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October 14, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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The Other David

What did you think of the politics of the day when you were a Scarfie?

I was a Scarfie in the early ’80s, so that was the last days of Muldoon. To say I was no Muldoon fan was an understatement—I thought he was awful, I thought his economic management was a joke, I really hated the way he overrode good process and public involvement with things like the Economic Development Act. It was basically what he wanted, and when. That’s how the Clive Dam was built, among other things, which proved to be very expensive.

How much did it cost you to go to university?

I grew up in a generation where we had a better deal than students have today, and I’ve always been very conscious of that. I want to make sure that today’s generation gets a better chance than they’re currently getting. I forget exactly how much fees were, but from what I can recall is, if I worked at the pub in the weekends, and worked in the varsity holidays I could normally make the budget pretty much balance, except for in my last year when I got into debt a little bit. But I was able to get through. In those days we had a bursary as well, which helped people. We didn’t have to take on student debt as people do now.

Why do you think students of your day got a better deal than students currently?

We went through all the rigours of Rogernomics and neoliberalism and particularly in the early ’90s the idea was that education was just a market like any other, and I think that really ignored the fact that it’s a public good. It’s not only good for the individual student but also good for the community, if people are going to be productive.

What made you decide to get into politics?

I’ve always been pretty passionate about public service, but not always thinking I was going to be a politician. I was a student at Otago, I was studying politics and economics, and a couple of other things. I thought I’d probably end up working in the public service. I turned down a job at the Treasury because I didn’t like Rogernomics. About ‘87, ‘88, I went to work in Foreign Affairs and had eight years with them, a couple of postings overseas, worked on an aid programme in the South Pacific for a while.

I found that a really good learning experience, but after a while I got a bit frustrated with being a civil servant. I thought that only very rarely you got to make a decision, and I wanted to see if I could have a more direct impact. After Foreign Affairs I took some study leave, I went off to grad school on a Fulbright Scholarship. Then I went private sector for a while, to see what it was like in the so-called ‘real world’, and learned how business worked, because I thought, “well, you won’t be that useful in government if you haven’t seen it from the other side of the fence.” I did that for four years or so, and then ran for Parliament—a little earlier than I thought I might, I was 36 when I ran in 1999, in Titirangi.

And now here you are as Leader of the Opposition. Congratulations!

Thank you very much. Yeah, well, you never know how these things work out, do you? I’m just part of a really good Labour team, and we’re all committed to working together to make a difference, and hopefully that will make a difference to Kiwis.

Thinking about Labour’s presence in the political sphere at the moment, in recent years there’s been a feeling that some of Labour’s campaigning and its media presence has failed to excite voters and has missed the mark at times. What changes do you think need to be made to Labour’s public image?

Well, let me just say that it’s never easy for any party going into opposition, and I want to give credit to Phil Goff and to David Shearer and the teams that have led us through those very difficult years, where the public is typically enthusiastic about the prospect of a new government actually doing something useful. It takes four or five years to dawn on the public and I think it now has, that actually the Key government isn’t really on their side, and isn’t really showing us a way forward. So I do want to acknowledge my predecessors for all they’ve done to keep the party together and to keep us in as good a shape as we can be.

Some of the things that I think we can do that are appropriate for this time now, are to move more towards a proactive rather than a reactive approach to the media, to be very clear about what we stand for. Let’s be clear and different from the current Government, because they are taking the country in a different direction from where we want to go, and let’s be as proactive and as strategic in the media as we can be, so that we are disciplined about talking about our agenda and our messages, and making sure people understand our direction.

Looking ahead to next year, with the general election coming up, what do you think will excite young voters who are traditionally and increasingly apathetic when it comes to voting?

Well, I guess the first thing I’d say to young voters is that you get what you vote for. And if you want three more years of widening gaps and an economy going nowhere, just stick with the lot you’ve got. But if you want a better chance at a good job, and if you want a country that means something positive, you really need to think pretty hard about getting off the couch and getting out to vote on election day.

What do you think it is that makes New Zealand different from the rest of the world?

