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The national secretary of New Zealand’s largest trade union, and former VUWSA president, Andrew Little has been touted as Prime Minister in waiting by some media commentators. Salient Volunteer feature writer Jenah Shaw catches up with Little and asks him about student politics in the ‘80s, idealism and what has changed.
You’ve been heralded as a future leader of the Labour Party, and many were putting odds on you taking over the Rongotai seat from Anette King, but you have postponed your Parliamentary career until at least the 2011 election. Why wait until then?
I’m not aware of being tipped as a future leader or future Rongotai MP. I did give serious consideration about going into parliament next year, but won’t for two key reasons – one is the Union I’ve been seeing through for the past four to five years. I’ve been overseeing restructuring and we’ve only got to the end of that at the beginning of this year, and I just really wanted to see that through – a bit of consolidation. When there was speculation about me going into parliament for next year it caused a bit of instability in the Union, so I am keen to squash that. The other reason is I’ve got a six year old son, and while my job at the moment is pretty demanding it still allows me to spend quite a bit of time with him, which I want to continue to do.
So in 3 or 4 years when things have changed will you consider a Parliamentary career?
I have indicated that I’d be keen to look seriously at it in 2011, and it’s around about that time I’ll give it more consideration. At that time I expect I’ll still be leading the Union, and by that time I’ll certainly be ready to step down from the role.
You were VUWSA President in 1987 and NZUSA President from 1988-89. How did you get involved in student politics?
I was in my first year and there was the Student Representative Council, open for any student to go along every fortnight in the Union Hall. My first year was 1983… I just went along and observed and watched and enjoyed the histrionics of it. Then I guess I just got more seriously involved – became involved in the executive in 1986 and the following year became student president. I’ve always been reasonably political, and I think student politics is a good forum for development and the cut and thrust of more public debate.
What did you learn from student leadership?
What you learn on the job as a student president are skills of how to be persuasive, how to influence, how to keep a constituency. It equipped me to deal with the media and to organise people.
The most energy you need is in dealing with people – the people around you and the people who you want to support what you are doing. There’s no substitute for that hard graft of personal communication, personal connection, and a big lesson for me at the time was listening. You don’t need to agree with people but you have to listen and you have to understand. I carry that with me since my time as a student leader.
The ‘80s were quite tumultuous times for student politics and there was a significant climate of student activism. What were your experiences of the period?
This was during the second term of the Labour government – highly controversial, very radical government that stood for the centre-left wing and centre-left ideas. Politics were being turned on their head – it was a fascinating time to be at university. It was an environment where you honed your political values and your political instincts. It was a very developmental time for someone like myself.
The rise of the business culture as a sort of cultural framework also happened then with business language, concepts and ideas entering the public fray. There was a notion portrayed at the time that private sector knows best, private sector is more efficient, and my experience in the end tells me this is not the case. It certainly hardened up my ideas that the state has an essential role to play. I don’t have any antipathy towards private enterprise, private sector or people making a profit. What I am clear about is that profit is not a justification for the suppression or repression of people or their rights or their dignity. Those are motivating values that I think have forged themselves in me as a result of the eighties and also my working life since the nineties.
Students today are often portrayed as apathetic when it comes to politics, especially in comparison to past generations. Do you agree?
Things have changed. Being a student today is a lot different to what it was twenty years ago, but I don’t think students are generally any less interested in politics than they were in my time, or even twenty years before that. In my opinion the historical role of students is always to be raising those controversial issues, however difficult that sometimes is, and being on the front foot with cutting edge social issues. Even if students aren’t marching in the streets with their issues I don’t think they are any less political. The internet and blogs are probably overtaking anything else as a form of expression.
When you were involved with student politics the student loan system was coming in and you protested against this quite vocally. Do you still support free-education?
I’m certainly all in favour of education being free, whether it’s for the first qualification, or purely based on years. I think that’s an important investment that society should make. It is the reality of working life now that people are going to need ongoing education and learning, and in order to do that they need to have a good foundation of learning and learning skills. I think the other thing is that when people get a sense of their education as their investment it takes what was once upon a time regarded as a community good, a public good, into purely the private realm. I don’t think that a good quality and basic education system should be seen as a purely private matter, so I still remain in favour of free-education at the tertiary level.
So a few years down the line, when you looking more seriously at a Parliamentary career, will this be a principle you will carry through?
Yeah, I’d like to and I certainly hope I will. Student politics were very good for forging views but I think my views have been very much consolidated by my time working for the Union. You see a lot more disparity of wealth, you see more good people, smart and intelligent people, who for whatever reason have not had the benefit of education in that way and you see what they could do if they had that opportunity.
You’ve said previously that you view the student loan system as distorting New Zealand’s future work-force. What is the real harm of student loans?
I think the extent of it affects peoples’ choices about what courses they’ll do. People are making choices not necessarily on their attributes but on how much debt they want to take on.
So people are taking a materialistic view of education?
Yeah, people are basing decisions on what will give them the least debt – saying, oh okay, so I’ll do this course, as opposed to what are my attributes, what are my interests, what are my range of skills. This means people are not necessarily getting an education they will be well served by.
The next battle looks like it will be for a universal student allowance. What is your position on this?
Part of students’ learning is that they are supported, and they need to be supported to learn effectively. So I’d be very supportive of that.
Where do you hope to be in ten years’ time?
If I’m honest, I’d probably say parliament, doing the best I can.
You made The Listener’s power list in 2004 and 2005, but were dropped in 2006. Are you hoping to make a comeback in 2007?
Although it’s flattering, I’m not fussed either way. The interesting thing is that in 2006 the line-up of people they had on the panel changed completely – I didn’t know anyone on that panel and clearly they didn’t know me. If I don’t get back on it I won’t lose sleep. I work for a great organisation and have a lot of people around me who are very supportive, and that’s what matters most.