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AGENDA – Mike Williams Interview

AGENDA – Mike Williams Interview

Transcript copyright Front Page Ltd and courtesy of TVNZ and Agenda

Presented by RAWDON CHRISTIE

RAWDON Labour Party President Mike Williams has been hitting the headlines this year, first because of allegations he asked Prime Minister Helen Clark for a diplomatic appointment for party donor Owen Glen and then this week for what the Prime Minister called a 'not so bright' idea of having party campaigners distribute government information pamphlets as party propaganda. Mr Glen also claimed that Mr Williams sorted out problems for another party donor which perhaps continentally saw that business receive substantial government support. Meanwhile Labour continues to lag well behind National in the polls, so is that pressure getting to Mr Williams, he's with Guyon Espiner now.

GUYON ESPINER

Well Mike Williams let's start with your core role which is raising money and getting Labour's message and its vote out. What and has the Electoral Finance Act made your job harder.

MIKE WILLIAMS – President, Labour Party

No, it's changed the emphasis in how you campaign, what you're going to see is a more old fashioned kind of campaigning, you will not be able to buy elections, the Act is about electoral finance and I think that what you'll see is more street corner meetings, hall meetings, cottage meetings, door knocking, that sort of thing.

GUYON But when we've got to the stage where an MP's diary in the case of Heather Roy is being questioned as possible electioneering material I mean the Act isn't working as it was envisaged is it?

MIKE I think it needs to shake down and I don’t think that’s been determined yet.

GUYON What do you mean by shake down?

MIKE Well I think we need some guidance from the Electoral Commission as to what's allowable and what's not and that’s happening. I mean the Chief Electoral Officer performed the service for the Exclusive Brethren in the last cycle, he told them how to spend money without it being attributable to National, I think that kind of service is required now.

GUYON Do you think that that means that the law has been poorly written that there's such confusion, there's frustration from your own members isn't there at the Congress, they were frustrated that they couldn’t hand out certain material. You’ve said yourself you’ve put a bit of a halt on spending, I mean it's surely not working as it was envisioned.

MIKE Well the law really derives from laws of other countries, particularly Canada, and those took a while to shake down, and I think that we'll get used to this here, it's just a return to the old way of campaigning.

GUYON A delegate at the Congress last weekend suggested using public information campaigns like Kiwisaver and information from government departments as an electioneering tool, why did you think that was a quote "damn good idea"?

MIKE I didn’t think that was quote a "damn good idea" and let me…

GUYON But that’s what you told them though isn't it?

MIKE No it's not what I told them and let me get this clear.

GUYON Firstly, what did you say in response when that delegate said from the floor that they should use…

MIKE Let's look at the background Guyon.

GUYON What was your response to that?

MIKE There was a seminar between 8.30 and 9.30 in the morning which I conducted. The hall was set up so I was right at the back of the stage on a lecturn almost behind the proscenial arch in the Wellington Town Hall, I've got 400 witnesses who'd tell you the first thing I said when I took the lecturn was that I could neither see nor hear them, the acoustics were terrible and the lighting was such I couldn’t even see the audience, okay. I gave my address, it lasted about 50 minutes. There was then discussion. Now what I heard the delegate say and I wasn’t hearing him clearly was that if somebody asks you for a Kiwisaver brochure the IRD's got good ones. Now according to people there I did not respond that is a good idea, I simply moved on to the next question which was the last one. So the whole thing is an incredible media beat up, it arguably never happened.

GUYON So why did Helen Clark accuse you of poor judgement then?

MIKE Well she hadn’t spoken to me. It was a surreal experience and something you'd tell your grandparents about. At five o'clock on Monday morning I went to Tauranga, I didn’t see a Herald and I got a text from Helen when I got there saying what did this person say, and I responded as I remembered it that if somebody wants a Kiwisaver brochure send them to the IRD, I certainly did not hear anybody say go down and get some, and I'm in good company because Annette King, Phil Goff never heard that either. I then went to a meeting in Tauranga which went till about three o'clock when I went on a tour of the Port of Tauranga and that turned into…

GUYON Okay well that’s all extraneous.

MIKE No hang on it's not extraneous, because at the end of the day about ten o'clock at night after dinner I turned on my phone and I've got every journalist in New Zealand ringing me up trying to get some clarification on this, I had no idea what had happened, it was like a print of a one act play where I was the star and not involved.

GUYON So does the Prime Minister accept your…?

MIKE Absolutely, I've spoken to her after the event, she did the right thing. Now look make it clear it was my session and I take absolute responsibility to anything that was said there, but I do not believe anything like that was said and I certainly did not hear anything like that said and neither did I endorse it.

GUYON Okay and don’t you personally have to be double careful about any accusation of politicising the public service because you're one of the most power people in the Labour Party and you're also on some significant public companies.

