The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Metiria Turei

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei denies reports that the party caucus discussed forcing a second 2017 election if it isn’t happy with the result. MP Barry Coates was quoted as saying that, but Turei says it was never brought up.

Ms Turei says she did discuss with caucus the strategy of describing New Zealand First policies as racist, and she also says people in the Labour Party had seen her speech the day before she gave it.

Ms Turei admits the Greens could have to work on the cross-benches. She says the party could work with NZ First leader Winston Peters as deputy prime minister if his party gets more votes. But she dismisses the idea of Mr Peters being prime minister, saying that’s a discussion for far into the future.

Lisa Owen: Good morning, Metiria.
Metiria Turei: Kia ora.

This week you came out, basically, asking voters to curb what you would see as Winston Peters’ excesses. Now, I’m wondering, do you actually really think he is racist or are you playing politics?
I think that some of the things that he says have been racist. I think his attacks on journalists because they were Asian , I think the attempt to say immigration is about ethnicity when, actually, it’s about good policy, good population policy, and infrastructure – I think that those are real concerns for me. And I need to tell people that. Other people feel as concerned as I do about that, and I need to be able to express that. And he knows that; I’ve talked to Winston directly about this numerous times.

So why did you tell them that now? How much planning went into this? How much consideration was given to the timings and what exactly you would say?
A great deal of consideration went into it because we need to tell voters what the reality is at this election. And we, the Greens, want to see an inclusive, tolerant, progressive government after September–

So how long have you been talking about it amongst yourselves?
So we need to make sure we can create that. Now New Zealand First could be a part of that but only if, as I say, their worst excesses are curbed by a strong Green hand. And that’s what I’m asking voters to deliver for us.

OK, we’ll talk about that a little more, but I want to know the timeframe. When did you have the discussion? When did you make the decision that you would say this?
In developing a position like this, I work with my caucus; I work with my party to make sure that when I say things like this, everybody is on-board.

A week? Two weeks?
Oh, no. Longer than that.

The specific issue, though?
Yes, because–

How many weeks had you been thinking about doing this?
Well, it was probably– In the development of the speech and the political content, probably two or three weeks. That’s because when I do say things like this, I make sure that I represent our whole organisation. And my whole organisation, the Green Party, wants an inclusive and progressive government. That’s what we’re driving for. That’s been our purpose for the last three years – is to make this happen.

So, Barry Coates told us that part of the discussion in caucus was about this idea that you could force an election.

Was it discussed at all, though?
No, no, no, it was not.

Are you saying he was lying?
I talked to Barry about this expressly, and he says that is not what he was saying, that we had talked as a caucus about the overall speech – and that’s true because I need my people to be supportive of what I say – but no, we never had a conversation about whether we would force a second election. No, we never had that conversation.

Absolutely not? Not even in passing? Not even misinterpreted?
No, and I can tell you, I just would not tolerate that. This is not a conversation that–

Well, where did he get it from, then?
He is saying that that was misinterpreted. And I will accept that position of his. He was wrong to even speak about it if he doesn’t understand, you know, the full issues. But let’s be really clear; the caucus did not discuss that, and it is not an issue that I will tolerate because that is not what we will do.

We want to change the government to a genuinely good government.

We’ve cleared that up, then. Now, you have said, though, that a Labour-New Zealand First government without you is unacceptable. So what option would you be left with, though? What can you do?
We would be left with something like a confidence-and-supply, like we did before in 2005. And if that was the situation, then we would have to negotiate for us to vote that way and for us to have some policy concessions, like we did in 2005. But just remember, I was there in 2005 when we were negotiating with Labour, when we were ruled out of that government. And I was there to deal with all the consequences of that, both the personal consequences of losing Rod and the political consequences of it. So I know exactly what the risks are here. What I need to tell voters is that we could have a really good, decent government that does great things for this country, but it’s only going to work if the Greens are part of it. And that’s why we need to strengthen–

OK. So you’ve given that message a few times. I just want to be clear on this, because also in that speech you said you would not accept an inferior deal.
That’s right.

But aren’t policy concessions, not actually being in government and only having a confidence-and-supply deal – does that qualify as an inferior deal?
It depends on the content. And we won’t know the content until we get to the negotiation table. So there’ll be some deals we can do that will be really good; there’ll be some deals that, you know, we get offered that we won’t accept. And that will have to be the conversation that we have with all the people in the coalition discussions that we’re with.

