Just over a year ago, Andrew Little played a surprising part in a political revolution in Wellington. He took stock of the feeble support for him and his Labour Party, and stepped down as the leader of the opposition — encouraging Jacinda Ardern to take his place. KABOOM. Jacindamania burst into life all around the country. The people went to the polls. Winston Peters did his sums and machinations. The Greens grinned. Jacinda was even more cheerful. And Bill English and his National Party colleagues were left lamenting. It was a spectacular turn of events.
Here Andrew, 53, reflects with Dale on the path that has led him to the ministerial roles he’s handling, some say with a sure touch, in Justice and Treaty Negotiations.
Kia ora, Andrew. I understand that you, like a good many other Pākehā and quite a few Māori as well, have some Scottish whakapapa.
Yes. Little is a name from the border of Scotland and England, although that link goes back many, many years, and both my parents grew up in England.
Dad was a major in the British Army and then he was a police officer in Cyprus. But he thought there was too much corruption there so he got out of that, went back to London and retrained as a teacher.
Then, after his first year or two of teaching, New Zealand went on a big recruitment drive looking for UK teachers and he signed up. The intention was for the family to come out in 1962 for three years. Anyway, here we still are.
How did they come to be in Taranaki?
Dad was offered a choice of Nelson, Lower Hutt, or New Plymouth. And the way my mother tells the story, they had friends in London who’d claimed to have been to New Zealand. And they said: “Nelson is very cold. Don’t go there.” They weren’t quite sure about Lower Hutt but they knew about Plymouth in England and they thought New Plymouth couldn’t be too different from that. So that’s where we landed.
You were born here?
Yes. In New Plymouth. My older sister was born in the UK, so she came over with them. But us other four kids were all born in New Plymouth, including me and my twin sister.
Five kids. At one stage, Mum had five kids under the age of five at home. And, as brothers and sisters, we were always a pretty close-knit unit. Especially me and my twin sister. And, right up until intermediate school, we were in every class together. So we’ve had a very strong bond. She lives north of Wellington, in Paekakariki, and we stay in touch as much as we can.
Did you have many Māori mates when you were growing up?
Not many. Not until I was at New Plymouth Boys’ High. That was where I was becoming more aware of Māoritanga and te reo Māori because we had a very dynamic school principal, Tom Ryder, who came when I was starting in the fourth form, or Year 10 as we know it now. He drove a programme embracing greater diversity and Taranaki’s Māori culture.
So I grew up with that Māori dimension. And, even back at primary school, I can remember the odd Māori lesson on te reo Māori and Māoritanga. So that was never far away. And we knew there were other Taranaki schools strongly steeped in Māoritanga. Especially out in Waitara.
It wasn’t until my last year at high school, though, that I started learning about the wars in Taranaki. And it wasn’t until I left Taranaki that I learned about Parihaka.
And it’s only now, I think, that Taranaki is starting to come to terms with that history. Those stories aren’t flattering to Pākehā, but that history is a vital part of the backdrop to Taranaki — and we need to know it.
We can’t take back what has occurred, but now that you’re a bit older and have had time to reflect on the injustices that Taranaki Māori have suffered, how do you feel about the fact that so many Pākehā in Taranaki have profited from what, effectively, was stolen Māori land?
That’s something we have yet to fully confront. I know there’ve been efforts. For instance, when Andrew Judd was the Mayor of New Plymouth a few years ago, he encouraged a greater awareness of our history. And he began engaging with many of the iwi leaders in Taranaki.
Their voice is getting stronger. And their place in the fabric of Taranaki is being re-established. But we have a long way to go to embrace the strength of that Māori history in Taranaki. And we do have to understand what colonisation did.
I’m dealing with Ngāti Maru at the moment. And, when you hear their story about their loss of land, you can appreciate that they lost just about everything — including many of their people. Few of them have been left. So they’re rebuilding from a very small base.
This was the impact of the colonial actions in those days. And we’ve not only got to understand that it happened — and accept it — but understand as well the impact of carrying that burden, that mamae, down through the generations. Pākehā are still coming to terms with that.
