Labour’s single-party majority isn’t some ‘grand nirvana’ when there’s a global pandemic at play, says Grant Robertson. The deputy prime minister spoke to political editor Jo Moir about the job nobody signed up for.

Life with a majority and without coalition partners is “undoubtedly easier’’, says deputy prime minister Grant Robertson.

“I think the last government did good things, but everybody knows there were tensions and issues that got parked and couldn’t be moved,’’ he told Newsroom.

Covid has been a huge daily challenge and Robertson says all the issues that come with governing don’t go away “just because you’re a majority government’’.

“And ministers, particularly on matters of detail, won’t always agree on first blush even if they’re in the same party.

“It’s not some kind of grand nirvana where you can roam freely about – we’ve still got to go through the process,’’ Robertson told Newsroom.

The difference between last term and this is that debates are easier when it’s colleagues within your own party, he says, and there’s a manifesto that was campaigned on and is the foundation for policy.

Since winning such an overwhelming majority in October 2020, MPs from National, ACT and the Greens have increasingly been calling out their Labour counterparts for blocking issues at select committees and wasting time asking patsy questions during Parliament business.

In recent months Labour has used its majority to block the appearances of the Police Commissioner, the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission, the Director-General of Health and others.

“It’s definitely not what I got into politics for, but in the end it’s the job we’ve all had to do.’’
– Grant Robertson

Asked whether more parties in government last term kept Labour more honest, Robertson said there are plenty of other checks and balances in place to make sure things are being done properly.

“I wouldn’t use the word honest per se.

“I think what other parties do is require you to make a number of compromises as you’re moving forward because you need to bring a majority of votes to the table,’’ he said.

“There’s fewer examples this term of needing to do that but there are other things that keep us honest.’’

Keeping Parliament democratic

Robertson says having to put legislation through Parliament and ministers having to front the media daily keep a check on things.

As for the wider debate about whether select committees and Question Time need reviewing, Robertson told Newsroom he’s always up for that discussion, which is an ongoing one.

“It’s kind of how we got to MMP if you think about it. New Zealand has continually gone through a process to work out how we get a form of governance that’s truly representative and democratic.

“What I wouldn’t accept is that select committees agreeing to do things or not do things and people saying that’s the Government controlling them is new, it is not,’’ Robertson said.

“I’m sure you could go back in time to when we were in Opposition and find us ranting about it – so it’s not a new thing.’’

“I think the last government did good things, but everybody knows there were tensions and issues that got parked and couldn’t be moved.” – Grant Robertson

ACT leader David Seymour has a member’s bill calling for a four-year term in exchange for the Opposition chairing select committees to try to counter some of these issues.

Robertson says if Seymour’s bill was to be considered there would need to be an ability for “democratically-elected governments to be able to progress its legislation’’.

“There would need to be some constraint on unnecessarily holding up things that were about the Government just performing its role.’’

While Labour for the most part can just get on with doing what it campaigned on, Robertson is quick to point out the Greens are still part of its decision-making, just not as much as they were last term.

In an interview with Newsroom Pro on Tuesday Green Party co-leader James Shaw said life was easier this time round without New Zealand First “tripping us up all over the show’’.

That’s a nod to the coalition between Labour and New Zealand First that brought tensions to the table for the Greens, but also Labour too.

At the mid-point of the term in 2019 Robertson told this reporter he wouldn’t be drawn on whether the Greens were easier to work with than New Zealand First.

“It’s like your children, you can’t pick out which one you love the most,’’ he said at the time.

Asked by Newsroom if it was easier just not having any children, as is mostly the case this term, Robertson said, “children are great, but no, I’d never use that turn of phrase again’’.

“From my perspective the working relationship with James and Marama (Davidson) is really good, I really appreciate both of the perspectives and experiences they bring.

“So, I’m not using the term children, but I still think that works,’’ Robertson joked.