MIKE Absolutely, and the idea is a bad idea not for the reason you gave, you can't hand out government information but it's also a damn silly idea, if you're going canvassing you don’t hand out IRD pamphlets that’s just dumb, but that’s also not what I heard him say.

GUYON Okay, let's look at some of those boards that you're a director on – On Track, Genesis, Transit, to name three, quite big public companies, I mean do conflicts of interest arise with you being such a figure in the Labour Party?

MIKE I don’t think so, I think that I've been deployed mainly into Transport and Energy, I've been on Transit for eight years, there's been huge increases in expenditure on roading and I think that I've done a good job and I think most people would agree with that.

GUYON So you don’t ever declare a conflict of interest?

MIKE Well Maurice Williamson once accused me on Transit of favouring marginal electorates which is complete misunderstanding of MMP, no I don’t see any conflict.

GUYON Okay, let's talk about the main game, the election. What are Labour's chances do you think realistically of winning a fourth term?

MIKE I think they're very good.

GUYON Really?

MIKE I do.

GUYON You're miles behind in the polls.

MIKE Well we've had this discussion before Guyon, the polls are getting increasingly bad at predicting election outcomes, you saw that with your Colmar Brunton …

GUYON Your own poll Mike Williams UMR, I saw it this week, 51-36, 15 points behind, how do you pull that back?

MIKE Well again I think UMR is the subject of this problem that – let me tell you virtually all polls are conducted by landlines I don’t know one that isn't. Now I was the first person in New Zealand ever to put the electronic white pages together with the electoral roll. Okay that was in 1986 I think, and I got an 82% match in the general seats. Right, what we got in January of this year was a 50% match. What this means Guyon is that half the population is statistically invisible. Now what I trust is our canvassing data and our canvassing data shows the Labour vote about where it was last time, about 40%. Now at that point it's winnable.

GUYON Okay. You said in an interview on this show in 2004 that the major election issue in that 2005 election would be the economy, it's going to count against you this time, the economy isn't it?

MIKE Well, there's two ways you can look at that too Guyon, I think that what the Labour Party and Helen and Michael have provided is very strong leadership, I think everyone accepts that, and in times of volatility that’s quite often what people talk to, that actually you know support, and I was reading the transcript of the interview with John Key, I simply don’t think he can supply that kind of leadership and I think that’s becoming obvious.

GUYON You were a great follower and a great participant in Australian elections over many years, I mean you would have seen Kevin Rudd just about match John Howard on many of those issues similar to what John Key is doing, signing up to them, flip flopping if you like and then having a couple of major points of difference, I mean isn't that gonna be a winning strategy for National?

MIKE Well that’s called the small target strategy okay, and it can work but sometimes it can't, it didn’t work for Kim Beasley and this is a strategy devised by Michelle Boag and Murray McCully for Bill English in 2002 when National got 20% of the vote, I think there are great dangers there, and the dangers showed up in – there were three columns this week, one a Dominion Post editorial where they really sort of deride Key and the question Guyon gets asked, 'what do you actually stand for and what is the point of voting for your party?'

GUYON Alright let's talk about some of the points of voting for Labour, I mean do you think that the budget is gonna be Labour's last chance to really engage with voters before the election?

MIKE No certainly not. Obviously you announce policies during the campaign period and one thing this government's done that the Howard government didn’t do was to keep governing, we've been rolling out big policies this year and they’ve all gone down very well and many of them have sort of caught National out.

GUYON It'd go down better for you, would make your job easier wouldn’t it if there were tax cuts in people's pockets before the election?

MIKE Quite possibly, whether that’s feasible or not I don’t know, it's not my area of expertise.

GUYON We talked a lot about rejuvenation of the Labour Party and a lot of MPs who are retiring, I just wonder how much the face of the party's really gonna change, we had Andrew Little on this show last year, he basically said the party needs to return – have more ordinary working people in it, I mean are we gonna get that Labour?

MIKE We've got a very large and exciting new slate of candidates and they come from all age groups and all occupations. Yes I think – you know the challenge last year was renewal, rejuvenation, well it's not there any more we've done it, we've got new Ministers we've got new MPs in on the list and I'm really delighted with the slate of candidates we've got, I'll give you an example. This time in the last cycle I was looking for ten electorate candidates, this time I'm looking for one.

GUYON Alright, some people say that Andrew Little is lining himself up for the job of Labour Party President.

MIKE I'd welcome that in the fullness of time yes I would.

GUYON Is that going to happen?

MIKE I wouldn’t be surprised, I think he'd have good support.

GUYON Is this your last election as Labour Party President?

MIKE Ah, never say never, I make a judgement after each election, and it's a job I enjoy, it's very rewarding, it's high stress.

GUYON It sounded a little like a handover to Andrew Little.

