LABOUR'S SERIOUS YEAR
By Richard Harman (author)
Andrew Little has copped just about every criticism the leader of a political party can over the past year.
He’s been typed “Angry Andrew” by the Government and his rating as preferred Prime Minister remains stubbornly low.
He has not really mastered the debating Chamber though he has been doing better and has a nice line in self-deprecating humour.
His TV appearances are often stiff and his speech to his party’s annual conference was the product of careful rehearsals.
Even people close to Labour watch him address business audiences and note how uncomfortable he seems.
Yet this is all small stuff really.
When he was first Opposition Leader John Key in his own words was “shit” on TV and his performance in the House was simply a mangle of words.
Opposition creates Prime Ministers.
But first the would-be Prime Minister has to create an Opposition and that’s what Little has been doing this past year.
Now as he gets ready for 2016 he can reflect on a more or less united Caucus, a revitalised party organisation and most importantly, a mission with which he hopes to seize the country’s imagination by the end of the year.
This will be the year that makes or breaks Andrew Little.
“Having had the year that we’ve had, trying to settle everybody down, the big priority now is to get onto the policy generation stuff,” he says.
“The big themes will be what we do with job creation and education and later in the year economic policy about investment and how we meet the cost of future investment.”
This is of course is all focussed on Grant Robertson’s Commission on the Future of Work.
And as POLITIK reported last week, Robertson is promising radical ideas will emerge from the Commission.
Mr Little expects that.
“I think these are big challenges and they need big responses.
“We are facing an age when incrementalism simply won’t cut it and we’ve got to be prepared to be bold and we need New Zealanders to understand that it’s going to take some bold responses and they’ve got to be long term responses if we are doing justice to the issue.
“This is about people’s long term economic security and New Zealand’s long term economic security.
“We have to be thinking in pretty big terms.”
There will be those on the left who will be sceptical, even cynical, about the Commission on the Future of Work.
That will be a challenge for Mr Little.
In the short term there will also be pressure for Labour to help what is expected to be a growing number of unemployed this year.
But in acknowledging that, Little returns to his ambitions to have policy that has long term goals.
“There is a sense of unease that we are not doing enough either now or for the long term future and there is preparedness now to hear a message that is more ambitious than has been cast out of Government circles over the past few years.”
Little has been starting to use the phrase “kiwi dream’ to describe a variety of economic goals.
Like National’s “brighter future” it is a vague indefinable catchphrase but, again like National, it suggests that the party can make things change for the better.
“we will be putting some meat around those bones,” he says.
“What does it actually mean if we want to increase home ownership; what does that look like and spelling that out.
“The idea of being able to earn an income, have a job provide for yourself.
“What does that mean in the mean in the modern context?
“It’s what we have to start defining in practical terms for people to understand it.”
But there’s more to it than simply line of practical economic policy.
He wants people to understand “why’ Labour is proposing what it proposes.
So his speeches this year will be heavy with context and will focus on the party’s principles and values then showing how they can lead to practical steps.
“I think one of the gaps in the way we have explained ourselves over the last few years is that we’ve forgotten to lay out why it is that we take the stands that we do or support the things that we do so there will be a lot more of the why as well as the what.”
But when it comes to “what” the party is eventually going to have come up with a firm line on the Trans Pacific Partnership.
And from the way Little talks it sounds like he is coming to the view that the party will oppose it.
Labour’s stance is complicated.
Caucus set five conditions for supporting the TPP and even Little concedes that only one of those five is now a real issue and that is whether the party can legislate to restrict foreign urban property sales.
Mr Little this year has repeated his promise to legislate to restrict the sales regardless of the TPP.
Beyond that though he is still being very cautious as well he might given the breadth and depth of opposition to the TPP among the centre-left in New Zealand.
Little is portraying his stance on the TPP as taking a stand for New Zealand’s sovereignty.
And he is beginning to sound as though Labour will oppose whatever TPP legislation the Government brings to Parliament.
(A straight yes/no vote on the TPP is unlikely. What is more probably is a Bill which amends a number of acts such as copyright and tariff legislation to accommodate the deals reached in the TPP)
“The real issue is what is going to happen when there is a vote in Parliament.
“And I think there are a lot of New Zealanders – and there a lot of them – who are deeply uneasy about it and they are looking for a symbol from us that we understand that and we are serious about fighting for our sovereignty.
“So we have to accept that what we do in Parliament is going to be emblematic and so we have got to do the right thing.”
He says people are looking for leadership on the issue and he says the Caucus is now ready to accept that challenge having seen the reality of the agreement.
But he is anxious to emphasise that Labour supports free trade.
“Standing up for sovereignty is not a vote against free trade.”
But on another contentious issue that is likely to occupy a great deal of political attention this year, the reform of the Resource Management Act, Little is slightly more sympathetic to the Government.
Labour voted for the Government Bill to reform the Act to go to a select committee and Little says there are issues in the way the RMA operates which need to be fixed.
“But we’ve got to retain the principle that people must have a say on things that happen in their neighbourhood.
“we have to retain that social-democratic principle.
“It goes to the heart of what Labour stands for and we can’t compromise that.”
And in a nutshell (or a soundbite) that’s the Little Labour Party.
Perhaps fittingly, this year is the party’s centenary and Little and Robertson plainly plan to use that as a platform not to look back but to project forwards.
There will be many in Labour who will say “about time” to that.