Governing for all New Zealanders

He also pushes back on the suggestion Labour is using its majority to do anything it hadn’t already signalled during the election campaign.

“We ran on our manifesto at the election, so for example, it had fair pay agreements in it, we said we’d implement the recommendations from the welfare advisory group and we’re doing that.

“So no, I don’t feel at all uncomfortable about the fact we had a manifesto that we’re implementing but we’re still able to govern for all New Zealanders.’’

“What I wouldn’t accept is that select committees agreeing to do things or not do things and people saying that’s the Government controlling them is new, it is not.” – Grant Robertson

Robertson says Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was right when she declared on election night that her party would govern for all New Zealanders.

“I think what the Prime Minister was saying that day was that just because you get a majority, it doesn’t mean you go crazy, and I don’t think we have.

“We’ve continued to govern in a pretty balanced and sensible way – keeping in mind throughout all of this we’ve had Covid which has required us to govern for all New Zealanders.’’

Robertson accepts there is negativity around the country as a result of more than two years of a pandemic, coupled with things like a rising cost of living.

“People are tired and a bit grumpy and that’s not just about Covid, it’s also the cost of living and it’s just a bit harder at the moment.

“Omicron has arrived and it’s really the first time New Zealanders have had that major disruption to their lives. They’ve had Covid, or their family has, they’ve had time off work, the cost of living has gone up,’’ he said.

“I accept there’s a negativity that sits around that and the Government from time-to-time gets caught up in that, but I also know moods can shift and certainly just in the last couple of weeks people are feeling more positive and optimistic, because of things like the borders are reopening, the fact they can see the peak of Omicron is coming off.’’

Was leading a country during a global pandemic something he would have signed up for had he known?

“It’s definitely not what I got into politics for, but in the end it’s the job we’ve all had to do.’’

One group fed up with the Government’s Covid response turned up at Parliament and occupied the grounds for three weeks earlier this year.

Robertson believes the protest “represented a small splinter of New Zealand, not a division’’.

And while he doesn’t think the protest will have a long-lasting negative impact on the Government, he says it is hands-down the lowlight of his political career.

“It was a real lowlight, probably the lowest light of my whole time in politics and I went through nine years of opposition.’’

Fronting Covid press conferences alongside the Prime Minister became a regular occurrence for Grant Robertson during the months and months of restrictions. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

While for some the protest was about restrictions and mandates, Robertson countered that saying one of his highlights of the term is the response to the pandemic and continuing on with other work programmes despite the enormity of the response.

“If I felt we had stopped doing those other things I’d be really disappointed, but we haven’t, we’ve walked and chewed gum at the same time.’’

He says Budget 2021, the restoration of income support and social unemployment insurance are all highlights too.

One area he wishes had progressed further by now is the speed in which infrastructure is built in this country.

“Housing is a massive challenge for everyone too, but equally the cycle of these things turn and we’re starting to see prices drop and that will shift the market significantly,’’ he says.

Next on Robertson’s to-do list is the Budget next month, which he has already indicated will focus mostly on the climate and the huge health reforms kicking in on July 1.

While he hopes nobody will be disappointed by the money allocated to the Māori Health Authority, he is also clear it’s not a one Budget job.

“I’m excited about what it will do, but it has to build itself up over time too. There’s a challenge to make sure people can see the benefits of what we’re doing quite quickly – even if we can’t do everything quickly.’’

That means using this Budget to strike a balance between getting the new structures set up but also focusing on service delivery on the ground, he said.

Reform work is well underway under this Government, not only in health but Three Waters and the Resource Management Act too.

The other area that might see some change soon is Cabinet.

Robertson told Newsroom he has no insight into the timing of any Cabinet reshuffle but acknowledges in the course of every term “you get to a point where you start having people say if they’re going to run again or not’’.

He expects those decisions won’t be made until later this year but when they are they’ll “trigger other movements’’.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

Leave a comment