But you’d be prepared to suck that up?
We’re going to have to suck up something because this is what coalition deals are like. Everybody wins something and everybody loses a little bit too. Now, the question then becomes how much of the Green policy will be part of that new government? And the stronger our vote is, the more MPs we have, the stronger our position will be in that. That’s what I’m telling voters – please give us the strength that we need.

So, did Labour know ahead of time that you were going to make those comments about New Zealand First?
They knew. They saw the content of the speech the day or so before, and I had told them in week earlier that I would be talking about this, yeah.

I’m wondering is this whole strategy– Because you keep repeating that message about giving you more power by giving you more votes. Is this whole strategy around New Zealand First a reaction to your polling? Because looking at the polls, you’re kind of neck-and-neck with New Zealand First, and, in fact, some have them edging ahead.
Some do, and some have them quite far behind.

Is this a reaction to that?
No, what it’s really about is just reminding voters about the kind of government that we could end up with if the Greens are not stronger.

So you’re not worried about the fact that they’re polling–?
I’m not worried about their polling.

They’re polling around the same as you. And if you look at that UMR poll, they’re pulling away from you.
In the UMR poll, 53% of New Zealanders want a change in government. I mean, that, I think, is a fantastic result.

But ultimately what matters is how they cast their vote, and at the moment, in that polling, New Zealand First is pulling away from you. Had you seen that, by the way? Do you see the UMR polling for Labour?

Had you seen that one?
No, not this one. This one, as I understand, was leaked.

Yeah. So are you not worried about those figures?
So, what I am worried about is our polling. I want us to poll as strong as possible. And what that is relative to the others– I mean, I don’t have control over that. That’s why I keep sending out the same message.

But that matters, though, doesn’t it? It matters because it’s about what influence you have compared to everybody else. And if the polls are right, do you accept that if New Zealand First passes you in the final vote that they would be the senior partner in a coalition and therefore entitled to more things, like the deputy prime ministership, like cabinet members?
Yeah. I mean, I would prefer that didn’t happen.

But if it does, do you accept that you would be the bronze medallist and they would be silver?
Well, yeah. That’s just the factual truth of the matter if it turns out that our vote is lower than theirs, and that is the hand that the country has dealt us, and the Green Party will maximise our opportunities if we are. And that is why I just keep saying to people, make sure that doesn’t happen.

You’ve previously said that– Greens have previously said that you would like two deputy prime ministers if you’re in a position to get that. So you’d be happy to serve in a government with Winston Peters as a deputy or as prime minister?
Yeah. I don’t know about him being prime minister. I don’t even know if that is actually real. But I’d certainly serve in a government with Winston.

With him as deputy prime minister?
Yeah, yeah. I have–

But you’re not sure about prime minster.
Well, I just don’t know if, to be honest, that’s a real prospect.

But if it happens?
That’s just very far away in the future. I don’t think that’s even a prospect.

If that happens, would you be prepared to serve?
It would depend. And I can’t possibly comment on something like that.

Would you rather be in a coalition with Winston Peters than in opposition for another three years?
What I want to do is to change the government.

I know. I’ve heard that. You’ve said it lots of times. I’m giving you some different prospects here.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. If it means being in a government with Winston where we can get good Green change as part of that government and it is a genuinely progressive one, then yeah, I’ll do everything I can to make that happen, and I will use all the strength that the voters give me in their votes. Those are the only tools I’ve got to do it, and I’m fighting for that every day.

Let’s talk about some of your numbers then. Your numbers go up when Labour’s go down, so there’s a degree of cannibalising of the vote there. And you’ve always been saying, ‘We’re going to increase the younger people turning out to vote.’ That hasn’t happened, though.
We get a very good youth vote, actually.

But there’s a whole lot of other young people that don’t vote at all, so you’ve got 10 weeks to turn that pattern around.
Yeah, we do. And that is the plan, to do that, but also to bring vote from other places as well, not just the youth vote. But that’s why we’ve got such a great representation of young people on our list and why we have moved them up the list so they will be in parliament after the next election. And we’ll do everything we can to talk to them, but we have to inspire them with genuine change. This is the point – genuine change to a genuinely tolerant government. And the only way to do that is to keep talking about those issues.

