Q+A: Andrew Little interviewed by Jessica Mutch

Labour leader Andrew Little told Jessica Mutch the marae had not deserved the criticism.

“That is a good marae. It is well set up. It’s got good facilities. It’s got fantastic leadership,” Mr Little said.

He said he had not spoken to former Labour Auckland head Matt McCarten, who organised the scheme, since the controversy erupted.

JESSICA Joining me now is Labour leader Andrew Little. Thank you for your time this morning. What’s your response to Bill English’s interview there? Do you think he’s been honest with the public over this?

ANDREW No, he hasn’t, and you go back to the interview he gave in March this year when he has asked if he had any contact with anybody involved in that issue, and he said he had no direct contact. We can go back over all the events of 2016. It’s what he’s done this year as prime minister that I think is telling. When he had the opportunity to tell it how it was first thing Tuesday morning, he again dissembled, divaricated, delayed, and even after all that came out later that day, in Parliament this week he made the statement that he approached the police, when the opposite was true. This was a total failure of leadership on his part, and it goes to his integrity and his credibility, and he’s been found wanting.

JESSICA It sounds like you’re calling for his resignation there.

ANDREW I didn’t say he should have resigned. I think, just, people should know that the guy who set himself up as the straight shooter isn’t a straight shooter. It’s one thing to try to avoid embarrassment to other people; it’s one thing to try to avoid embarrassment for yourself which every politician does. But when you say something is not true that demonstrably is or, say, something that is true that isn’t, that is a completely different kettle of fish. He had nothing to lose in March this year by being honest, by saying he had contact with the people involved. Nothing to lose at all. He had nothing to lose on Tuesday morning, saying he had been told by Todd Barclay that he had made a recording. Nothing to lose at all, but he chose not to do that.

JESSICA Are there times, though, in politics, where politicians, including yourself, have to be economical with the truth and sometimes get caught out?

ANDREW I think it’s not at all unusual for politicians in answering questions on certain things to try to preserve the dignity and reputation of others. I think you do try to do that. Sometimes you are caught by a sense of your own embarrassment, and you know you might not say absolutely everything that there is to be said. Eventually you ought—you’ve got to front up, because if you don’t, you will be caught out. And what has happened here is that an issue that’s been festering for 18 months is people have been caught out. And look, it goes back beyond just what has happened this year, but it goes back a long way. In the end, leadership isn’t about arse covering; it’s about what you do faced with difficult circumstances, and the real challenge of leadership is when you’re dealing with colleagues, including close colleagues or comrades, and sometimes you have to front up and say, ‘That’s wrong. It’s got to change.’

JESSICA Should the prime minister and other senior members of the National party have handled Todd Barclay better? He had a lot of very senior mentors in that party. He worked for a lot of MPs. Did they fail him?

ANDREW It looks to me from the outside like that he didn’t have the support and mentoring that he should have had. Look, employment relationships do break down. Let’s remember this whole thing isn’t about an employment relationship breaking down. It was about alleged illegal conduct in terms of recording a staff member. It’s about a police investigation, where originally Todd Barclay said he would cooperate, then he didn’t, and that only came out earlier this year, so he should have had people around him saying, ‘Todd, that’s not the way you do things,’ and when, at the end of last year, Todd Barclay was going around saying, ‘There was no recording;’ he didn’t make any recordings knowing that to be completely untrue. And Bill English of all people knew that to be untrue, because he’d made statements to the police that were the opposite to that. He should have called him out.

JESSICA What would you have done if you were in that position and one of your MPs had come to you with that?

ANDREW If I was aware that an MP in my caucus was the subject of a police investigation, I would say, ‘You are obliged to cooperate.’ I don’t get the thing about ‘I’ve got a legal right to stay silent’. You’re an MP. You’re an elected official. Public trust and confidence in you is absolutely vital. You are not like every other citizen. You have privilege, and you must be required to cooperate with the police, because that’s what our kind of system of confidence in our democratic institutions requires.

JESSICA Watching this play out, what did you personally learn from this?

ANDREW That I think it’s—You do have to step up and take responsibility straight away. I mean, that’s what I was confronted with – a situation that I was frankly horrified with in our party earlier this week. When I heard about the complaints of those students about the way they were being treated, found out that they were here because people closely associated with the Labour party had got them here and made promises to them, I said to the party, ‘We must take moral responsibility. We step in and we clean it up.’ We didn’t wait until the media story broke to respond. We responded straightaway. The story came out, but leadership is about taking responsibility and doing the right thing.

JESSICA But in this case, was that the right thing to do? Because as we’ve seen this play out over the last few days, students have come out sticking up for the conditions in the marae, saying that they’ve enjoyed the programme, do you feel like maybe if you’d taken a bit of time, stepped back, perhaps gone to the marae and assessed it for yourself, you may have been able to handle this another way instead of saying, ‘Look, we did this wrong.’ Was that the right approach in this circumstance?

