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Q+A: Espiner interviews Green Leader Metiria Turei

Sunday 4th October,, 2009

Q+A’s Guyon Espiner interviews Green Party Leader, Metiria Turei.

The interview has been transcribed below. The full length video interviews and panel discussions from this morning’s Q+A can be seen on tvnz.co.nz at,
http://tvnz.co.nz/q-and-a-news

METIRIA TUREI interviewed by GUYON ESPINER

GUYON Thank you Metiria for joining us, we appreciate that. Let's start with that poll that Paul mention, I mean it is the clearest indication that we have of the party's performance is your opinion polls, you're blow that 5% threshold, now that is not uncommon for a third party to drop below their mid term, but shouldn’t, while the tide is out on Labour, the Greens be in a real position of strength right now.

METIRIA TUREI – Green Party Co-Leader
Look we can't take one poll as meaning anything under these circumstances and we never have, the Greens have always wavered in the polls particularly between elections. We're not taking this as any serious indication of our public support. What we do know is that we are achieving a great deal, particularly with the Home Insulation Fund which we won through both Labour and again National in the last budget, we know that’s having a big impact on families, that’s why we're here.

GUYON Let's look at another thing that Paul mentioned there, I mean you’ve got the departure of Jeanette Fitzsimons and now the departure of an MP who many would argue has been your most effective MP, Sue Bradford. How hard did you fight and what did you do to keep Sue Bradford in the party?

METIRIA Well of course Sue has decided to leave because in part because of the co-leadership contest, and that’s understandable and she's right to make a decision that’s best for herself. We worked very hard to keep Sue in our caucus, both Russel and I talked with her directly and asked her to stay repeatedly, as did our party, and I know that Sue has acknowledged the messages of support that she's received from party members asking her to stay in the caucus.

GUYON What did you do Metiria to actually – did you offer any compromise, what did you actually materially do to try to keep her in the party?

METIRIA Well let's go back a bit of a step here Guyon, there was a co-leadership contest, the party chose its co-leader between Sue and I, and it's rather difficult to make a compromise in a situation like that. Sue has quite rightly been considering where she feels she is best placed to do the kinds of work that she's been doing with the Greens, and she's decided to move on and find other political opportunities. There's nothing wrong with that and we are so grateful for her work and her contribution to the Green Party and she'll continue to be a member which we really value, but she's right to make a decision for herself, there's no issue here about trying to make a compromise. Sue is doing what is best for her and that’s the right thing for her to do.

GUYON How would you describe morale in the Green Party at the moment?

METIRIA The Green Party is in very good heart, we are working very hard on our key areas around the Green new deal, protecting our environment, and honest politics which I'm sure we'll talk about soon. We've been putting up the solutions for the twin crises of climate change and the recession, and getting good public support on those solutions. The membership is growing which is always really a good sign, and we continue to have...

GUYON Okay let's talk about the recession for a second, because when you took over the party leadership you said that few people now think that the Greens are purely an environmental party, and that you wanted to promote the party's economic policy. Now what is the key thing that you think the government is missing and the Greens would like to promote in terms of economic policy to help New Zealand in these tough economic times.

METIRIA There's a range of issues where we think the government can do better. For example the billion dollars that they’ve decided to spend on building new motorways rather than investing in public transport, safer cycling and safer walking, is one major area. By investing in public transport for example, we not only build a comprehensive public transport system for all communities across the country, but we help to mitigate the impact of the importation of oil into this country, which last year was some eight billion dollars worth, we help to protect the vulnerable and low income families from the increase in cost of petrol and fuel, which is increasing over time, and so those are solutions that deal both with our climate change for example, because we know that if you build more motorways you just get more cars and therefore you get more greenhouse gas emissions, but you also save families money in petrol costs, and they need those savings, our families are suffering in this recession, so our solutions around public transport, safer cycling and walking, is one way of dealing with both the recession and climate change and protecting New Zealand's families at the same time.

GUYON Okay let's look at an economic idea that you are opposed to, and that is free trade largely. In your maiden speech in 2002 you said that, and I quote you, 'the acceptance of free trade agreements threatens our economy, our environment, our people and our sovereignty.' Do you not believe in any free trade agreements at all?

METIRIA Well our position is that you need to have systems of fair trade, that make sure that New Zealand can retain its economic sovereignty, and free trade deals tend to undermine the economic sovereignty.

GUYON All the free trade deals, I mean the free trade deal that we have with Australia for example that we've had for 20 years, has that undermined our sovereignty?

METIRIA It prevents New Zealand from being able to make the economic decisions around our manufacturing, around job retention, all of those issues that are best for New Zealand, and we want New Zealand to be a prosperous and sustainable economy, that means we have to move ... we need to be able to make those decisions for ourselves.