There were other events when you were a young fulla that must’ve set you thinking. Like Rob Muldoon, a very polarising figure as the prime minister, welcoming the South African rugby team to tour New Zealand in 1981. What effect did that have on you?
It had a huge impact. I was 16 years old. That’s the age when you’re starting to assert your own independence. My father was a National Party supporter at the time. With strong, pro-tour sentiments. My mother felt that way as well.
And, in our household, we had some pretty fiery discussions. At school, the atmosphere was dominated by pro-tour sentiments, even though there were a few of us boys, and one or two teachers, engaging in debates and voicing anti-tour sentiments. But the discussions were soon shut down.
Our principal, Tom Ryder, was very clear about having different speakers at the school. I take my hat off to him because he believed it was important for us to hear a range of voices. So, we had Canon John Osmers, the Kiwi who’d been in South Africa working for the ANC and other liberation groups. He’d had his hands blown off by a parcel bomb. And I remember there were teachers who literally turned their backs when he got up to speak.
We had other speakers, though, who came to say: “Give South Africa a chance.” That type of message. And I recall the Race Relations Conciliator, Hiwi Tauroa, also coming to speak and an atmosphere you could cut with a knife.
I hear that you did a bit of spade, shovel and wheelbarrow work when you left school and were preparing for tertiary study.
I was very lucky at that time. The big projects were in full swing as I left school and was about to go to university in Wellington. So I managed to get labouring jobs. And I loved that. Loved working with a real cross-section of guys. They called us “trade assistants” in those days, which was a glorified name for labourers. And we were in the engineers’ union as opposed to the labourers’ union.
But we had a great crew. I spent a lot of time working with a big Sāmoan chap who was a brilliant welder. Then, when I was at university, I got a part-time job doing security work alongside some great people who I continue to bump into — some of them now with jobs around parliament.
That experience, along with university, very much shaped my views, and I came to understand how some people in New Zealand grow up in a privileged world. But my background — my family, schools, and work — helped me see injustice when it was there.
And I didn’t want to work for those with privilege and comfortable lives. I might’ve had a lot of middle-class values but, in our family of seven, we had to make things go a long way. That’s just how it was.
But I came to see that those who are materially wealthy don’t have any greater insight and any greater right to run the country and rule other people’s lives. I think, in a democracy, we’ve got to have all types.
Doing manual work can be a great leveller. And it’s not as if you stop learning when you’re with mates who don’t have tertiary qualifications.
No. That doesn’t matter at all. There’s insights, and humour, you can get from anyone you’re working alongside. And they’ll often have a different view about management, especially when they see arbitrary management decisions that don’t make sense.
Right from when I started working in those jobs, I could recognise the wisdom that frontline workers have about the way the business runs. Management should always be open to listening to the insights that these guys have developed. And value them.
How do you feel about capitalism? And socialism?
I believe that business works and society functions best when we all play our role. Sometimes we get to choose it. Sometimes it gets chosen for us. But we all have a part to play. And everybody is entitled to their dignity and to respect just for being who they are. There should be no value judgment attached to what they do.
I do have a respect for those with an entrepreneurial spirit, who can see an opportunity, who take a risk with their own money and do well at it. Good on them for doing that.
But we’ve got to get past the idea that, just because you’re a successful entrepreneur and investor and you can generate great wealth, somehow that gives you rights above others.
Actually, it doesn’t. It doesn’t give you the right to have a greater say on the way things should be run. I always go back to what matters most. That’s people — and preserving their humanity and their dignity. That’s what drives me.
I note you studied philosophy and law. I imagine you came across a few interesting Māori personalities in the course of your studies.
One who stands out was Joe Williams who’s now a judge on the Court of Appeal. I think he was a year ahead of me at law school. I’d see him around a bit and I’ve come to know him a lot more since then. But, when I was at university, I wasn’t mixing just with other law students, because I was involved in the students’ association and student politics.
It was great the other week when we had the third reading of the Wairoa bill in parliament. The chief negotiator for the iwi and hāpu of Te Roopu o Wairoa was Johnny Whaanga, who was a contemporary of mine.
