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May 22, 2017 | by  | in Interview | [ssba]

Interview: Grant Robertson

Grant Robertson is a Labour electorate MP and has held the Wellington Central seat since the 2008 election, in 2014 he won by a majority of 8,267. Salient talked with him about local body politics, housing, immigration, and mental health. Read full or listen to the audio below.


Electoral Politics


The Wellington Central electorate has been held by Labour since the 1999 election (in 1996 it was won by Richard Prebble for the Act Party), and in 2014 you won by a majority of 8,267. How do you see your chances in the 2017 election?

You never want to be complacent and so I’ll be working hard to make sure that people continue to put their trust in me. I’m optimistic, I feel like I’ve worked hard. I’ve got alongside the Wellington community over the last nine years. I hope that, along with some fresh ideas that Labour’s putting up at this election, will be enough for people to continue to support me, but you never take anything for granted. It’s like a three-yearly job interview and you’ve got to show up with your best suit on and make sure people understand what we’ve done and what we want to do.


Given that your constituent includes a lot of students, what have you been doing and what will you do to make sure you appeal to them?

On a day-to-day basis, being a constituency MP is very much about helping individuals out. We do a lot of work with students from VUW and Massey University around Studylink, access to the support that they need, and accommodation issues. We’ve had a lot of students, this year especially, where we’ve been trying to help people get into flats and support them through dodgy behaviour by landlords and things like that.

More generally it is about changing the government and getting a Labour party in that will, for example, ensure that there are proper standards for rental properties. Andrew Little’s got his Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill, a private member’s bill, before Parliament right now. To actually require rental properties to have modern insulation, heating sources, etc.


In 2014 the National Party was represented [in Wellington Central] by Paul Foster-Bell. This year, National is represented by Nicola Willis. Do you think the entry of a new candidate and the continued presence of James Shaw [Green Party] will erode your majority?

We’ll have to see. As I say, I’m confident that I’ve worked hard and that people know who I am. Nicola is working very hard as a candidate, attempting to lift her profile. That’s great, that’s what it’s all about. Equally, James has been around for a while too, people know him. I have a feeling, I can’t predict National Party’s list, but I have a feeling we’ll end up with three MPs from Wellington Central in the Parliament next time. From a Wellington point of view that’ll be an increase in representation in Parliament.




In March, Stuff reported that the housing crisis in Wellington has “an estimated shortage of 3500 homes.” If elected, what would Labour do to ease the pressure on the rental market for students and young families?

There’s no one single answer with housing; it is a complex issue. But we’ve committed ourselves to building tens of thousands of more affordable houses and some of those will be built in Wellington […]. This is our KiwiBuild Policy. Those home are built by the government, they’re not built to make a profit. That takes those first home buyers out of the private rental market which reduces the pressure on that market.


Do you think that’s one of the biggest challenges for the housing market, that there’s not enough houses — preventing the movement from renting to buying — or are there other factors at work here?

The problem with housing is that it’s a market that has completely failed. To make a market work, you need demand and supply to be in some kind of balance, and it’s completely out of balance in New Zealand so there’s massive demand for housing, but the supply hasn’t kept up. We want to build more houses; we want more houses to be available both for purchase and for rent. But you also have to manage the demand side, and that’s one of the things we announced at our congress.

We’ve got a package of things that are designed to crack down on people who are speculating in the property market: people who’ve got multiple rental properties to extract capital gain. We’re going to make sure that if you’re offshore and you’ve got no intention of coming to live in New Zealand then you actually can’t buy an existing home. We’re going to extend something the Government brought in, which is if you do sell an investment property, within five years, you’ll be taxed on selling that. And thirdly, we’ll crack down on this thing called negative gearing, which is essentially when people offset losses on their rental properties against their overall income and end up paying far less income tax. We hope to reduce speculation in the property market, and therefore the demand from speculators to buy reduces and then there’ll be more properties available for others.


On May 8, in an interview with Larry Williams on NewsTalk ZB, you suggested that the housing market is failing and that Bill English should take more responsibility, and the government should have had more impact on the market. Could you explain what has been going on under the National government?

Well, nothing, is the short answer. It’s starts with the fact that Bill English and Stephen Joyce continue to deny that there is a housing crisis. Now, nationwide, we are perhaps 60,000 houses short of what we need. An acute problem in Auckland, but that problem’s spreading here. Houses prices went up 21 per cent in Wellington in the last year. That’s absolutely massive.

There’s a crisis at every level: we’ve got the lowest homeownership rate in New Zealand since 1951; we’ve got more than 40,000 people homeless; we’ve got Housing New Zealand with massive waiting lists. Every part of the housing equation is in crisis, and National’s been denying it for nine years.


Mental Health


Health Minister Jonathan Coleman announced National’s plan to launch a new programme to increase funding, particularly to mental health and addiction services. However, National have not committed to completing a mental health inquiry to look how this funding should be allocated. You’ve expressed support for an inquiry into mental health if Labour gets into government — what would that look like?

