Viewport width =
August 10, 2014 | by  | in Features |
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

Grant Robertson [Full Interview]

How do you get to work in the morning?

I mostly drive. I live up in Wilton. I drive a Toyota Caldina. I don’t think they make Caldina’s anymore. It’s like a Corolla but cooler.

How much does someone get on student loan living costs per week?

$172.50.

What do you usually have for lunch?

Lately I have been trying to lose a lot of weight so I have been eating a lot of salads. Probably sushi or salad. If someone had seen me a year ago they might have seen a bit more food on the plate.

What’s the price of petrol?

It’s a bit over $2 a litre.

What are your favourite bands? Name your three top bands.

I will do two kind of all time and one current.

The National is my sort of band of the moment. Unfortunate name.
I grew up in Dunedin so that hugely influenced my musical taste. Probably out of the Dunedin bands, The Clean and a band that no one has heard of The Double Happys.

What’s the price of a loaf of bread?

That depends because there are bread wars at the moment so you can get them for a dollar. But um on average up to four bucks for a Molenberg loaf.

How many hours a day would you say you work?

I work about 70 hours a week but that doesn’t average out to ten hours a day. So when the House is sitting I’m often working 15 hours, 16 hours. In the weekends more like 8-10.

So you don’t get much spare time at the moment?

None, well that’s not completely true. Yesterday afternoon I got four hours.

What do you do in your spare time?

Well in that particular spare time I went and had lunch with my partner at Joe’s Garage which is hilarious, the people at the table next to us were talking about Paul Foster-Bell and then we went to the movies to see What We Do In The Shadows.

What differences do you see in your times at university to university today?

I think semesterisation has seen a real lifting of the intensity of work throughout the year. That’s a big change to the intensity. The politicisation is much much lower. I mean I started in the year that up front fees were introduced. So 1989 the year before I went to Uni, it cost $125 to go to Otago University for a year. That was the students association fee. In 1990 it cost $1250. So I arrived and there were a lot of protests going on and at least for the first few years people thought we could stop it; change it. As we went through the 90s it was about keeping the issue alive. I think nowadays I guess, if Steven Joyce did what he really wanted to do and reintroduced interest on Student Loans you’d probably generate a protest out of that but overall politicisation is significantly reduced. At orientation this year, the Minister of Tertiary Education just wandered around the hub. firstly most people didn’t have a clue who he was. But secondly just the fact that he did that.

It used to be that he would have to climb out the window.

Yeah I was chasing him.

That’s not to say that students today aren’t political. But they are expressing it in different ways. And less likely maybe on those issues to be showing what they believe.

Tertiary Education

You wrote an opinion piece in Salient about all the cuts and it seems like it’s not a massive foul swoop by the government but it’s almost like a death by a thousand cuts in that they’ve made a lot of changes around the edges : adding the $40 fee on, freezing the repayment threshold, arrest at the border for defaulting on your loan repayments. So those are things that you have vocally opposed, Will those things be reversed if you win the election?

So our tertiary education policy will be announced very soon. I’m not in the position to do it. I can tell you one thing that we have said publicly that we want a complete review of loans and allowances. Because my view is that basically since this version of loans and allowances was introduced in 91, 92, there actually hasn’t been a full scale review. There has been a lot of incremental changes. We made loans interest free, he’s [Joyce] done all these things. We’ve actually got things completely out of whack. And it was interesting because when the post-graduate allowances were abolished, which I think was a terrible decision, the biggest feedback that I got was from people saying that what I am really sick of is where you know someone writes to me and says my daughter doesn’t get an allowance because my husband and I each earn $30 000 a year but down the road is a farmer whose paid an accountant to structure his affairs so that it looks like he earns nothing and his kids get allowances. And so that’s the kind of thing you’ve got to look at the system and go there is a reasonably large sum of money being spent here but I’m not actually convinced we have got the spending right. So we want to do that complete review. Having said that I think that the postgrad allowances is the worst of all of the changes and we can actually point to evidence that it’s putting people off studying so we have an announcement to make on that that I’m sure people will like.

What sort of consultation would this review be?

