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

John Key Interview

Last election, 42 per cent of 18–24-year-olds didn’t vote; why should students vote?
I think young people have the most to gain from good government. Because in the end, you are likely to be in NZ and on the planet for the longest period of time, and so you want to know that the right policies are driving the country. I think for young people, it’s critical they feel that they have a hand in the future and at least hopefully, through their democratic rights, see the government that they want elected.

What do you think is the single biggest issue facing students in this election?
I still think ultimately, the economy and jobs. I mean, a lot of students would say “It’s my Student Loan” or “It’s Allowances” and some of the unfairness in that system, because I think there really is some. But I think in the end, a Student Loan is basically, or education is, an asset. What would worry me as a student is not the level of student debt I have, it’s the capacity to pay it off. The only real capacity you have to pay it off is when you have a job that fulfills that payment. I think in the end, that’s why I always think that if you look at some of these very high Student Loan–type degrees – Medicine’s an obvious one – yeah, they come out with a very large debt, often $100,000-plus, but they are also very likely to have a very high-end income stream and a high probability of employment, so it’s all relative.

You mentioned some unfairness in the current system; what, in particular, is that?
Well, in the case of Student Allowances, it’s income-tested and not asset-tested. I think everyone would acknowledge there are certain students who receive a Student Allowance where their parents are very asset-rich but technically, for the purposes of the law, are income-poor. It’s actually quite unfair on students whose parents can’t reorganise their affairs in that way. Secondly, the law is structured in such a way that the expectation is that your parents will support you until the age of 24. That may well be correct for a lot of young people, but isn’t universally correct. In fact, there are lots of people going into university and moving away from their family for a whole lot of personal reasons, and it’s just unrealistic for the state to expect their parents to continue to support them.

So you would look at changing that system?
Ah, it’s cost. There’s some inherent unfairness there and there’s no real easy way of resolving it, but I genuinely think it’s worthy of a debate.

Under National, there have been quite a number of cuts in the tertiary sector, so why should a student vote for the National Party as opposed to say the Greens or Mana who might offer them more?
Firstly, it depends whether you want to vote for a pipe dream or vote for a reality. Any political party can go on the stump and tell you that they’ll give you something for nothing. But in the end, the high probability with students is that they are going to be the higher-tax payers of the future. We know that, for instance, 12 per cent of households pay 76 per cent of all net tax in New Zealand. Given that students will form those households in years to come, you’ve got to be a bit careful what you wish for. If political parties promise you all these things free today, you may well and truly be the base that ends up paying for it in the future.

Secondly, I’d say that we’ve made some adjustments, but they’ve really only been at the margins. We’ve been trying to make sure that zero per cent loans are sustainable. Look, there have been a few areas where we think the system’s being rorted or it hasn’t been fair. In the case of overseas borrowers, the Government has had a big focus on trying to get debt repayment from students that are living and working overseas.

You’ve called interest-free Student Loans one of the biggest election bribes in history. While in power you haven’t repealed that. Why?
As I’ve always said, it’s really bad economics and it’s really good politics. The reality is that if you look at the voting base on campus, everything we know tells you that there’ll obviously be a group that vote more left. Typically, these days, that has been more dominated by the Greens. But what’s been happening is that National is becoming much stronger on campus. We signed up more people in O-Week than any other political party by quite some margin. National has been quite resurgent on campus: there is quite a lot of support out there for us.

And you think that would disappear if you reintroduced interest?
If we reintroduced interest back on loans, that almost doubles the repayment time of the loan. I think a lot of people on campus want to vote for us and actually do vote for us, but if we double the amount of time it’s going to take for them to repay their loan, they’ll vote against us. That’s the reality of what we are dealing with.

National has a bill before the House that would remove the requirement that students be represented on university councils. Why is National opening that up to be a possibility in the future?
I’m not the absolute expert, but I think the right answer is that essentially what the Bill does is reduce the size of the operating body of the university. That’s happened already at some other tertiary institutions and it’s largely been successful. We think those very big boards with 20 people are a bit of an unworkable structure. Notwithstanding the fact that Cabinet is made up of 20 people – there’s an irony in that – but that’s the view we’d take. The argument has really been that we don’t want to be too specific about who is on and who is off these boards. It’s really hard to believe that the governing body of a university is not going to include student representation. We want there to be smaller numbers so they’re more flexible but actually students are a massive part of a university and if they’re not represented then the university is not likely to be successful.