We are seeing in mental health services some huge problems. Here in Wellington, in the acute mental health ward, we’ve got reports of staff working back to back shifts, not enough staff there, people being moved out of that ward before they’re actually ready. Then you’ve got what we’d traditionally call the mild to moderate end: people, who are just feeling stressed and mentally unwell, not being able to access services, not being able to find specialist services. We’ve still got horrifically high suicide rates both here in the Wellington region and more generally around New Zealand. Really big pressure, and the feedback we’re getting from inside the profession is we need a bigger overall look at what’s happening in our services to make sure we’re not letting people fall through the gaps. So that’s why we want an inquiry.

But actually there’s a lot of stuff we’ve got to do right away — one of which is to make sure that in every state secondary school [we are] providing early access to services for young people. At the moment the government runs that programme in decile 1–3 schools. But the issues go way beyond decile 1–3 schools.

The other announcement that Andrew Little made was around Primary Mental Health Care teams. It’s about making sure that there are people there who can respond quickly and immediately to someone’s needs. We see it in this office here all the time. People coming in whose lives are starting to unravel a bit and they are clearly experiencing mental health issues and there isn’t a place for them to go and start getting the counselling, start getting the treatment that they need.


In regard to youth counselling services, Evolve and VUW counselling for example, both are currently under-supported. The university counselling is funded by the Student Services Levy, not by the government, and Evolve almost shut last year. Are there any specific things that can be done?

I have a lot to do with Evolve. I visited them not too long ago and they are extremely disturbed at having to close their books, because the essence of those one-stop youth health shops is that there’s an easy availability for young people who either can’t or don’t want to go to their family GP, actually having the opportunity to have somebody who can support them. So I’ve made a commitment to Evolve that when we’re in government we’ll fund them properly. They are so important and so we’ve made that absolute commitment.

You’ve made the point that the student counselling is funded out of the student services levy, and I’d like to see that increase, but ultimately I can’t control that decision by the university. All of this happens because mental health is not given the priority by the government. So the government sets the funding for the district health boards (DHBs) who then in turn organise how that’s spent in their region. And when the National Government came in, they removed mental health from the list of priority targets. In the end, the DHBs whose fundings per person have shrunk over the last nine years have not effectively kept up with the demand for mental health services. So that’s the problem, and it all stems from the fact that the Government has not made it a priority.




At the Labour Party Conference on May 13 you stated, regarding immigration: “This is a debate about policy. It is not a debate about immigrants. And anyone who makes it about immigrants, or indeed about their race, must be called out for what they are doing as being wrong and against the values of Labour and of New Zealanders.” Yet earlier at the conference Andrew Little said Labour would cut “immigration numbers by tens of thousands, with a particular focus on student visas.” Those are big cuts, and how would Labour ensure that those affected by the cuts weren’t discriminated against based on their race?

As politicians, we don’t make decisions about individual immigration decisions, about which individuals and families come into New Zealand. Those decisions are made based on the policies we set. It’s really important that when we’re setting those policies we’re not individualising and we’re definitely not making it about race. Race and immigration are two completely separate matters and the blurring of them is where we create real problems in our community and I’m not prepared to be a part of that.

We’ve got record levels of migration into New Zealand, far exceeding what we’ve seen before, and New Zealand at the moment isn’t coping with that, our infrastructure isn’t coping with it. […] So the policy we’re going forward with is to say we need to slow down the number of migrants coming into New Zealand while we build that infrastructure back up.

Immigration is really important to New Zealand — always has been, always will be. It’s where we get some of the most important skilled workers, who we don’t have here, from. And it’s where we built up the really rich cultural diversity of New Zealand. But like every country in the world, you have to manage the flows of people and make sure you get the country prepared for people coming in.


So in terms of removing race from that equation of policies about immigration, are there particular regions that would be prioritised, or circumstances, i.e. climate change, economic hardship, or the ties NZ has with other countries?

There are two ways I would answer that. One is that I do think as a country we need to be preparing now for the prospect of climate change refugees from our region. And one thing that’s really important in the immigration debate is to distinguish between migration and refugees. So Labour has committed to doubling the refugees we take every year. While we want to reduce the flow of migrants who are coming here under student visa and work visa categories, our refugee policy is separate. They’re people who have to leave the place they’re in and we’ve got a moral and a humanitarian duty to accept those people.

I think the big challenge in our region in the next 20–30 years is climate change. We’ve got to be developing our policies now about how we’re going to deal with that. At a regional level, it’s New Zealand and Australia who are the countries who should be looking at the islands of the Pacific that are going to really struggle with climate change.


Just on infrastructure, you mentioned it’s been let go downhill by the current government. But are there other ways it could be improved without cutting immigration?

Building the infrastructure up isn’t just about reducing immigration. We need to spend money as well. What we’re looking at, is doing that in two main ways. One of them is using the government borrowing to do that.

The other we’re looking at in Auckland is something called Infrastructure Bonds. So this is essentially where you offer a bond, which is a government guarantee investment with a rate of interest that people earn off, and we use the funding from people investing in that to go out and build the necessary infrastructure in an area like Auckland, and then it gets paid back through a targeted rate on that area in the future. So you kinda gotta be flexible about this but there’s huge need here.