We want a formal review. So we will set up a working group to do that. We will have students on that. This was actually done about the funding system in 1994 by the Nats. It was called the Todd Taskforce. And that’s how we ended up with the what was then called the 75:25 split, which was, you know, they just divined that the public benefit of your tertiary education is 75% to the NZ society and 25% to you. Absolutely no science behind it whatsoever. And that was how fees were then set. Today the percentages are all over the place. But I want this review to focus really squarely on student support for students and allowances. I will tell you what I personally favour: the system that I actually had in my first year at university is the one that I think could work. which is that there is a fee that you pay but it’s reasonably modest and its discounted based on your parental circumstances and so on. But everybody gets a base allowance so in 1990 I got 80 bucks a week as a base allowance. To give you an idea of what that was my rent next year was $45. So it easily covers your rent and then there’s a bit more on top of that. and then it’s means tested on top of that. So everybody gets a base level and then if you come from a low income background you get a bit more. So you know I worked to subsidise that. My parents were middle class and then some things happened and they had no money but you know I just thought that was fairer. It meant everybody got something. It’s much easier to administer as well. That was a system that I think worked. It was fairer. I’ve got a belief about those things that one of the things that gets set up is this kind of have and have not thing at university and then you get a lot of jealousy and all of that but look that’s one idea and we would leave it to this group.

You were talking before about the public private benefit being 75:25, do you have personal view on what the public private benefit is?

Yeah I think I have two personal views on that. One is that it is impossible to know and I’m not sure what it really means anyway. The way that it has worked out is by saying you get this much income if you graduate as doctor and you are employed. Well what if you graduate as a doctor and you go and work for Doctors Without Borders and you get paid bugger all. Or what if you graduate with an MBA but you decide to work for a community organisation. I mean that’s all very hard to define. I think society benefits enormously from having an educated population and so for me education is essentially a public good and what then private benefit flows out from that I would rather see that managed directly via a progressive taxation system. So if you earn a decent amount of money well you will pay a little bit more in tax and that will balance it out. So that is my personal view about it. Having said that, it’s much easier to get toothpaste out of the tube then to put it back into the tube and that’s the situation we’ve got with tertiary ed. We have had 20 years of pouring the toothpaste out and now when we want to put something back in it’s harder. So as an incoming government we are going to be faced with you know needing to sort out housing, needing to sort out child poverty, tertiary education has to be within that mixture so you’ve got to try and work towards that goal of well it is a public good. And I know that’s how Helen felt when she was in government. Our job is to make tertiary education more affordable. We can’t deliver everything overnight. But we brought in interest free student loans and expanded the number of people that were assisted as we can afford.

National in the budget has sort of reprioritised spending towards STEM subjects and the Greens policy that they announced also puts lots of money towards those subjects . Do you think the balance between science and arts funding is about right or would Labour also sort of be looking at rebalancing it?

NZ has a shortage of particularly engineers and also research scientists. So we do want to encourage people into that. The issue that you’ve got is that in the end those subsidy rates don’t translate into massively lower fees. When it was reported out of the Budget it was that fees will be lower for these subjects. No they won’t. They are creating more places, that’s what they are doing with them but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will encourage people to study there. Yeah we probably would look at a system of scholarships and so on that would encourage people to those subjects but I went to a conference overseas earlier this year with all the Social Democratic Parties and they are talking about STEAM rather than STEM. The A is arts because the thing is you do want people who can think critically and businesses will often tell you that’s what they are after. They need people who can mix it up. We’ve always believed that there needs to be a balance and I mean its in the name. Universities are meant to cover the quantum of knowledge and I just think that while it’s important that we make sure that we are training the next generation of engineers that shouldn’t come at the expense of training the next generation of critical thinkers.

One of the concerns often raised by students is the disparity between the cost of living in different locations. Is that something that you want to look into as well?

Yeah that will definitely be part of that review. Accommodation costs has to be part of them.

Obviously more and more people are getting degrees, have you heard much about degree inflation? What’s your vibe on that?

Well it’s tough isn’t it. There’s no doubt that degree inflation has occurred. When I was leaving school about 25 years ago a Bachelors degree would be enough now postgrad is seen as really important. I think post-graduate study is very useful for the country but I think there is a serious concern that people are needing to take on a massive increase in debt burden in order to get what they think is the qualification that can get them there. Kind of goes back right to the beginning of this though which is that about 30% of school leavers go to university. And I’d like to see that increase a bit because you know I think anyone who is capable of it should be able to go but I don’t think we offer people who leave secondary school the right range of options and advice about what’s possible and whether university is actually the right place. And whether or not going and doing some kind of training at a Polytech or some kind of work training is sometimes better for people. It’s not that I don’t want people to go but it’s just that I am not convinced that you are giving people the right advice and that is then leading them to tertiary education. I had someone sitting in this office the other day a woman who has two masters degrees and has been out of work all year. She was in an arts based subject, her passion and she struggled to get work out of that and so she went back to university and got a masters degree in a much more vocationally orientated program: still can’t do it. So I am concerned about it but I don’t want to put people off study but I think we’ve just got to get a much clearer idea into peoples’ heads about what their other options are.