The Greens have said abortion law needs reform; what’s your position?My view is that the current law is working well. The reality is that most people who want to get an abortion can. So the question would be that if you changed the laws further, would you be encouraging people to use abortion as a contraceptive device? The reason I would be a bit concerned about pushing people in that direction is that there are health implications of people having abortions. In the end, the law works reasonably well – most people take contraception seriously. If somebody falls pregnant and feels that they can’t cope with having a child, the system will provide for them. And actually, teenage pregnancy rates are dramatically reducing and the number of abortions is at its lowest level since 1995. I certainly wouldn’t want to tighten the law up and I’m not keen on loosening it either, but only because I care about the welfare of those young women.

You’ve said in the past that smoking cannabis fries your brain and you are opposed to any reform in that area. Do you stand by that?
Yep. In the end, if you accept that in the real world lots and lots of people are recreationally using drugs…

80 per cent of students have tried it.
…I have no doubt about that.

You never partook?
No, no. Not because I’m some do-gooding prude. It was just that I hated smoking and I would never try any other drugs because I’d be terrified of what I was taking. I’ve drunk plenty of alcohol and I can see there is a legitimate argument that they’re both drugs of sorts. But the main reason I’m opposed to liberalisation of the law is because Parliament sends messages. And the question is, do we want to send a message to young people that they should actively be involved in taking drugs? I just don’t think that as a society we should send that message. The question is: where does that lead? Like in my electorate, I could point you to people who have been taking P and driving down the main streets at three o’clock in the morning holding a baby by two feet out the window. I just fundamentally, at the core of it, believe people should get their kicks in other ways.

You mentioned alcohol – you voted for a split drinking age, but the Bill failed. Would you vote that way again?
Yeah. The point in New Zealand is there’s a purchase age and not a drinking age. At the end of the day, what you’ve seen in Parliament is the first time in 20-odd years that there’s been a reversal of the liberalisation of alcohol laws. That reflects the fact that New Zealanders want to see a bit more balance brought back in. No one’s trying to argue that university students aren’t going to have some big leer-ups and so are lots of other people. But ultimately, we do want to change the culture of binge drinking in New Zealand.

So change has to be driven by law and by culture?
Yes. In the end, I’m not at all confident that Parliament changing the rules will dramatically change any binge-drinking culture that operates in New Zealand. I think it will only change when people want to drink responsibly.

The environment, then: what one thing would you do to curb NZ’s emissions, which are increasing under National?
I would change Huntly Power Station from being coal-fired to gas-fired. If you look at New Zealand’s emissions, we are very small. I accept we’ve got to do things, but we are only 0.14 per cent of world emissions. Secondly, we’ve got a very unusual profile from other countries – half of our emissions come from agriculture, so we need to get scientific solutions. I was at the forefront of setting up the [Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases] with the Americans and we’ve ended up getting over 30 countries investing in finding scientific solutions there. But if you look at New Zealand, the other form of emissions is really electricity, three-quarters of which is currently renewable, so that’s fine. But the bit that’s not is the coal-fired plant at Huntly.


Quickfire questions now. What is your star sign?

Cost of petrol?
About $2 a litre.

Favourite colour?
Yellow, believe it or not. Should be blue.

How much is a loaf of bread?
Depends where you buy it. You can pay about $3. $5 for a loaf of Vogel’s, and 99 cents if there’s a good deal on.

How much does a student get per week through StudyLink living costs? [$173.56]
The loan depends on how much they choose to borrow. I think it’s about $180.

Favourite film?
I’d say 22 Jump Street because I just watched it last week. No, actually, it’s Johnny English.

Favourite bar in Wellington?
The Backbencher.

Favourite band?
I really really like Adele.

What will your legacy be?
I think they’ll say that we had the right policies and showed good leadership at a time of economic crisis. In the end, we don’t dress ourselves up to be something we’re not. We’re a fundamentally centre-right, economically focussed government. I still think in the end, whether you’re a student or anybody else, people actually want to be independent of the state. They want to make their own decisions, look after their own families and, most of all, have confidence. One thing I know from personal experience of having financial security: you have confidence. You don’t worry about losing your job, you don’t worry about the bills. It doesn’t mean you don’t have stress in your life, but a lot of people have an enormous amount of stress because they don’t have the confidence that they’re able to meet any challenges that might come along. And I think New Zealanders are feeling a bit more confident.


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