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September 14, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage | [ssba]

David Cunliffe Interview

Last election, 42 per cent of 18–24-year-olds didn’t vote; why should students vote?
Because being young, thinking New Zealanders, they have more interest than most people in the future of their country and the kind of country that they live in. You get two different futures whether you’ve got a right-leaning or a left-leaning government. On the right, you’ve got widening gaps between rich and poor. You’ve got a dumber economy with less opportunities for graduates. You vote progressive, which is Labour-led, then quite simply, you get higher wages; you get a smarter, higher-tech economy; you get more competitive exchange rates; you get better industry policy; you get a whole range of things including better tertiary policy, but that’s part of a whole. It’s fairer. It’s focussed on the idea that everybody matters, and it’s building a better future for us. I feel passionate about this. Sometimes people say, especially some young people who are disengaged say, “It doesn’t make any difference.” Well, it really really does.

What do you think is the single biggest issue facing students?
As tricky as being a student is, I think it’s actually the future employment prospects that a lot of people have their eye to. That means building an economy that is going to create the kind of good jobs that are going to keep people in New Zealand, who are internationally mobile because they are qualified. If we are just a farm and a mine, with someone else’s bank, that isn’t going to do the trick. Students don’t want to just end up pouring coffee or waiting tables. They want a future. They want a pathway. That’s got to be at all levels. Building an economy that is going to support those jobs and making sure they are paid decently is at the heart of it. That way, Student Loans aren’t as scary. There are a whole lot of student-specific issues, maintaining the value of support for students. Making sure that we don’t cut peoples’ Student Loans off before they finish postgrad degrees; making sure there is proper democratic representation on university councils, rather than cutting student voices out and trying to run it like a private business. That’s rubbish. The university is a community as well as a major enterprise, and it needs to reflect the stakeholders in that community.

Do you think free tertiary education is possible?
It would be brave and probably foolhardy of us to make promises to cheques that we can’t cash. What we do believe is that tertiary education is a right and it should be accessible to everybody and it should be affordable. That means we are going to have to contain the costs to students, and we are going to have to ensure the eligibility for Loans and Allowances is as generous as it can be. I can’t promise today to make it completely free, much as I would like to.

The Greens last week announced free off-peak fares for students. The question that a lot of students want to know is if they vote Greens or Labour, what does that mean for that policy after the election, presuming that you guys win?
I will be quite clear that I do expect there to be a close, cooperative relationship between Labour and Greens after the election. I do see Labour and the Greens at the heart of an incoming government. Students should have confidence that the ideas they see in both of those parties are likely to move forward. However, if you don’t have a strong-enough Labour party vote, you can’t flip the switch. It may need a three-way with NZ First, and if the lead party of opposition isn’t sufficiently strong, that makes it very hard to make them join the change movement. Students, like other New Zealanders, need to reflect on the fact that if they really want to change the government, the best and safest way to do it is to Party Vote Labour. Now, the mix of policies that you get with Labour and the Greens in a coalition, while we wouldn’t ascribe to exact proportionality of vote, you can’t get away from the fact that the balance between the two is likely to have some impact on the policy mix that comes out.

Current polling seems to suggest that NZ First will hold the balance of power as it seems to do too often; you are happy to work with them?
I would certainly see that within the realms of possibility. We have a number of policies in common: particularly in wanting to strengthen the economic sovereignty of NZ. Neither of us would sell NZ land to foreign interests. Both of us want a stronger, New Zealand–based banking sector. Some of NZ First’s social views don’t fit with ours as closely, but I do think there is enough in common to work constructively with them as part of the incoming government, if they chose to.

What’s your vibe on Internet Mana? They’ve done a good job of getting students going to their parties, but it seems that a lot of the interest isn’t necessarily in the ideas and the policies of politics. It’s in the chants against John Key.
You are right. I don’t think a lot of people know what the Internet Party stands for. Number 1: they’re new. Number 2: they’re small. Number 3: who would know? For us that’s a big factor. We look at the Greens, and they have been in business for decades now and they have a well-thought-through set of policies, and while we wouldn’t agree with all of them, we can work with them; the risk factor of new parties is much, much higher. Now with Mana, and we all know where Hone is coming from, he is certainly not held to the same level of due diligence as we are. I have said that they won’t be in the Government that I lead. But I don’t think it’s likely that they are going to choose to keep John Key in power. That’s up to them.