MIKE I can't judge – look I'm elected by the Conference, I'm up for election every year, I haven’t been challenged since I was elected, it's really up to them and I'm not gonna appoint a successor because I think that would be utterly arrogant to do, it's their choice.

GUYON Okay good place to leave it, but I'm sure Rawdon and the other panellists will like to follow up on some of those issues.

RAWDON Before the break Guyon was talking with Mike Williams about how to campaign for another term of government for Labour. Fran do you think they're on the right track?

FRAN O'SULLIVAN – Columnist, New Zealand Herald

Well I think one of the points that I'd like to bring up is you were talking about the Electoral Finance Act and how it needed to shake down. I think this is enormous diversion for all the parties and what you’ve got is this sort of stranglehold going on where a lot of emphasis is being taken on pure machinery stuff instead of the real issues that should be centre stage at a very critical time in New Zealand's future, and I want to know whether in face Labour at the very highest level would support what Peter Dunne has suggested about having an all party conference getting some basic agreement and some advice on some issues around the Electoral Finance Act and kind of parking it so you can really fight in a proper way.

MIKE Well what I'd say is that if you're a Wellingtonian and you don’t get the New Zealand Herald you don’t thing the Electoral Finance Act is much of an issue at all.

FRAN Oh look I must take you up on that because Peter Dunne is saying it's an issue.

MIKE There was general agreement I mean it passed with a majority in the parliament and I do think it needs to shake down. What I'd say to you Fran is that this is what it's about, it's about the influence of big money in election campaigns and I think in New Zealand we do not want the kind of American politics transplanted here. I mean this book (The Hollow Men) really shows an outrage, it's a conspiracy to overspend and that’s what the Electoral Finance Act's all about.

RAWDON But unfortunately within that it's messy as well though isn't it, I mean it passed with a majority in the House but it's messy and it continues to be messy doesn’t it?

MIKE Well it's not messy for me, as I said to Guyon what it means for me is we go back to a more traditional method of campaigning which is people on the ground and we've got them. Our membership is up 16% in a year and we have got campaigns in every electorate this time, so it's not messy for me I have no issue with it.

RAWDON Is that because it's in your favour?

MIKE I don’t think it is in our favour, I think it's in favour of parties that can deploy people on the ground.

FRAN So I mean one way of looking at that is that you might say that Labour has in fact snookered the electoral laws and set up a system with a couple of minor allies to push the results in its favour going into a fourth term campaign. Sure the Electoral Finance Act there should have been a major all party conference on that and it should have been done by an independent commission, I mean it's so fundamental.

MIKE Well that’s like we had in the past I mean if you’ve got a long memory you'll realise Muldoon called an election under a National passed law that said you couldn’t enrol after the writs were down, in other words enrolments in that election that Muldoon actually lost cut off in 48 hours and we had to run round, parties change laws, that’s the prerogative of government is it not?

RAWDON Bernard is there far too much focus on this Electoral Finance Act?

BERNARD HICKEY – Commentator

I don’t think it matters to people who are out there worrying how they're gonna pay the bills every month, although I don’t agree with what the government's done, I'm actually interested Mike in what your polling says, your canvassers who you say you trust, what they're saying particularly in the mortgage belts of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, about increased mortgage rates, higher petrol prices, higher food prices and whether they think the government or National is better to fix those problems, which are the ones they really care about.

MIKE The sort of feedback we get is that yes people are definitely and something has to be done about that, and I think that will be at least partly addressed in the budget, but I do think there's an understanding that the government cannot legislate for food prices, cannot legislate for petrol prices, there are some things that governments cannot do.

BERNARD But it can constrain its spending growth which currently is running much faster than the rest of the economy and which the Reserve Bank Governor has said is one of the reasons he can't cut interest rates.

MIKE Well a lot of the spending growth is to alleviate the problem you defined in your first statement, that people are getting Working for Families which is a tax credit and which is government expenditure, would you do away with that. I mean what you hear is John Key repeatedly saying and he's saying this in the transcript, that you’ve gotta cut expenditure, well where?

BERNARD What about all those policy analysts and the people in the bureaucracy which has almost doubled since Labour came into power.

MIKE Well I think you're on dangerous ground there I mean this was a tack taken by the Liberal Party in the New South Wales state election they attacked policy analysts and they discovered that one of the policy analysts they were attacking was actually trying to detect paedophile activity on the internet, you need policy analysts.

BERNARD Do you need to pay them $80,000 - $100,000 a year?

MIKE Well that’s the going rate.

BERNARD And why is in Wellington if you look at house prices and retail sales, why is it growing more than twice as fast as the rest of the economy?

MIKE Well I think in Wellington has a booming economy for a whole number of reasons…

BERNARD Government spending mostly.

MIKE …it's not just government spending it's a whole lot of other things, it's a boom town but there's a lot of them like that.