GUYON Does that mean all free trade agreements, for example the CER agreement that we've had with Australia since 1982, does that cover that?

METIRIA Look the key issue for us...

GUYON No, can I get a straight answer for our viewers on this question please, because it's all very well to give a speech about free trade.

METIRIA Well that’s what you wanted to talk to me about...

GUYON Yes but I'm asking you about the specifics, how far do you take that, do you not have a free trade agreement with any country at all?

METIRIA Oh no, we are not extremists like some others might be, where free trade is the only option for New Zealand which tends to be the kind of ACT National kind of extreme. We prefer a model that deals with these issues in a sensible rational way, making sure that New Zealand retains the highest level of economic sovereignty, to make the best decisions for its own people while being engaged with the global trade movement, which is very important, particularly when you're dealing with under developed countries for example who need support.

GUYON Okay with respect, let's look at one of those countries, China. Now on Thursday it was the first anniversary of our Free Trade Agreement with China, our exports have climbed 61% over that year to 3.3 billion. I mean wouldn’t we all be the poorer if we'd listened to you and not gone ahead with that agreement?

METIRIA Oh look Guyon, I mean you can make that kind of accusation and I think it's just silly, the truth is that so much of New Zealand's economy at the moment is under serious threat if you like from the fact that we're having to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars every week actually in order to just pay the interest on our current borrowing. We're having a housing bubble at the moment which is going to also impact seriously on our economy and there are other kinds of tools that we can use to deal with economic issues that are affecting New Zealand, like increasing the ability for banks for example to lend ....

GUYON Can we return to this agreement though because there are some real Green issues here in this China Free Trade Agreement and I want to talk to you about one of them, because the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise says areas like the health supplements in Manuka Honey are a great area for expansion of our exports, and in fact your own Super Fund has quite a large shareholding on Konvita New Zealand which has 18 branded stores in China and is actually doing very very well out of this China Free Trade Agreement, would you deny them that opportunity, because you opposed that agreement.

METIRIA We just need to be very careful about the settings within these agreements to make sure that New Zealand can retain its decision making power. Now this is why the Green Party opposed the Trans Tasman Therapeutic Agency because it was going to give to Australia the right to regulate those kinds of products in New Zealand, and we don’t believe that’s appropriate, New Zealand needs to be in control of the regulatory processes for those kinds of products in our own country, to benefit our own manufacturers and our own small New Zealand businesses.

GUYON Okay there's a real tension here between ethics, the economy and the environment, which I guess the Greens probably struggle with in some respects. I mean let's look at a classic case in point. Many would argue that one of the reasons that Australia is wealthier than New Zealand because they mine their mineral wealth, and to an extent we do not. Now the government is reviewing that and looking at what wealth is in our conservation land, what is wrong with that?

METIRIA The government is doing a stocktake of land that’s in Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act, and Schedule 4 land includes national parks. Now we don’t want the government, we're very fearful that the government will rip out our national parks just to find coal and petrol, so we would like to make sure that the national parks and marine reserves and wetlands for example are kept free form threats of mining. We've asked the Minister Jerry Brownlee, will you rule out national parks from your stocktake, and he has said no he will not rule them out, it's of very serious concern. The World Bank Report that he relied on to justify this supposed stocktake says that 20% of New Zealand's natural wealth is in our protected areas and only 3% in our mineral resources, it's economically ridiculous to then mine those protected areas for such a small amount of New Zealand's natural wealth.

GUYON In fact you have papers released under the Official Information Act don’t you which show that the Ministry of Economic Development is recommending including Fiordland National Park, Paparoa National Park and Kahurangi National Park, in the search for precious metals. I mean how hard are you going to fight this?

METIRIA Oh we're going to fight it all the way, and so is the New Zealand public. We have our petition out around the country at the moment, we are gathering thousands of signatures every week on that petition because New Zealanders do not want their government to be digging up national parks, marine reserves and wetlands just for coal and petrol. So we know that the Ministry of Economic Development wants to look at these national parks in particular, they are areas of particular interest to this government, but the message is being sent directly to Gerry Brownlee and the Minister of Conservation, that we will not accept it, the New Zealand public want to protect their national parks.

GUYON Okay in the last section of this interview I want to talk about one of the roles that the Green Party has had in politics this year, which is the greater transparency around MPs' expenses, and I want to look at the way that you manage your own accommodation. Now you have the Green Futures super fund, your own super fund, it owns two properties it rents to three MPs in Wellington. Now they take about $48,000 a year to live in those homes owned by the Green Party, and they plough that money back into your own super fund. Now do you think that the average worker would think that that was a fair use of taxpayers' money?