Greens have come out in support of decriminalising abortion. Are you happy with the current law?
I think the law has been around a long time and it does need review. It’s a conscience issue. It is not one which we are likely to take a hard policy position under the Labour banner, but it is likely that most Labour MPs would support a more progressive approach. Our conference has passed a remit that we would use the Law Commission as a way of progressing a review of abortion law, and I would support that. My own personal position is that I am pro-choice.

Cannabis law reform: Would you legalise medicinal marijuana and/or decriminalise marijuana?
Medicinal use depends slightly on definition, and I want to take slightly more expert advice than I currently have. On general use: again, it would be a conscience issue, but my own view is not to support a full decriminalisation. But for small-scale personal use, I could certainly see it moving more towards a summary-offence-type issue which wouldn’t include as much police resources.

If you were in power today, what would Labour do to improve the environment?

Climate change and clean water. I am personally disgusted that the Government has pulled us out of the post-Kyoto negotiations, and they have watered down the ETS [Emissions Trading Scheme] to the point that it’s almost not worth having. We will rebuild the ETS towards something that is a workable system that will allocate a fixed carbon budget to its highest economic use within proper economic constraints. We will be happy to talk to the Greens about their carbon tax, but our current view is that you get a better balance out of carbon constraint and economic output with a cap-and-trade. We would want to be at the forefront of pushing the globe towards an enduring solution to carbon containment, so that we can limit the damage. We already know that we are going to live in a world with at least 2 °C of warming. It’s not an issue that I am going to leave to my kids without having done our honest best to head it off. Even with the very best international efforts, we are going to have to get our heads around mitigation and adaptation.

Which brings me to water management, which I think is an important complement. We are absolutely going to be driving for clean rivers and seas and lakes. We are going to be very firm on that in asking local government to enforce both industrial and agricultural runoff regulations so that we can keep our rivers clean.

Alcohol law reform?
Support the Law Commission report.

So ban alcohol advertising then?
That’s a hard one: whether you say ban all or tighter restrictions, that is an issue that I would want to come back to. I am personally quite concerned about the proliferation of liquor outlets. There is good evidence that they are more common in low-income areas, which is a bit bizarre when you think about it. I have sympathy for particularly, like, South Auckland Local Boards, who are trying to get more realistic policies around limiting the proliferation of liquor outlets.

The National Government has made cuts to the funding of Rape Crisis centres. What’s Labour’s policy on sexual violence?
I got in a lot of trouble for taking a really strong stand on this issue. Let me repeat the substance of it: We are so concerned about both sexual and family violence. We are so appalled that only one per cent of rape cases get a conviction. I am going to be leading from the Prime Minister’s office a cross-portfolio task force. We have already signed up $60 million of investment over three years to support that. We support better education and prevention; and then better support for services like Rape Crisis, and reform of the justice system to make it easier for the victims of sexual violence to give evidence safely rather than being re-traumatised. The Law Commission is talking about moving towards an inquisitorial position. That’s where the judge asks the questions rather than having the defence and prosecution rip people apart.

Do you have a favourite and least-favourite National policy?
One of my least favourite is giving massive tax cuts to people who didn’t need them: making the inequality gaps wider. I don’t know that I would say ‘favourite’, but you can’t argue with replacing school capital [building new things for state schools when they get run-down].

Star sign?

Do you know the cost of petrol? [2.20/litre on date of interview]
2.21 a litre.

Favourite colour?

Do you know how much a student gets on a weekly Student Loan, living costs–wise? [$173.56]
Not exactly. 170ish.

Favourite film?
Today, it is Good Will Hunting [at time of interview, Robin Williams had just passed away].

Favourite bar in Wellington?
3.2, in the Beehive.

Favourite band?
Joy Division.

You win the election; you are PM for nine years: what will your legacy be?
I want that place New Zealand gets to to be both the fairest, most decent society in the world, and I want it to be a smart, sustainable economy. I have a vision of us being like a Nordic of the South Pacific. Where we are a well-educated, secure population; where we are known for our international stand around peace issues; where we have a diverse culture that celebrates difference; where we have low gaps between wealth and poverty; and where we have a smart, high-tech economy that supports those higher living standards.That’s a really clear package. It is a very different one than the path we are currently on.

Any plans after politics?
I would like to do some serious writing and maybe go somewhere quite reflective to do that.

Do you have any particular thing that you would like to say to students?
Change the damn government. Honestly: the only thing that worries me is apathy. Last election, a million people didn’t vote. 816,000 were on the roll and couldn’t be bothered; another couple of hundred thousand couldn’t be bothered to even enrol. You get what you vote for. The guys that are currently in government are taking us on a path to division, and they are selling off the shop to cover the fact that they haven’t got an economic plan. It is just wrong. We need to change it.


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