Paora Ammunson was also a contemporary, and when I was involved with student politics, he was a big supporter of mine. Don’t quite know what I did to deserve his support. But we connected. And, of the other people who I studied law with, the best-known one would be Wayne Eagleson, who was, for a long time, John Key’s chief of staff.
When I was at university, I also wanted to do something that broadened my knowledge and understanding, which is why I studied philosophy. And the part of philosophy that I most enjoyed was the theory of knowledge and the theory of the mind — the way the mind works. That stood me in good stead.
But it was also valuable just getting to know philosophical thinking and concepts. And it became clear that a lot of the more ideological debates we have now aren’t at all new. These have been challenges for humanity for centuries — understanding about human freedom, personal freedom, freedom of expression, and what that means. And everyone having their part to play. Those studies have helped me enormously.
What about your time in student politics? I imagine they were a great grounding for your union work later on, and for your entry into politics. As it has been for other politicians, including Jacinda Ardern.
Well, what got me into it, wasn’t so much because of strong political views, although I definitely leaned left, but that I could see that the Students’ Association could do a lot better.
So I just kinda put myself forward, got on to the executive, and the next year became the president for the Victoria University Students’ Association. Then, later on, I became the national student president.
By that time, the issues were increased fees at university — and student loans were being talked about. And I found myself leading the first campaigns against that. Funnily enough, against the Fourth Labour Government.
I remember organising the march on parliament, when there hadn’t been a student march on parliament for, I think, eight or nine years. Everybody was telling me: “Oh, it’ll never happen. The students are too apathetic. Nobody’s interested.” That was 1987.
When I turned up on the day, I thought: “Oh well, if there’s only a dozen of us — too bad.” But there were hundreds of students, all ready to go, in the quad at university. And the march was way better than anyone ever expected.
I recall ending that day with an incredible conflict of emotions, being absolutely elated about it and being absolutely exhausted by it, too. I slept for about two days afterwards.
That was a great start to a campaign that went for years, to see that education is seen as valuable for its own sake. It’s not about setting yourself up for a career. It’s not a commodity. It’s about broadening horizons and giving people critical thinking. And we shouldn’t be making it inaccessible to people, which was on the cards at the time.
And then you ended up as a prominent union official. That doesn’t help curry favour, does it? Because there’s a strong anti-union sentiment in this country, even though there’ve been some impressive union leaders.
Yes, I worked with some really strong leaders and good influences. Like Rex Jones, who was a big reformer of the Engineers’ Union. And there was Mike Sweeney, who was one of the best negotiators I’ve ever seen. He knew when to push hard and knew when to ease back. He had a great way of reading people and seeing how to get the best out of them. Another was Sid Keepa, who was very influential. And Maurice Davis, who now leads the Amalgamated Workers’ Union.
But we still face sheer anti-union prejudice which comes down to too many people just not wanting workers to have voice. I think it’s vital for workers to have a voice in the workplace — and there’s no need for employers to feel threatened by it.
It’s not right for the employer to make all the decisions without having to listen to anybody. That’s not right as a matter of fairness. So we’ve still got a long way to go, in my view, to get the balance right.
What do you recall with most satisfaction from your negotiating days as a union leader?
There’s two projects that stand out. One was in 2005. We were halfway through the then Labour government. The economy was going really well. I remember at the end of 2004, reading this report that had been put together by some consultant. I wasn’t meant to get it — someone gave it to me.
It was arguing that there was no need to worry about the unions because “they’ve never been weaker and you shouldn’t expect to have to pay more than a three percent pay increase.” And I thought: “Bugger that. No, that’s not right. We should set a much more ambitious target and build a campaign around that.”
So we went for five percent and I got the backing of the CTU and a lot of other unions, despite their nervousness. And that’s what we got, which showed that, if you really put your mind to it, set yourself a target and get everyone involved, you can achieve something significant.
The other satisfying achievement was working with Rob Fyfe at Air New Zealand on two major restructuring exercises, where, after some testy periods, we built a strong relationship that saved jobs, improved pay and made it a better place to work. It was at the time that Rob was taking over. He was probably indifferent to unions. He wasn’t anti-union. Just not particularly embracing of us either.
