There isn’t time to reflect in the middle of a global pandemic, says deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson. He turned 50 at the weekend and the only thought that’s really crossed his mind is that it feels pretty old, writes political editor Jo Moir.
“A lot has happened in the last few years” – a deadpan understatement delivered in true Grant Robertson style.
It’s been a couple of weeks since the Government passed its one-year milestone, but Robertson says Covid has meant not a lot of time has been spent thinking about what’s happened since the election.
“This time of year’s particularly busy because I’m at a particular moment in the Budget process, where people have put their initial bids in and now we’re in the triage and scoping process, and it’s the beginning of difficult conversations with ministerial colleagues,’’ Robertson tells Newsroom.
“Then you add Covid on top of that, and I think the one-year anniversary is likely to have not got much attention from us.
“It’s a year that’s gone fast – I’ll definitely give you that.’’
“Any frustration we might feel about our work programme pales in comparison to people whose lives have been disrupted by Covid.”
– Grant Robertson
Robertson is second-in-charge and Finance Minister in a Labour-majority Government – something never seen before under MMP, but that doesn’t mean there’s no bounds when it comes to policy reform.
“Sure we have certain frustrations about things we’d like to have progressed, or just having to spend so many hours of every day managing the Covid response, but that is the life we’re in at the moment.’
“Any frustration we might feel about our work programme pales in comparison to people whose lives have been disrupted by Covid,’’ says Robertson.
That’s not to say there isn’t substantial reform work underway in some areas, and criticism that’s come with it.
The health sector shake-up, which will see the 20 District Health Boards scrapped and a Māori Health Authority established, and Three Waters reforms, are both being progressed despite a reasonable amount of opposition – and not just political.
Robertson says the country can’t afford to not do them.
“There might be a temptation to stop or pause these things, but actually these are the underpinning reforms of a number of the shifts and changes we want to see in the economy and society.’’
Three Waters is just one example of the infrastructure holding back housing development, he said.
“We could go, it’s really stressful and difficult at the moment let’s just park that, but that would undermine a lot of the work that we want to do.’’
It prompts the question of whether Labour feels it was restricted in its first three years in coalition with New Zealand First and is now playing catch-up.
“I wouldn’t put it that way,’’ Robertson says.
“Some things we made really good progress on in the first term of government, but there were other things that weren’t at the top of the agenda.
“Some things are moving faster in this term than last, but that’s the nature of government.’’
While Covid is all-dominating, there are other things the Government is keen to make real progress on.
Everyone’s agreed on climate crisis
Parking the housing, health and infrastructure work to one side, Robertson says the climate crisis is a huge focus.
“We did a lot of work in the last term to get our systems right – the Zero Carbon Act – we’ve got a very clear process around that now with the emissions reductions plans.’’
Transforming the New Zealand economy to a low carbon one is front and centre over the next couple of years, says Robertson.
Yet Climate Change Minister James Shaw, who is about to jet off to Glasgow for COP26, told Newsroom on Thursday that while Cabinet was more ambitious than Government officials, it didn’t go as far as he pushed for with the Paris target.
Robertson respectfully responded saying, “James is entitled to his view but we’re actually doing a significant amount and he’s a big part of that – he should be proud’’.
He points to changes with the clean car discount and industrial heat as examples of the transition already underway.
“You have to bring communities with you when making change, we saw that with the Just Transition process in Taranaki, and we have clear targets out to 2050.’’
Labour’s substantial win on election night last October led to a promise from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that she would govern for all New Zealanders.
Robertson told Newsroom the “broad majority of New Zealanders want us to move in the climate space’’ so winning over former National Party voters hadn’t impacted any decisions on how they approached emissions reductions.
“I don’t think climate change is an issue that falls outside of the group of people that voted for us last election, I think they wanted us to act on it and we are.’’
Political differences over race relations
An area the Opposition has tried to capitalise on is work programmes that National and ACT say are “separatist’’ and creating two tiers for Māori and non-Māori.
Robertson doesn’t hold back on his disappointment with National.
“If there’s one thing when I reflect on my time in politics that I’ll give credit to John Key for, it’s that he tried to move the National Party away from that.
“I differed from Mr Key on many things, but I do respect the fact he didn’t beat that drum in that way.’’