ANDREW The right approach was once we got notification of complaints, or as the party did and I was told about it, I said, ‘We get up there straight away.’ The general secretary Andrew Kirton and his team did an outstanding job. He was there on Monday, talked to the students, started getting things sorted out. The reality is some did want to have different arrangements. Many of them, the vast majority, have said look they want to stay, they’re excited by the programme and they want to carry on doing it.

JESSICA How many are staying?

ANDREW I don’t know what the final number is. As of yesterday, it was about 60 of the 85. I think they’re still working through some of the final ones. So many of them. It goes back to the story about confronted with something that you might find personally uncomfortable or embarrassing, your personal feelings aren’t the issue. It’s when you’ve got people’s livelihoods at stake and their welfare at stake, you step in and do the right thing. If you’re the head of an organisation, it’s not about you, it’s about the organisation. And if you’re the Prime Minister of a country, it’s about the country, its values and its standards. That’s what you’ve got to stick up for. That’s what the Prime Minister’s role is about.

JESSICA Let’s talk about that, then. How did it get out of control? Was it a lack of organisation on the part of Labour?

ANDREW No. This started out as an idea at the beginning of the year. I certainly became aware of it. When it was raised with me, I’ve said it’s a campaign issue, a party issue, you’ve got to deal with it—

JESSICA But it had Labour’s name on it, though.

ANDREW And it did.

JESSICA It was called the 2017 Labour Campaign Fellowship.

ANDREW Yeah, because people closely associated with the Labour Party were involved. Without approval, authority or any mandate, they went ahead and did stuff. The next I became aware was about May this year, when the party was getting messages from students within days of arriving. The party then stepped in straight away to people who are associated with it, said, ‘What is going on? There is no approval for this. This is not the party thing.’ The party was given assurances, ‘We’ve got funding. We’ve got a programme sorted out. Nothing to worry about.’

JESSICA But there was something to worry about, wasn’t there?

ANDREW There was, yeah. And we got the complaints this week. And the minute that happened, because we were aware that the Labour Party name was associated with it, it’s not about legal technicalities – I take a very dim view of those who hide behind legalities – and say it is moral responsibility that is the most important thing. We take responsibility.

JESSICA But Matt McCarten has been a bit of a fall guy for you guys this week. He’s been mentioned a lot taking responsibility for this. Have you talked to him about that in the last few days?

ANDREW I haven’t personally spoken to him about it. And, yeah, he has been. He’s been involved in it.

JESSICA Is he the fall guy?

ANDREW I don’t know what you mean about ‘fall guy’.

JESSICA Has he taken responsibility for how this played out?

ANDREW I haven’t spoken to him. I’m sure others have. I haven’t spoken to him. The priority – and I said to the party right from the outset once we got those complaints last weekend – the priority is the wellbeing of those young people. That’s what we focus on now. That’s what this week has been about. Next week and the weeks that follow, there are still questions to be answered. We’ll get on top of all that.

JESSICA Why not use New Zealanders for this kind of work?

ANDREW We have thousands of New Zealanders in our campaign. We’ve got the most campaign activists signed up to our campaign.

JESSICA But why do we need those foreign students coming in or interns coming in?

ANDREW We’ve been part of – and actually the National Party will have been too – part of international political internship programmes for donkey’s years. We’ve had people – very small numbers – involved in our campaigns in the past. We send young Labour people, National Party sends young National people, off to the United States, to Australia, to the UK, to participate in internship programmes that means they get to see a campaign, get to know about another country and its political systems. That happens worldwide. That’s what this was a part of. It got way beyond people’s ability to control. We’ve stepped in to take over.

JESSICA The marae has had some really bad PR over this. Has that been fair?

ANDREW No. Totally unfair. That is a good marae. It is well set up. It’s got good facilities. It’s got fantastic leadership.

JESSICA So how did this happen, then? Why are the students complaining?

ANDREW The students did complain. That’s just a fact. You get the complaints, you deal with it. And I’m not one of those people who goes around quibbling about, ‘Oh, it’s only one person or two people or three people.’ There is a complaint, you get stuck in, you get involved, you find out, you deal with the people, you know those who are saying there are things wrong. You’ve got to deal with it. That’s what taking responsibility is about. And even if it is embarrassing, as it was for us, you’ve got to step in and do the right thing at the right time, and that’s what we did.

JESSICA Thank you very much for your time this morning. Really appreciate it.

Watch the interview with Andrew Little online here. Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TVNZ 1 and one hour later on TVNZ 1 + 1.

Check Also

2024 – Capital Markets & Investment

Capital Markets & Investment: The Growth Equation The Capital Markets & Investment report provides a …