Oh, all sorts of things. According to the World Bank, we’ve actually got the highest level of “natural capital” of any country, per capita, in the world. That is, Kiwis are blessed with wonderful natural resources, whether it’s our farms or our forestry or our fisheries, and we should be able to have a good life for everybody based on that. We’ve got a wonderful cultural heritage, bicultural, Treaty partnership. I come from West Auckland which is pretty cosmopolitan, four out of ten of my constituents, nearly, weren’t born in New Zealand, so we have a pretty positive, you might call Pacific, fusion. So I look forward to living in a tolerant, decent, open-minded country where everyone can be themselves, and we celebrate difference and we celebrate culture, and we invest in the arts, and it’s good fun. I hear you two are big Beyoncé fans?

[Laughs] Will you be going to the concert?

No, but I hear you are!

Yes we are—have you got the GCSB onto us?

Not the GCSB, yet.

What do you think are the major issues that are facing young people specifically today?

I think a lot of people are concerned about whether they can get a good job in New Zealand, or whether they have to leave the country. And a lot of their parents are hoping they’ll stick around so they can be with them too. So I think good jobs are the number one. Access to education—in the university system we’re particularly concerned about the situation of postgrad students for whom the ability to continue to take out student loans is limited by the current government. A lot of people won’t be able to finish postgrad degrees. There’s a whole lot of stuff—there’s a sense of drift, there’s a sense that the country’s not as thriving as it used to be, and in an internet world, we can make anything in the world happen right here. So we want to be able to take advantage of those opportunities.

You mentioned young people leaving the country because of jobs. What would a Labour government do to create jobs for graduates to move into?

Invest in R & D, invest in good science, look at the school-to-work transition, look at the tertiary-education-to-work opportunities. But underneath all that, there’s a strategic shift that’s got to happen, from being a sort of cost-based resource-extraction economy where basically we’re farmed or mined for someone else, to an economy which is smart and investing in knowledge and investing in science and innovation, and commercialising that, and adding value to our raw materials, protecting our environment, enjoying tourism, and just earning a better living in the world. At the moment, it’s just a third less per capita than Australia, and we can’t sustain a further widening of that gap, really.

Where are you going to get the money to put into those areas?

Investment in R & D won’t be cheap, and we’re going to have to work hard to garner more resources for that—within a fiscal framework that is responsible and keeps us in a situation where we’ve got a well-balanced economy and our books are looking okay. But the great thing about when you move things forward, and you get some growth going, tax receipts go up, and if you’re careful with spending you can move some of those balances towards high-return areas of investment, both social and economic.

Another factor that is likely to drive young people overseas in the coming years as more and more of the Baby Boomers move into retirement, is increasing financial pressure on our generation. What can the Government do to alter this situation and what will a Labour government do?

To be honest about the cost of superannuation. And the current government is not. They’re saying they’ll never change the age of superannuation, but they’re being very disingenuous with younger New Zealanders by not telling them what the impact on their tax burden will be, which will virtually double if you don’t do anything about super.

What Labour stands for is keeping sustainable publicly funded universal superannuation, but moving to take some account of the fact that people are living longer by gradually raising the age from 65 to 67, starting that process of change after 2020, while at the same time making sure that there are transitional benefits available for those who are no longer able to keep working in their regular job. And that’s important because if we do that and we resume pre-funding NZ super once we’re in surplus, then we’ll be able to drastically reduce the impact on today’s younger generation’s future taxes.

Last week, you promised to better fund tertiary education at a rally at Auckland University. How would a Labour government fund tertiary education differently to how National is?

It’s a matter of priority-setting within the Budget. We really do believe that education should be a right, not a privilege, and we really want access to education to be based on ability, not based on ability to pay. And it’s really important in terms of our future productivity that as many people as possible can get the best education they can, and it’s important for social mobility that a kid of a miner or a driver can have pretty much the same opportunities that the kid of a doctor can have. You need access to a combination of a very heavy state subsidy for public education, right through to tertiary; and the ability to finance that through a combination of part-time work and student loans.

Do you agree with popular perception among students regarding degree inflation (degrees are worth less in the job market despite costing more)?

I think it’s certainly true that internationally there is a trend towards more careers requiring more than just a basic bachelor’s. A bachelor’s is a good general foundation, but increasingly people are either getting honours, master’s, or professional qualifications on top of that. I think there is that trend, and that could be said to disadvantage those students, but the world is getting more competitive and standards are rising. To a certain extent we just have to compete with that.