There are some people I know who did go to uni that probably shouldn’t and some people who didn’t go to uni that should have.

Yeah I know. But if the decision is on economics then that’s bad. So if the reason the person is going is because they can’t afford it then that’s bad. If it’s based on what they are really interested in and what they want to do then that’s starting to get you closer to where you should be. Just because you are not going to university doesn’t mean you are not training. University is not the only option.

Students have been highly critical of Uni Council Reforms. Would Labour reverse those reforms?

Yes. We would definitely reverse it. It hasn’t passed and so the option is that we don’t have to reverse it if we get into government. We will just ditch it. And we did a joint minority report in the Select Committee between Greens, Labour and New Zealand First. So we’ve all got the same position. Which is ditch it. This is a solution in search of a problem. There is actually nothing wrong with the governance of NZ universities.

We’ve been very frustrated about this. We asked Steven Joyce and John Key last week and we asked them for an example where a student council would benefit from not having a student representative. And they say well we don’t think that situation exists.

Yeah and they say well institutions can make their own mind up. The institutions don’t want this either. Nobody wants this so why are we doing it. It started because Canterbury University reduced their council down to 12. They can do that now. The law says between 12 and 20. There is nothing wrong with the law as it stands and you know when I was in University Council in Dunedin and talking to the people I was on with then they say it was great having students on the system because it was how we knew what was happening. We didn’t always agree. In fact we disagreed most of the time. But you know there was a channel of communication. So stupid, stupid, stupid idea. Apart from just the sheer principle of it, students pay a hell of a lot of money now and actually deserve to be represented on there. The staff are critical to how universities work.

Especially because his argument is that with the ministerial appointees having a greater proportional say was that the govt puts in a lot of money so they should be represented

Exactly

And with Maori representation. If you agree that it’s good to have Maori representation why not student representation.

We tried really hard to say what is the argument. It just seems to me that it is ideological. It is based on the fact that he believes that smaller boards are better boards. If you look at Steven’s own experience in the National party he reduced their governing board from whatever to 4. So he just has a belief that this is the way to do it. But universities are different. They are not the same as a small business. They are institutes of learning and there is a purpose to them that needs to be reflected in the governance. For polytechs it has been a shambles. And you know who is to say that even if an institution today says that students are going to be on. It will always be hung over the students you know. It’s just like with VSM. If you are too difficult, if you cause too much trouble well one day we are just going to put a line through them.

It seems like a very cynical change. Especially one that students are not very aware of.

I went around every campus at the start of the year as part of orientation trying to raise awareness and you are right people didn’t know. We were having to have this conversation with people on campus you know so this is the body that sets your fees. This is the organisation that decides how much you are going to pay. Do you think students should be on that? Oh shit yeah.

VSM. What do you think its effects are and would you seek to change the law?

The answer to the second question is yes. In the 1990s when VSM was proposed, one of the posters that we put up when I was NZUSA president was “Do you want the vice chancellor to choose the music for orientation?” That almost literally happened at Victoria University this year. And that the university was making calls about what was going to happen at orientation. So that’s the effect. VUWSA, with due respect to Rory and Sonya, they have done a really good job over the last few years, but you know, they are struggling. They are struggling to get recognition from Victoria University. The only university in the country that has really done right out of this is Otago. Who basically managed to structure a deal where nothing changed. And good on them for being able to negotiate that. But all other university students’ associations are struggling. Polytech ones a large number of them have disappeared. They have just gone out of existence. And I just think that diminishes the student experience. I think that makes students very vulnerable to the institutions and to what is happening in the institutions. And so the changes I am seeing are that students associations no longer have the strength of advocacy that they had. And look this is not to say that they are perfect. You know and once every five or six years someone did something silly at a students association. Hey have a look at the court news sometimes. About once every three weeks some large business does something wrong.

Once every couple of weeks some politician does something wrong.

People make mistakes. So I just think it has really diminished the experience of students and I have always likened it to local government I think a bit of a rebranding to call it student government wouldn’t be a bad idea. Because you know you don’t not pay your rates because you don’t like the books that are in the public library. You know just because you don’t like a stance that a students association might have taken doesn’t mean you walk away from it. So my view that we have committed to is we will definitely repeal the law. What we will replace it with we want to try and make it as enduring as it can be. Because basically what has happened since the late 90s is depending on who is in government it is either compulsory or voluntary. Well we want to try and find something that has a bit more stability. There are a couple of changes in the law that I thought were alright. One was basically that if there is a massive financial stuff up that the institution can come in and say actually we need to sort this out and that provides a bit more certainty that the money is not going to go West too quickly. If need be you could work on some kind of opt out provision. It kind of contradicts what I believe about the government thing but if that’s what is going to make it more stable then it is easier to opt out. A little bit iffy about that. But yeah my view is that we need to get students being part of some kind of collective.

