“I was just being honest but there are times when brutal honesty can be a fatal flaw.”
When the then Labour leader Andrew Little told political journalist Corin Dann on Sunday July 30, 2017 that he had considered resigning, he set off a series of conversations and decisions that would end with his resignation just two days later.
Recalling that time with Newsroom this week, Little said he just answered the question honestly, but that caused some blow-back.
“I had been talking to Jacinda [Ardern] and others in the caucus about what is the right thing to do for the party and the caucus, in particular.
“The first disturbing poll was actually the week before – that was worrying and then some other polls followed.
“Then I did that interview with Corin that played on the Sunday and people weren’t very happy with that, and perhaps on reflection, should I have said I had considered resigning?
“That was the criticism,” Little explains.
Looking back at that week, Little’s first wobbles came when he received the party’s weekly internal polling on July 26 that showed numbers had slumped to 23 percent.
It triggered conversations with his senior MPs, and his deputy, Jacinda Ardern, who insisted he needed to stay in the fight.
By Sunday Little had been briefed on a One News-Colmar Brunton poll, which had Labour down three points to 24 percent – one percent lower than the crushing 25 percent result the party got at the 2014 election.
The Greens were climbing in the polls on the back of co-leader Metiria Turei admitting to historical benefit fraud, New Zealand First was steady on 11 percent, and National was holding at 47 percent.
Little sat down with Dann, who was TVNZ political editor at the time, to respond to the poll.
He disclosed he had contemplated stepping aside as leader, had already discussed it with colleagues, but had been told to stick it out.
On Monday night when Newshub-Reid Research’s poll also had Labour on 24 percent, Little flew to Auckland for East Coast Bays candidate Naisi Chen’s campaign launch.
That was to be his final act as leader.
By now some in the caucus were worried about the party’s future if he stayed on and late that evening Little decided he was done.
He flew back to Wellington the next morning to tell his caucus and Ardern was already lined up to step in as leader.
“In the end what I did was make way for Jacinda,” Little tells Newsroom.
Though his end paved the way for a new leader who became Prime Minister and went on to win a single-party majority for the first time under MMP, Little says he knows taking on the leadership was the right call.
A leader without baggage
Little had only entered Parliament at the 2011 election, so when he won the leadership contest in November 2014, he was by far the least politically experienced.
He defeated Grant Robertson, David Parker and Nanaia Mahuta, who had all been in Parliament since 2008 or earlier.
Looking back, Little maintains he was the right person for the job.
“The caucus was not in a good state after the 2014 election, and it hadn’t been for some time.
“I was confident I had the skills to get the caucus working cohesively together, that was what I offered, what I promised to do, and was confident I could do, and I did do that.
“I’d go further and say, I’m not sure that there are many others who would have been able to, in a sense having just had one term and still being reasonably new to the place, it meant I didn’t have the baggage – real or perceived – that others had.
“I stand by the judgment I made then.”
The objective was to reunite the caucus, and Little says he did that, but then things changed.
“It became apparent during 2017 that I wasn’t winning the public confidence, and it was right to step aside, so I stand by that as well.”
Little says his decision opened the door for Ardern but what she went on to achieve was down to her own ability and talent.
“Jacinda’s leadership and her political talent and skills and intellectual skills, that’s what led us through 2017 to 2020.
“She was very much leading the Government’s response on Covid and obviously we were engaged in it, but she was the one providing the leadership and I take collective credit, but it was under Jacinda’s leadership,” he says.
Claiming any credit for her being there would be wrong, especially when part of the job was managing the relationship with New Zealand First.
“I know that wasn’t easy – I think she did a phenomenal job, there’s no question.”
Life as a minister of many portfolios
In the six years since, Little has held 12 ministerial portfolios and acknowledges that though there have been ups and “plenty of downs”, he’s “loved every one of them”.
There’s no one portfolio he missed out on that he wished he’d got a shot at because, he says, ministers get input across the board at Cabinet committees and ultimately Cabinet is where the final decisions are made.
Little likes being busy and says that will be the big adjustment now that he’s called time on politics, to allow somebody else to come in on the party list.
“I like the adrenaline of a lot of things to do and keeping busy, so I’ll miss that in a weird sort of a way.”
In November he will do a three-day course to get his law practicing certificate updated and the plan for now is to start his own business.
“I have had an approach from a law firm though, so we’ll just see what happens.”
Little isn’t a big fan of autobiographies, and in terms of political ones he’s even more sceptical.
“It always looks like an attempt to rewrite history.”
He wants to find a way to download his thoughts and reflections from his 12 years in Parliament, but as to how he’ll do that he’s not quite sure.
One thing he looks forward to making time for is “getting back on the journey and actually working on my te reo”.
Little holds his time as Treaty Negotiations Minister as one of his career and personal highlights.
It put him on a Te Ao Māori path, culminating in him being gifted by Ngāpuhi, the name of Anaru Iti (Andrew Little translated) as a show of respect for his commitment to learning the language.
Though he never got a settlement deal across the line with the Far North, he says foundations have been laid to get there when the time is right for Ngāpuhi.