OK. Well, is part of the problem that your party’s now been around for a while? You’re not the radicals anymore, are you? You’re part of the establishment. And is that maybe part of your problem with young people?
I mean, I think that people are always looking– Well, there are some people who’ll be looking for the shiny and new. But what we are doing is we are keeping our vote, so the young voters who were voting for us when they were 18 who are now, you know, 25, 30, they are still voting for us. We are expanding our vote, which is why our vote keeps growing. We had 10,000 more voters at the last election. And I expect that we will grow our vote this election as well because our values are the same – take care of our environment, take care of families and be a good government. And that’s what people are looking for. They want us to be in government.

OK. In order to do that– You can’t do it on your own with just Winston Peters and the Greens; you need Labour in there. And when you look at Labour’s numbers, man, they aren’t great. So what is going on with them? What is their problem? What do you think their problem is?
Look, you’ll have to talk with them about that.

It is your problem too, which is why I’m wanting to talk to you about it.
Well, I’ve got 69 days to grab as much vote as possible for the Green Party, so I have to be focused on us.

But you need them to do well too.
Yes, but that’s their issue. I can’t do that for them. My job is to maximise the vote for the Greens by speaking truth to power and being very clear about our priorities – families and the environment.

So what do you think the issue is with them? You must be talking about it.
I think you have to talk to them about that.

I’m asking you what you think.
I’m saying you’ll have to talk to them about that. How they manage themselves and their voters is their issue, not mine.

You’ve said that you can be pragmatic and work with Winston Peters despite the fact you’ve called him out for racism.
Yes, that’s true.

So what’s stopping you being pragmatic and working with National, then?
We tried to work with National under an agreement for the home insulation scheme in 2008. And in 2011 we offered more options to work with them on areas that we had in common, and they refused. So it’s up to them. They are the ones that have a problem– two problems. One – they wouldn’t continue to work with us.

But that sounds like the door is open just a tiny wee bit.
No, and two – they have now proven themselves so incompetent and so neglectful of families and the environment that it’s simply unacceptable for us to prop up their government. Now, I can work with them on issues where we have issues in common. And we’ve done that where we think that’s right. But propping up a government that does so much harm to families– Two people died in the last two weeks living homeless on the streets of Auckland. That is because National has neglected these families, these people, for years and years. That is intolerable.

It’s intolerable, Lisa.

Now, Winston Peters has said to you that there’s going to be consequences for calling him racist, and he’s said he will not forget it. Is that threatening language?
Oh, that’s just Winston language. I’ve been around Winston now for 15 years. I’ve learned a lot from him. I know that we’ve got some stuff in common that we can work together on. And I have told him when I disagree with his position, as I’ve told him just this last week. So I really am just listening to the rhetoric. And I understand it. I understand what he’s doing. We are all positioning ourselves to gather the best possible vote we can.

Have you talked to him personally, face-to-face since you made those comments? Have you had a face-to-face conversation?
Oh, no, I haven’t seen him since then. I’ve talked to him a lot, though, in Bowen House in particular, about his attitude towards immigration. So he’s pretty clear about that. He does his thing. I need to do mine, which is tell people what I really think about his position on that and why it’s wrong.

Couple of quick things before we go, because we’re running out of time – National’s family package versus Labour’s. Which one is the better one?
Oh, Labour’s, by far. Neither are transformative, though. And I think this is– You’ll hear about this from me tomorrow when I talk about families and our income policy.

What more are you going to give?
You’ll hear about that tomorrow, Lisa.

You can’t give us a little clue?

OK. The immigration policy you dumped when James Shaw announced that he raised some really important issues – rising house prices, pressure on infrastructure, jam-packed schools. These are all legitimate issues. Are you not prepared to do what’s right rather than what’s popular?
No, we need to talk about the values behind immigration as opposed to– We do need to talk about how the very settings work, but it’s not about the migrant communities. They are not responsible for the infrastructure problems. National is responsible. They are the ones who have not invested where it’s needed, particularly in housing, which is in crisis.

We’re out of time. Nice to talk to you this morning, Metiria Turei.
Kia ora.

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