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Lisa Owen interviews Grant Robertson

Lisa Owen interviews Labour's finance spokesman Grant Robertson

Robertson says Labour will “definitely” look at changing the beneficiaries work obligation back to when their child turns five.

Says “I’ve got really big personal concerns” about the requirement to return to work when the child turns three.

Robertson says means testing superannuation not part of Labour’s policy review after Andrew Little’s backtrack on the issue

“Means testing is not Labour’s policy….It’s not part of our review. It’s not our policy.”

Says Labour backs universal NZ Super but there are questions about fairness.

“We've now got to look at the whole system and say, 'How do we make it fair and sustainable?' But I understand that people who have paid into it for their lives feel that this is their entitlement and that's where we are at the moment.”

Confirms Labour will reinstate the KiwiSaver kickstart payment of $1000

Promises to Labour will lift benefit levels in some form if it becomes Government.

Says he didn’t think Little’s transgender Budget joke was funny

Lisa Owen: Labour’s finance spokesman, Grant Robertson, is with me now. Good morning.
Grant Robertson: Good morning.
Has National put you in a corner?
Oh no. I don’t think so. I mean, just making it a little bit easier for some people to live in poverty isn’t the same thing as having a plan for lifting them out of poverty. You know, great, Bill English has woken up from a seven-year slumber and said, ‘We might do something about housing, we might do something about child poverty’. That isn’t the same thing as actually having a plan for New Zealand to create the prosperity and the wealth that will mean those people don’t have to be on benefits.
Okay, well, in that interview there with Bill English, we saw three U-turns. One on tax on capital gains, an airport tax and raising benefits, which they said they wouldn’t do. So is this a government of broken promises?
Oh, the whole Budget is a broken-promise Budget. I mean, this was the Budget that was to deliver New Zealand a surplus. Bill English and John Key went all around New Zealand before the last election saying, ‘The thing that will decide whether we’re good economic managers or not is whether or not we make it into surplus.’ That promise was broken. The no new taxes—there’s actually a third one, too, the telecommunications levy that was passed through Parliament the other night as well, that gets passed on to consumers too. What’s the point of politicians going out and saying, ‘This is what we want to do for New Zealand’ and then coming along and just breaking their word? It might look like clever politics, but I actually think it demeans and undermines the whole process.
Okay, well, while we’re talking about U-turns, then, on Friday, your leader was talking about means testing super. Five hours later, he backed right away from it. What was going on? Did he have a bit of a brain fade?
No, he was asked a question at an election—post-Budget breakfast. He was asked a question about fairness in the system. He answered that question. We are reviewing out superannuation policy. Means testing’s not part of that review, but New Zealanders do need to have an honest conversation about a superannuation bill of $30 billion in 2013—
But hang on, Mr Robertson. He was very specific. He said, and I’m quoting him here, ‘There is something we need to deal with. We’re going to have a look at it. I think we need to look at that in terms of fairness. I don’t think we can avoid looking when you look at the driving cost of superannuation.’ He was very specific. We need to look at it.
We do need to look at that overall cost, and we need to make sure—
No means testing? No means testing, Mr Robertson?
No, no, he was talking about the issue of fairness, and we want a fair system.
Means testing. He was talking about people collecting a wage and collecting super. He was talking about means testing.
He was being asked a question about fairness, and we want a fair and sustainable system. But it will be a universal system. Look, right now in Parliament, at this very moment, there’s a debate going on about cutting the incentives to join KiwiSaver. We’ve got a government that will not be paying down any debt until 2019, and the consequence of that – no money for the Super Fund, either. If we want sustainable, fair superannuation in New Zealand, we need KiwiSaver to be the best scheme it can be, and we need money going into the Super Fund. We’re not seeing that. We do need to have a conversation about this.
So is means testing part of your review or not? You say you’re reviewing it.
No.
It’s absolutely not. So, then, why did Andrew Little say that? Who told him to zip it after he’d said that?
No, he was asked a question. In a post-Budget breakfast, you get asked a lot of questions, and there are questions about fairness within superannuation. We’ve got to be fair to future generations, which is why Labour brought in KiwiSaver, which is why we brought in the Super Fund. The National Government’s got to answer: how is going to make sure that superannuation is fair and sustainable in the future? They don’t even want to have that conversation. John Key said he didn’t even want to talk about it for seven years. That’s not good enough.