The separatist narrative has played out with health reforms, Three Waters, and the ongoing work to meet the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
An independent report, He Puapua, was commissioned to canvass ways the Government could meet the declaration, which prompted public backlash about Māori being consulted ahead of the rest of the country.
Robertson says New Zealand has a “really good story to tell about the way as a country we’ve tried to move forward’’.
“It’s not perfect, it continues to have challenges.’’
But something like the Māori Health Authority, Robertson says, is based on need.
“It’s a demonstrable need to be able to improve health services for Māori, and what’s happened with Covid just exemplifies the need to do things differently.’’
His own colleagues – Māori ministers and MPs within Labour – have spoken out about the need for Government to do more, and pointed to failures, like the Māori vaccination rollout.
“I am the Minister of Finance – I’m not going to say yes to everything that gets proposed to me. Part of my role is playing the part of the person who does the prioritisation.’’
– Grant Robertson
Robertson pushes back saying a huge amount of resource has been put into supporting Māori communities and it’s been central to his Budgets since 2018.
While he hasn’t reflected on much in recent years, Robertson says the work that’s been done to get New Zealand history in schools and Matariki recognised as a national holiday are “really big shifts’’ he’s proud of.
“I am the Minister of Finance – I’m not going to say yes to everything that gets proposed to me. Part of my role is playing the part of the person who does the prioritisation.’
“They’re always going to ask for more – it’s Willie Jackson – he’s going to ask for more,’’ Robertson jokes.
He accepts Māori vaccination is an area that needs more work, and while Robertson says the Government moved as quickly as it could on rolling out Pfizer – relying on DHBs to be the “conduit” for Māori providers didn’t always work.
Covid has meant a lot of Robertson’s, and Ardern’s, focus has gone on the response and recovery.
His role as deputy is a support person as much as anything – along with filling in at Question Time, attending events and answering media questions.
He says it was always going to be different to the job former deputy, Winston Peters, played because Robertson and Ardern are from the same party and the relationship is different.
The pair have come increasingly under pressure in recent weeks over the way the Delta outbreak has been handled, the messaging, and the continued lockdown in Auckland.
“The longer something goes on the harder it is for people. There was an initial adrenaline about Covid arriving that we were going to get through it together, and we did. We eliminated Covid twice, but then Delta arrived and it’s a different beast.’
“We continue, I think, to have a really strong response. It’s become a little more nuanced, but that’s the reality.
“The way we talk and communicate about that, we have to wear it on the chin if we don’t get it right, but I think we’ve still got a response that’s appropriate for where we are.’’
Robertson says the time will come to reflect on some of the decisions that have been made, “but right now is not the time for that’’.
On Saturday he posted a picture of himself as a three-year-old, which his mother had sent him to celebrate his 50th.
He found himself staring at it thinking about what he might have thought he would be doing at the age of 50.
A lot of time has passed since his Dunedin days running around playing rugby and cricket, and Robertson likes to think New Zealand has moved on in that time.
He still recalls people saying New Zealand wasn’t ready for a gay Prime Minister when he was running for the Labour Party leadership in 2014.
“I like to think we have moved on from that … for me, it’s about being me. I’ve been who I am, out as it were, my whole political career, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody.
“I hope most people judge me on my performance in the role,’’ he tells Newsroom.
That doesn’t mean the nasty messages have stopped flooding his inbox.
“I have a tendency to screenshot some of them to remind myself and for future use. There’s still plenty of ugly, homophobic vitriol that exists in aspects of our society, and particularly in social media.
“It’s not a big number of people and largely it’s people with a political agenda they’re expressing in that way. But it exists,’’ he says.
So, is New Zealand ready for Grant Robertson?
He’s not interested in chatter that he is lining up to take over the reins from Ardern at some point.
“We just aren’t having conversations about that. I haven’t changed my view from what I said in 2014, when I said that I wouldn’t be seeking the Labour Party leadership again, and I’m not.’’
It’s a typical response used all too regularly by politicians.
Robertson immediately registers it hasn’t been taken seriously by Newsroom.
“I love how journalists never believe people like me when we say that, but we’ll just let that sit there,’’ he fires back.