What would a Labour government do to combat degree inflation?

Making sure that our tertiary-education system is as good as it can be; funding it as well as we can; helping students to keep it affordable right through their degrees, and ensuring that—which is really a matter of the universities and technical institutes’ own governance—but that the degrees and diplomas that are being taught are relevant and taught well.

What do you think of Voluntary Student Membership?

I’m worried, frankly, about the free-rider problem. I think university students’ associations do a really good job for the welfare of students. I think it’s fair if students contribute to that through membership. I didn’t particularly like the fact that the current Government made it impossible to have a required student association membership—compulsory voluntary if you like. I would hope that we could look at a system—subject to full consultation with my caucus colleagues—where if people weren’t opting to join a students’ association, that the equivalent cost might be donated to charity or something like that. So that there wasn’t a financial incentive for people not to belong—it’s not fair if some people do the work and pay for it and others don’t.

Last week you said that you would repeal Steven Joyce’s changes to University Council size, despite the fact that it’s been supported by many Vice-Chancellors. Why?

We think that, as well as effective governance, there’s an important role for representation. I’m advised that this is not new; this is the position the Labour caucus has held for some time. We think that it’s proper that there’s a student voice on university councils, and a staff voice—as well as the voice of independent directors and academic administrators.

Why do you want to be Prime Minister?

It’s not about me, it’s about getting a job done for Kiwis. New Zealanders want a change of direction; they don’t want a country that’s tearing itself apart. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is getting wider and wider. A lot of them are getting sick and tired of an economy that’s stuck in first gear, and they want less unemployment and better jobs and better opportunities for young people. They want to believe that we’re a country that means something positive, and that we’re going to look after our environment and we’re going to thrive and flourish—and I just don’t think they’re seeing that under the current government. I think it’s lacking of imagination, short of ideas, and is patently governing for the few not the many. People are sick of it, they want to change. My job is to give them the opportunity to get a change by ensuring that our team works together to be a credible government-in-waiting, and create policies that will deliver a better result.


What We Really Want to Know…


If you could go back and give your Scarfie self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Enjoy the moment, probably.

Is that the equivalent of today’s YOLO?

YOLO, what’s YOLO?

What?! Errr… It stands for You Only Live Once.

[Laughs] Oh, I like that. Yeah, you only live once. Of course I wish I knew then what I know now. I had a lot of fun; I played sport, had good friends. I worked pretty hard, played reasonably hard. I enjoyed the university life as well as the study, so no regrets about that.

Were you involved with the Otago University Students’ Association?

No, not formally. I wasn’t big into student politics, I was more into sports and academics and my friends. I wasn’t a student politician.

Should the Kiwis take Sonny Bill Williams back?

Yeah, if he behaves himself.

How do you feel about One Direction?

Not my gig.

Would you consider bringing your beard back?

Hmmm…. No, it might cause a revolution.

Which superpower would you have?

I’d stay on good terms with both.

What is your favourite Beyoncé song?

Hmmmm… I’m not a big Beyoncé fan.

Travesty! Is that official Labour policy?


Thank God. What’s your favourite song on the Top40 right now?

The last one I listened to was Lorde’s ‘Royals’, but my kids have been getting me to listen to Imagine Dragon’s ‘Demons’, which I like.

Are you aware of the ‘Cats That Look Like David Cunliffe’ blog?

I am.

Why do so many cats look like you?

I think people have trawled the internet to find lots of cat photos that do, and it’s pretty funny.

So it’s misrepresentative of the wider cat population?

Yeah I think it’s unfair to cats.

Who will you be voting for in Bird of the Year?

There’s a hot debate going on within our caucus about Bird of the Year. I think the kea is much maligned, so currently the kea’s got my vote.

Will collective responsibility apply to the Bird of the Year vote?

No, it’s a free conscience vote.

I hear that you have chickens at your house, should I get them at my flat?

We’ve got chooks—they’re really good at turning food scraps into eggs.

Do you think Parliament should get chooks as well?

Hmmm… chook house on the back lawn? No, there’s probably enough muck in Parliament as is.

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Molly McCarthy and Stella Blake-Kelly are Salient Co-Editors for 2013, AKA Salient Babes.

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