Okay, so, never, never, never going to introduce means testing in Labour? Never?
Means testing is not Labour’s policy.
Never? You’re never going to introduce—
It’s not part of our review. It’s not our policy.
So do you think it's fair that someone can still be earning a big salary and get super?
Look, the thing about superannuation is that it's a universal—
No, I'm asking if you think it's fair.
No, I'm answering the question. The thing about superannuation in New Zealand is that it's a universal entitlement. People will pay their taxes over their life, and some of them will carry on working after 65. We've now got to look at the whole system and say, 'How do we make it fair and sustainable?' But I understand that people who have paid into it for their lives feel that this is their entitlement and that's where we are at the moment.
OK, well, so you also have said that you're going to reintroduce the KiwiSaver kick-start of 1000 bucks. You will definitely do that?
Again, that's our policy. We believe that it's vitally important that young people, people from low income backgrounds can still get in to KiwiSaver. The reason KiwiSaver has been such a success is partly because there's an incentive to join. We've helped change New Zealand's saving culture. I want us to keep doing that. Coming along now and saying, as National is doing, 'Oh, we're going to get rid of that and try and save ourselves some money so that we can make the books balance,' isn't good enough. We need to keep KiwiSaver as a scheme that all New Zealanders will be part of.
OK, so the work obligation — having to go back to work when your youngest child is 3. Will you raise that back up to 5 years if you're in power?
Oh, that's definitely something we will look at. I've got really big personal concerns about that. There aren't jobs at the moment for people to go to.
So will you commit to doing that?
We'll have a look at that as part of our overall policy, but I can tell you today, I am very concerned about the idea that we are saying to young parents out there, 'If your child's 3, we want you to work 20 hours.' Can we guarantee that? Is there enough money for child care? Can people get the transport costs that they need to get to those jobs? And where are those jobs? We've got 146,000 people out of work at the moment. There's no plan in this Budget for how that's going to be addressed. Instead we've got a punitive measure like this.
We're running out of time, and I just want to get through a few things with you. So that National has started to raise benefits; in the words of your leader, can you look me in the eyes now and promise me that you will carry on raising them in the future if you're in power?
We went to the last election with a promise for $60 a week for children up to the age of 3, because we recognise the importance of that.
So it's a promise. You will keep raising benefits if you're back in?
John Key and Bill English have finally woken up from their slumber. We want to see incomes raised generally, but what I really want is that—
No, is that— So it's a promise, Mr Robertson?
Of course— Labour has always supported the most vulnerable in our communities, but what I really want is to be able to implement a plan that lifts those people off benefits, gets them into jobs and lifts welfare across New Zealand, and that wasn't in this budget this week.
Okay, Andrew Little this week also made a joke about the Budget, likening it to a fiscal agenda reassignment or something. 'Who knows what it is,' he said. Did you find that funny?
No, I didn't, and Andrew's acknowledged that that was an unfortunate comment. He was in the middle of a budget speech. There's a lot of things that happen in the heat of the moment. What we do know about the National Party is that this budget was a fiscal failure—
Did you tell him you didn't find it funny; that you thought he misspoken?
He acknowledged it well before I had any opportunity to speak to him about it, but what we did know from that budget was that it was a fiscal failure.
Mr Robertson, that's a shocking few days for Labour then. He makes a flip comment in the House, and he comes out saying that you're looking at means testing; that looks sloppy, doesn't it? Isn't it a worry for you that it looks like Labour is making the same sloppy mistakes it's made before?
No, I completely reject that. What we've had this week is a budget that has completely failed to deliver a plan to generate wealth, to generate opportunities. If I'm a young New Zealander with the world at my feet, looking at the budget that has come out this week, what are the options there? Where's the investment in jobs? Where's the investment in an export-led economy? Why should people live in the regions? Where's the boost for the regions to diversify away from our reliance on dairy, away towards some kind of new economy where there are jobs in ICT, where we add value to the primary sector. There was none of that in this budget, and that gives a lot of room for the Labour Party to be able to put our plan forward, which is actually about driving those opportunities.
All right, thanks for joining me, Grant Robertson.

Transcript by Able

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