I developed a huge respect for him, which is why it was great to have him come on board to assist me with the Pike River project, which he’s doing at the moment.
I don’t see much point in lingering on what led to you taking over as the Labour Party leader and then stepping down to make way for Jacinda. But there was a period when a number of the Labour supporters wanted a flasher, more winning image from you. Making way for Jacinda is regarded by some as one of the more principled and unselfish moves in New Zealand politics. But no doubt it was made at some personal cost to you, emotionally at least.
Yeah. Of course it did. Naturally, it’s a privilege and a responsibility to be leader of the opposition. And much more to be the prime minister. But I’d learned through my leadership years in student and union politics that, a lot of the time, you have to take yourself out of the equation. And out of negotiations, too.
You have to ask what the responsible thing is to do. There’s no point in hanging on to leadership if you’re leading people to a place where either they give up or where they end up worse off. So I’ve learned to keep my personal emotions under control. Be analytical. And clinical.
I’d got to the point as the opposition leader where I just wasn’t grabbing people. And that’s the nature of politics. You have to communicate and relate. I still look back and feel proud of what I was able to achieve as leader. I think I got the party and the caucus into a shape where they were competitive, where they were united, where everyone was focused on the right things.
But it got to the point where I was now the last, remaining, outstanding issue.
And, equally, I had confidence in Jacinda. That’s the other thing I’ve learned on my journey. It’s the importance of recognising talent — including talent that’s better than you. And being able to harness and embrace that.
I’m not distracted by jealousy. I’ve got the ability to shut that out. If I see talent around, I want to embrace it. That’s what you do for the good of the whole.
Jacinda is a really special talent and an impressive leader, an impressive person.
I could see clearly that I wasn’t getting the traction, and that it was right for me to step aside. But, most importantly, there was somebody who could step in. I know Jacinda was incredibly nervous about it and she needed to be persuaded by others that, yep, this was the moment, this was the time, and we’d all get in behind her.
And she’s done a fantastic job.
Of course, you go through the grieving process, but I know I did it for the right reason. I did it in the right way. I’m totally committed to Jacinda’s leadership. What drives me now is that I want to be part of the success story that she’s leading. And I feel really great about the opportunity that Jacinda’s now given me as a minister with the responsibilities I have.
The Treaty settlement portfolio is vital to Māori interests. It’s a tough gig, that one. And, of course, you’re supposed to placate people who’re still very much in grievance mode — and there are tribal leaders wanting to move on and are keen to settle.
So things can get pretty feisty when you’re in these meetings. You’re the representative of the Crown, therefore Pākehā, who’re the thieves of the land. And people are staring at you, trying to work out where you’re coming from, and what you can do for them. That’s a tough range of dynamics in the Treaty Settlement world.
That’s the challenge. But it’s what I love about it. And I think this is where my union experience has helped. I don’t have any qualms about standing up in front of a group of people who may be upset at who I am, or at what I’ve done, or at the circumstances in which they find themselves.
But they’ve got absolutely nothing to apologise to me for. Or to apologise to the Crown for. The opposite is true. This is the process where the Crown has to step up and accept responsibility for the historical wrongs that have been committed.
These are emotional debates, and sometimes it’s right to get emotional too. I’ve bitten back on things, not to offend or to deny the injustice and the mamae, but to try and keep the conversation focused on what is going to make a difference.
But we can’t come to terms with these things and talk about the redress until we’re around that table. Until a mandate is sorted out. Until we’ve got enough confidence that this might lead somewhere. So that’s the process that we’re in at the moment with Ngāpuhi, which is a priority.
That doesn’t mean to say the other impending settlements aren’t important. We’ve got issues with Pare Hauraki and Tauranga Moana that are going to take time to work through. But what I’ve managed to do with Ngāpuhi is keep the kōrero going.
What I’ve said to Ngāpuhi is I’m not giving up. I’m not keeping the pressure off myself or the Crown. Or off Ngāpuhi as well.
And, actually, it feels like we’re starting to get some traction. We’re starting to make progress.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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