a fun guy in private, Little’s image is a little severe. In interview mode, he’s engaging. Impressive, at times. In a country with a tiresome tradition of anti-intellectualism, he’s unafraid to throw around worlds like “narrative” and “discourse”. He can talk about distribution of wealth and entrepreneurship in the same sentence and make complete sense.
But with John Key looking at this point like he could plank his way to victory on Facebook, doesn’t Labour need a bit of that sort of popular cut-through? “It’s the sort of celebritisation of everything, isn’t it?” sighs Little. “You might say what we’re suffering today is the celebritisation of politics, at least of the prime ministership. If the objective of any leader is just to maximise their publicity, it doesn’t give you much confidence in the decisions that are getting made.”
People, insists Little, are concerned with the issues. “I don’t find a lot of people saying, ‘Gee, it’s great that John Key appeared on breakfast radio or Phil turned up at the Big Gay Out.” Okay, although the fact that most New Zealanders don’t want a bar of asset sales hasn’t noticeably dented National’s popularity. But Little is happiest talking about the issues, not turning on the charm. Sometimes he doesn’t half remind you of Helen.
If he’s hard to get a fix on, it may be because Little is a sort of transitional figure. He’s not quite old Labour, not Darren Hughes. In 2005 he was described, by a union colleague as “a bridge between the past and the future”. Now he says, “I think I can confidently say about myself that I’m not hog-tied to the past. I’m not doctrinaire.”
So into the bear pit he goes. If he doesn’t win New Plymouth, he’s No 15 on the list. “It’s looking reasonably promising but my preference is to win.” For a credible political future, he really needs to win. “Well, I would like to.”
Even he admits that it might have been better to run last time. “I always remember Jim Bolger saying it’s best to go in as a backbencher. You can make mistakes and nobody notices.” But his son was only seven. “I’m very close to him. Part of the judgment call was to say, ‘Actually, I wouldn’t mind having two or three more years just being alongside my son.’ And I’m glad I have done.”
As for what he wants to achieve, I can take a break while he interviews himself. “If we don’t want the extremes of wealth to start fracturing our society, we’re going to have to do things differently. Do we have a great lifestyle? Sure we do.
Does everybody have access to that lifestyle? No. Are there some deep-seated problems that are driven by poverty and hardship? Sure there are,” he says, in campaign mode. “You cannot talk about those poverty- and hardship-driven issues without talking about incomes and the distribution of wealth.”
That sort of talk does frighten the horses these days. “Yeah, well, we talk about freedom of choice. There’s no freedom in poverty and there’s no freedom in hardship.”
National has played cannily on feelings of disenchantment with politicians by at least appearing to have a light touch. That’s not a game Little wants to play. “That whole right-wing thing about small government discredits the political system. I think that’s incredibly anti-democratic. We have a political system because decisions have to be made in the wider public interest. That continual discrediting of the political firmament plays, not to be too dramatic about it, to very fascistic tendencies,” he says. “It goes hand in hand with that sort of frivolous approach to government and leadership that this Government is branding itself with. That everything is just ‘We’ll just laugh it off, we’ll just be a celebrity.’”
This disdain for personality politics is, depending on your point of view, a bit out of touch with reality or quite refreshing. In this, if not much else, Little may be a bit like his dad parading along the beach. He’s not bothered about how it looks. He’s too busy running his own race.
“The old thing of maximise freedom, minimise oppression – these are not things that can be dealt with lightly and frivolously,” he says. “If that makes politicians look pretty dour and boring, well, so what?”