METIRIA Well look there's four issues that need to be understood here. First, the super trust has been going now for 12 years, has been approved by Parliamentary Services and by the Speaker, and has been transparent. Second, MPs have to live somewhere, some MPs buy flats in Wellington and then claim housing allowance for those flats, the super fund, the super trust has been consistently seeking, asking rents that are below market value.

GUYON Well let me pick you up on that point about market value.

METIRIA Earlier this year we did – those went out of whack, between February and March of 2009 one of the houses, MPs were claiming over the market value, we fixed that valuation in June to make sure they're only being asked to pay under market value, and last week we refunded that over claim. So we made a mistake and we fixed it.

GUYON So you have refunded Parliamentary Services. So you’ve become a second party to refund. Let me talk viewers through this because they won't know about it, and let's look at this Wellington home where Jeanette Fitzsimons and Catherine Delahunty live, now it's a fairly modest house, but over a four month period from February to May this year, those two MPs paid a thousand dollars a week in rent out of taxpayers' money to live there, nearly double the market rate. Now that’s a rip-off pure and simple isn't it?

METIRIA We made a mistake, we're not happy about it, we fixed the rent in June to make sure that they were paying under market value from that point on, and we have refunded the money, I mean I agree mistakes are – you know they're not a good look...

GUYON Well let's look at this mistake though because there is a certain degree of cynicism about this. On June 1st when you took over as leader you said we're throwing open our expenses to the public, we're going to be open about this, what you didn’t tell us is that behind the scenes you were doing a market valuation on this property and you found out that you were actually charging the taxpayer double, you didn’t tell us that, then you came out and released your expenses and it's only become public because we started asking questions this week, I mean you're no better than anyone else.

METIRIA I was not aware of the market valuation at the time that we ...

GUYON Well why wasn’t a market valuation done in the first place?

METIRIA We did, we do them every year.

GUYON But this is the problem with these cosy arrangement isn't it because you are your own landlord so no one really cares what the market value, muggings the taxpayer picks up the bill.

METIRIA That is why we released our expenses before any other party did, don’t forget we did this off our own back, we released those expenses, we've got out of whack with the rent, and we've refunded.

GUYON How much?

METIRIA It's about six thousand dollars. About six thousand dollars we refunded.

GUYON To Parliamentary Services?

METIRIA To Parliamentary Services.

GUYON Where was the press release on that?

METIRIA We made sure – well that’s why I'm telling you now, on national television so you’ve got the information, and so the whole public have got the information.

GUYON But you wouldn’t have if we hadn’t started asking questions would you, that’s the thing.

METIRIA We made a mistake, we acknowledged that mistake, we fixed it, we fixed the mistake and we've refunded the money, and you're quite right to raise it, and the public quite rightly has a right to know which is why we're telling you about it today.

GUYON It was cynical though wasn’t it, because you didn’t tell people that behind the scenes you were tidying up your own arrangements before you laundered them, and made sure that they were actually legitimate before you released them, you never told us about that.

METIRIA I can understand that you want this to be kind of you know a big story and I understand why that’s the case...

GUYON No it's a question because you have been telling other MPs and other political parties that you're the moral compass of parliament, yet you’ve been ripping the taxpayer off.

METIRIA But the fact is that we made a mistake, we've fixed the mistake, and we've refunded the money, we made a mistake, we fixed the mistake and we refunded it, in 12 years that’s not too bad. The public has known about our super trust for all of that time and we've made information about it public, and so we're quite happy to be open about the process that we've done, which is we make a mistake, we fixed the mistake, and we've refunded the money.

GUYON Alright just in the final couple of minutes that we've got, I want to talk briefly about your strategy. I mean do you accept that it was a mistake, a strategic error to rule out forming a government with the National Party at the last election, because you tie yourself with Labour, they ignore you, and then you rule out National meaning a 100% failure in terms of a strategy, I mean is that smart?

METIRIA No it's not true, I mean you asked this question last time I was on Q+A, it's not true, we said that we would not support National to be government, that we would work constructively with parties where we had policy in common and that is why we have now a memorandum of understanding with National, even though we opposed them on confidence and supply, and because of that memorandum of understanding we have got our home insulation fund through in the last budget which will provide enormous benefit to families across this country who are living in dark damp cold housing and causing their children illness. So that is the kind of policy development that we are here to get, and we'll work with parties to do that.

GUYON Okay we're running out of time but final question, would you rule out being in government with National, forming a government with National should you be in a position next time?

METIRIA This is a decision that our party makes before every election and I will follow my party in the decision that they make come that time.

GUYON Alright, thanks very much for coming in and joining us Metiria Turei, we appreciate your time. Thanks a lot.

ENDS

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