But you will look for a more kind of non-partisan thing?

That’s the goal. And now I am not 100% sure if we can. When Heather Roy’s bill was going through, in the Select Committee we actually had the national members up for some kind of opt-out style scheme. Where you know like kiwisaver you would just tick a box saying no I don’t want to be part of it. The Nat MPs were getting there. And then it got caught up in a political deal between Act and National. So once they sat down and listened to all of the submissions and got people talking about how the associations work and what they actually do beyond the politics of what they were seeing a lot of national members were actually able to say yeah these guys are doing something really valuable here. Now most of the university ones are clinging onto the services that they provide. VUWSA really if it didn’t have the trust would have some significant issues.

The Election

Last election 58% of 18-24 year olds didn’t vote, so why should we?

Because it matters. Because the kinds of decisions we are making now are going to define the lives of 18-24 year olds. You know we need a government that can look beyond itself and its friends to the future country. So that means policies like the ones we have got like Kiwisaver and like funding tertiary education and like our Best Start policy and about not what’s going to happen tomorrow but what is going to happen over the next 20 years. And if students need a reason to vote just think that the reason you have got interest free student loans is because a political party said, “Yes we will do that,” after students campaigned on it. So it makes a real difference to their lives. Politics matters.

What do you think the odds are of you guys winning this election?

It’s a challenge. I don’t want to set odds. I once thought about a career as a bookie. It’s a challenge. There is no doubt about that. I mean everybody can see the polls. But MMP means that it is definitely still possible.

Why should students vote Labour?

So partly for the reason that I just gave you. So if you are talking about tertiary education I just ask people to look at our track record. You know we are the party that brought in interest free student loans. We massively expanded access to allowances. We brought in the Fee Maxima so the fee increases stopped being in the double digits and went down to being 4% or lower. You know we have the record for doing this. We have shown our commitment to having policies that are about expanding access to tertiary education and making peoples lives while they are students easier. That’s the direct benefit. Beyond that it is about the kind of country people want to live in. I get the sense from the time I spent talking to students from a variety of political views that they do want to live in a country where we look after each other and the environment. We have an economy that is thriving but that everybody gets a fair share from it. You’re only going to get that with a Labour led Government.

I guess more students than any other sector of society vote greens, and I guess the question is if there is a Greens Labour Government what kind of role will they play? You know, when Greens produces its tertiary education policy which says whatever free tertiary education. Is a vote for greens a vote for free tertiary education?

It’ll obviously depend on the size of each party in the coalition. But my experience with coalitions is that what you can work towards is a broad direction. So in the case of tertiary education we want it to be as accessible as possible but equally we have got an obligation to spend taxpayers money wisely and balance the budget. And you know the Labour Party is held to a certain level of standard about that which the Greens aren’t. So the Greens are allowed to promise that and everyone goes yay the Greens. We promise that what we do we have to fully cost and show how it’s going to sit in the Budget. So what you get with Labour is that we are being honest with you. We are being realistic. But the direction is important and I think if you take tertiary education for example, the Greens and Labour are on the same trajectory. So what will happen in the end will be a negotiation, if that’s what comes to pass. There will be a negotiation and we will see where we get. Some policies will be implemented fully. And others maybe won’t.

If you lose, do you have aspirations to be leader?

Well obviously my answer to that question is that I am focussed entirely on this election and I am. Obviously I did run for leader in the past and so it would be silly of me to say no I have no aspirations because I have demonstrated that I do. But David won that leadership election absolutely fair and square and I am supporting him.

How hard is it then when you see in the media like some Labour Insider has said this which is destablisiling the party? That must be quite frustrating.

Oh deeply frustrating. Especially there because I don’t believe in that instance that person was an MP. In fact I am certain they weren’t.

The media gets away with that kind of thing.

Yeah well that’s how it was written up.

Yeah everyone thought it was Trevor Mallard.