We need way more investment in rail — one of the most efficient ways of moving freight around — but we haven’t done that. In Auckland, there was a mayor in the 1960s who proposed a proper tram-like rail, you know, networked out to the airport, and that never happened. There’s no major city in the world that has such poor transport from its airport to its city than Auckland. So that’s a massively important investment to make. We’ve made some commitments about that.

The immigration thing is a small part in many ways of the overall infrastructure equation.


Because of this big infrastructure build-up, you’re going to need people to do the job. Surely skilled migrants—

Some of those will be migrants, absolutely, of course they will be. Nobody denies that, and that’s a part of what we do, and what we have to look at is the mix and balance of people who are coming in and make sure they are the people we need to do those specific jobs. Equally we should be training New Zealanders to do those jobs. […] We have a lot of people in New Zealand who could be doing that work. I would suggest that if you start digging into — and we’ll be making some announcements soon — the various visa categories and who has been accepted into NZ, it doesn’t necessarily match up to the skills that we actually need.


General Policy


Also at the Labour Party Conference you are reported as saying: “National’s social investment isn’t about investing in people — it is about reducing what the Government sees as liabilities on their balance sheet.” You also point out: “For them it is always money before people.” Could you elaborate on that point about social investment?

So you’re going to hear in the Budget next week a whole lot of stuff about this thing called “social investment” that National’s doing. […] What they say is, it’s using data that we’ve got to make sure we intervene early and get government agencies to work together better, and we’ll get better outcomes. The problem is what they are doing with that is trying to reduce the cost of public services. So it’s actually a cost-cutting thing rather than a real investment thing.

And I’ve just been around a bit long to trust the National Party on social policy. I think this is unfortunately just typical National Party policy which is about reducing spending, privatisation, and just focusing down on the individual, rather than the community as a whole. [They’re] reducing quite complex lives into these individual data points and nothing about their policy tells you what policies are actually gonna work. […] I just think it’s a series of words, it’s a misuse of language rather than a really positive programme to say, how do we lift people up.


With the upcoming Budget announcement, what are you expecting National to bring to the table?

There’ll be lollies [laughs]. They’ve been pretty clear; they are going to be looking at tax cut packages. They’re also talking about some changes to Working For Families. So we’ll have to wait and see what the totality of that is. They’ve also said there’s gonna be spending on infrastructure and the social investment program. So they’ll be the main elements of it. Our view is that on the tax stuff, you’ve gotta be pretty careful about what they’ve done in the past and whether this is even going to make up for that.

National did a whole lot of tax cuts in 2010, the vast benefit of which went to the highest income earners, and they put GST up at that time as well. They cut Working For Families in 2011 and the Child Poverty Action Group estimates that is has cost about $700 million a year. You’ve got to make sure that we see whatever they do next week in the context of what they’ve previously done. It’s election year so they’re going to splash a bit of money about, but will that make up for the cuts that they’ve previously done?


In an interview with Corin Dann on April 9, you suggested that if you took on the role of Minister of Finance you would add employment to the Reserve Bank’s mandate. How will this help in growing the economy sustainably?

For those big fans of monetary policies who will be listening this and reading this [laughs]. Basically at the moment the job of the Reserve Bank is to control inflation. And that’s really important because the people who are the most affected when inflation gets out of control are actually the poorest people.

What we want though is the Reserve Bank to play its part in supporting one of Labour’s big goals, which is full employment. So that basically means anyone who can work, who’s physically able and mentally able to work, should be. At the moment […] they’ve only got this one goal — keeping inflation under control.

If we add to the goal maximising employment and the wider wealth of the economy, you’re going to make different decisions from time to time as a bank, and we just think every part of the economic apparatus should be focused on a goal like full employment. We’ll be doing other policies to support more jobs, but this is just one aspect of how the economy works.


Although you are not a spokesperson for corrections or justice, what are your thoughts on the kaupapa Māori approach to corrections on providing a better system for Māori incarceration (and decarceration)? Where do you personally stand on that issue, considering Andrew Little has said that although a separate Māori prison is worth discussing, it won’t be adopted as Labour policy?

We do have to look at the overall state of our corrections system. I think what Andrew was saying there was that when we’re in government, we need to take our time to do that properly. My dad was in prison and I’ve probably spent more time in prisons than most of my colleagues in parliament because of that. That was a long time ago now, but it’s set in my mind a very clear view that prisons are not working as a part of our criminal justice system.

There are some people who will need, for their own and our safety, to be incarcerated — that is just the reality of life. But for a lot of other people, all we’re doing by putting people into the prison system is turning them into people who’ll go back to the prison system. Our rate of recidivism is absolutely appalling. We’ve got the second highest incarceration rate in the developed world, per person. More than 50 per cent of our prison population is Māori and so we do have big issues to address there.

The time will come when we’ll address those issues. I don’t think Andrew’s shutting down the idea of that discussion. It’s just where the process of making policy in our party is, it’s not in our current party policy.



What’s your favourite colour?

What do you think? Red.


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