FRAN Just carrying on the policy issue, I'm really interested in going into a fourth term I mean last year you came up with the Working for Families expansion and the Student Loans and they both helped to shift you know large voting segments across, you’ve got this new bunch of young voters, a couple of hundred thousand or so coming on plus half a million that you’ve talked about elsewhere as being untapped out there, what will Labour be looking at in terms of policy going forward to bring those across?

MIKE Well if I told you that I'd have to kill you.

FRAN That’s alright.

RAWDON Not on the programme hopefully.

FRAN But in terms of issues?

MIKE I do think you know you make a good point about the young voters, you’ve got nearly 200,000 people coming on the role for the first time, some of whom were nine years old when the Labour government was elected, we've gotta make the effort there, but what I would point out was that in the last election the party organisation did a systematic campaign to mobilise its own vote, particularly in the safe seats, the Labour vote went up by 97,000 votes nearly 100,000, we believe we can do that again.

RAWDON I mean you're talking about this half a million voters effectively unaccounted for in the polls particularly – now while they're getting Working for Families credits they can't afford their butter and cheese, so is it just a case that Labour's sort of facing a bit of a brick wall with this one?

MIKE No I don’t think so, I think there are certainly ways of alleviating the pressure on the household budget and they will be explored, I haven’t seen any ideas from National in this apart from cutting the numbers of civil servants and ruining their chances of winning Wellington Central, it's a nonsense.

RAWDON Mike, we've talked about campaign to get re-elected, what about the personality in the politics, how much is that gonna come into it? We're seeing a lot of it at the moment.

MIKE Yeah I think that MMP elections are becoming more and more presidential and it will end up a one on one fight between Helen and John Key and I read the transcript which your producer very thoughtfully sent me and my judgement on that is that I've known a lot of political leaders, the guy's a lightweight and I think that will become obvious, and I think he continually gets caught out, he doesn’t seem to be able to think on his feet and as of this week we know he's very thin skinned. Well I'm an expert on having a thick skin I can tell you that.

RAWDON He can be forgiven for his lack of experience though. Bernard does it concern you how much focus is gonna go on the personality, it is gonna become a presidential race?

BERNARD That’s normal really in modern politics particularly driven by television, but I don’t think it's something that people should focus on too much, they do care about who the Prime Minister is but in New Zealand they're not pushing nuclear buttons and they still have to work particularly with an MMP parliament with all the parties and I think people are becoming more sophisticated about how MMP really works, about how they can spread their votes around, what they should do tactically with their votes and in New Zealand although we think we have strong personalities in politics if you think back to the days of David Lange and Rob Muldoon and the likes I don’t think it's nearly as combative and as personality driven as it was in the past. What I'm interested though is in the latest moves apparently in the polls which have supported Labour after the decision to block the Canadian investment in the Airport, is your polling or do you think the government should block a Chinese takeover of Wellington's power network which on your current rules would suggest a sensitive and strategic asset?

MIKE Mm, I'm not across that issue at all Bernard, so I just don’t know but I think what the government did with Auckland Airport was fundamentally what the people wanted and I note in the transcript here John Key talks about a New Zealand takeover of Sydney Airport, well that’s simply impossible, Sydney Airport cannot be taken over by overseas interests, it's a strategic asset and if there's been a hole in policy it is what Fran pointed out to me earlier is the definition of strategic assets.

BERNARD And we don’t have a government list if you like of what are other strategic assets, so we have to wait and hope or guess at what the government's view on this is, this is the danger of politically driven decisions on foreign investment isn't it?

MIKE I'd agree with you, I think we probably do need a list and I think that’s an oversight, but Helen said you know we're not perfect and these things don’t arise very often, I mean we haven’t had major strategic assets that I'm aware of the people trying to take them over before.

BERNARD Well now we have Chinese government run electricity company making a bid for Wellington's power network, surely that if anything would – this is the network which runs government and which means whether or not you know the centre of the country is running, isn't that a strategic asset that you should block the Chinese from buying?

MIKE I simply won't comment on that, but I would say that there's a robust process that this goes through and it ends up with a political decision and to my mind that’s exactly where it should end up, with the elected people.

FRAN I just wanted to make one quick comment, it was raised in the last segment by Guyon that potentially around tax cuts ahead of the election and I'm wondering it seemed to me that there would inevitably have to be a government advertising campaign around that if it was to happen, how would Labour surf that, it would seem that that would be actually quite advantageous in a constrained funding environment?

MIKE Well I think this government has been very constrained in its use of government advertising I mean if you go to New South Wales in advance of an election you'll see wall to wall government advertising you know we've got advertised for nurses doctors and that sort of thing, I can't anticipate that but obviously you’ve gotta tell people about what's going on.

RAWDON Great, Mike thanks very much for joining us today I'm sure we'll hear plenty from you during the year.

ENDS


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