And I know that it wasn’t Trevor. And I know that it’s not an MP. I have pretty strong suspicions about who it is looking at the language and things that were used. So I don’t think it was an MP. I also want to make the point though that since David Cunliffe has been the leader that’s the only public negative utterance there has been from someone seen as an insider. So I think people have been pretty disciplined. But it is extraordinarily frustrating when something like that happens. And we all know that from a public point of view it looks like disunity and the public hate disunity.

Do you think that there is also a certain amount of media bias? When we say bias we don’t really mean long term sort of anti-Labour but sort of a hunting for a story.

Well there is a sense of blood. I mean the press gallery hunt as a pack and if they sniff weakness or blood then that’s what they will go for so yeah I think it is really easy to get hung up on bias and every political party thinks some aspect of the media is biased against them. Maybe, maybe not. You know. I just think in the end you can waste an awful lot of energy worrying about that. Clearly where you have been misrepresented or not given a fair go then you need to raise that but um yeah you can spend an awful lot of your mental energy if you let yourself.

And I guess not a lot of the election is won or lost on the media?

Umm quite a bit of it is. I mean you have to bear in mind that it’s changing. You know 7 or 8 hundred thousand people a night might watch the TV news. It’s still the greatest source of most people’s information.

Where do you stand on the televised debate stuff?

Yeah I don’t think there is anything wrong with us pushing back on that. You know people say, “What about John Campbell?” Okay so John has got pretty strong views. He has never come to a Labour Party conference and introduced the leader of the Labour Party and said things are going to be fine in New Zealand if you stay in government which is what Mike Hosking did for John Key. But having said that in the end what’s happened is what I knew would happen which is that Hosking is still hosting. TVNZ has made a series of commitments to us about how he is going to do that job and obviously we are going to hold him to that.

What is your favourite and least favourite policy of National?

The favourite is actually the stuff they have done in Treaty negotiations and particularly because my arch nemesis Chris Finlayson has actually taken them in a particular direction. It’s lowered the temperature down now to such an extent that it’s not really an issue for anyone in New Zealand and we are just getting on with righting the wrongs of the past where as it used to be, when Don Brash was running National, this was like an election issue, where as now we are just getting on and dealing with it. So the treaty negotiations stuff I think they have done a good job on. My least favourite was without a doubt the decision in 2010 to cut taxes weighted towards the most wealthy at a point when a lot of New Zealanders were struggling. It was the wealthiest people and that exacerbated inequality in New Zealand enormously. It says everything you need to know about the National party.

Do you have a favourite opposition MP?

I am saying Chris Finlayson because I enjoy teasing him. Yeah put that down. Chris Finlayson because I enjoy teasing him.

And I guess you wouldn’t want to say your least favourite?

Nah I don’t really have a least favourite. I mean look the thing about being an MP is that, and everyone says this, I was at the valedictories the other day, almost everyone who got up said one of the things that has surprised me is that you know it turns out the people on the other side of the bench are human beings. And in general they are human beings. What you realise is that while you disagree with them on the policy prescriptions and the way they see this country being run they come here with a genuine intent. They 99% are genuinely motivated. I disagree with them but they are genuinely motivated. And you know I was watching a National MP the other day with their kids at the airport and I was just thinking you know I actually said this but I won’t say who this is in case I embarrass them I said, “You’re a really good dad and I can tell that by the way you and your kids are relating to each other.” But yeah when you get in the debating chamber all bets are off.

There’s nothing else you would like to say to students?

Vote. Obviously. And you have the most fantastic thing for the first time ever, an early voting booth at campus, two weeks before. Because we do know it is conceivable that some students will wake up on the morning of the 20th of September with a force ten hangover and decide that they are not going to get out of bed. I wouldn’t know anyone who would have done that in the past. So um now you know, you have two full weeks to vote.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Pin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

About the Author ()

Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

Comments (1)

Trackback URL / Comments RSS Feed

Sites That Link to this Post

  1. Victoria rejects living wage | TEU | August 14, 2014

Recent posts

  1. An (im)possible dream: Living Wage for Vic Books
  2. Salient and VUW tussle over Official Information Act requests
  3. One Ocean
  4. Orphanage voluntourism a harmful exercise
  5. Interview with Grayson Gilmour
  6. Political Round Up
  7. A Town Like Alice — Nevil Shute
  8. Presidential Address
  9. Do You Ever Feel Like a Plastic Bag?
  10. Sport
1

Editor's Pick

In Which a Boy Leaves

: - SPONSORED - I’ve always been a fairly lucky kid. I essentially lucked out at birth, being born white, male, heterosexual, to a well off family. My life was never going to be particularly hard. And so my tale begins, with another stroke of sheer luck. After my girlfriend sugge