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The Nation: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

On Newshub Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
• Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will not commit to the Labour Party running with their current Government partners it the next election. "As Labour leader, my job’s always to elevate the Labour vote. For now, I’m making this coalition work. After election day, we’ll see what the voters give us."
• Jacinda Ardern cannot guarantee the $20 million promised to Whanau Ora in Labour's election manifesto. "Any party’s individual election manifestos aren’t what is at the centre of what we’re working through as a coalition. But, of course, we’re undertaking this review so we can demonstrate the value of Whanau Ora."
• Ms Ardern says policy differences between the coalition government have been "overblown" and whether she calls the government a "Labour-led coalition" or a "coalition government" is an issue of semantics.
• Jacinda Ardern says her party has "fundamental aspirations" with the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, but is working on the details "collectively" with Labour's coalition partners.

Lisa Owen: Jacinda Ardern is heading to New York today for the 73rd United Nations General Assembly where she'll speak as part of the General Debate. The trip comes after several weeks of domestic problems that saw one Minister resign and another one sacked, speculation of a power struggle with Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, and questions over tensions within the coalition government. She chalked up a win this week announcing New Zealand's refugee quota will increase to 1500 in 2020. I asked the Prime Minister if that was a well-timed piece of good news for her to take to the United Nations.

Jacinda Ardern It is fair to say that it’s something I wanted resolution around. There had been speculation around the government policy, and I wanted there to be clarity on that. Look, it certainly helps as well, in the sense that we’re able to make sure that when we’re standing up on any issue at a global level — climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament, humanitarian issues — that we’re also seen to be walking the talk. And so in that regard, I’m constantly vigilant about making sure that New Zealand’s policies demonstrate our values, both here and on the world stage.

So, the theme of the debate at the General Assembly this year is around making the United Nations relevant to all people. I’m just wondering how can that happen when you’ve got five countries with conflicting goals who hold all of the power and, some would arguably say, block any real change?

Yeah, and it is fair to say that UN reform, rightly, needs to be high on the agenda. We’ve seen a number of examples, actually for our international institutions as a whole, where there has been disruption, where there has been a sense that the rules have been undermined. Now, for countries like New Zealand, these institutions are critical, particularly when you look at our trade environment, for instance. So I will be using my opportunity on that platform to highlight the importance of these multilateral institutions — why they remain absolutely relevant, and why we have to make sure that we keep reforming them to meet the public’s expectation and citizens’ expectations.

But you can campaign and you can say those things, which we have done in the past, and zero has changed with those veto powers.

Yeah, and on the veto powers, we’ve been utterly consistent. We think that they should no longer be used. They should be gone. In our view, it makes a mockery of what the UN stands for and the way that it tries to build that general consensus around issues of international importance. There is, however, a secondary tool that the UN has debated, whether or not there should be some kind of code of conduct around the use of veto powers. And as a secondary option to getting rid of the veto altogether, we support that, and we will continue to advocate for that.

I want to move on to local politics now. The three parties that make up your government — are they equal in influence and standing in that relationship?

We represent different sizes, different numbers of votes. I, of course, am the leader of the coalition government. So we, of course, take prominence in this arrangement, but we work by consensus. So I pride myself on the fact that we have managed to achieve a huge amount, whilst having three different parties at the table.

So are you the senior partner? Is Labour the senior partner in the coalition?

Well, just by default, the fact that I’m the prime minister, yes, does give us seniority in that regard.

So why have you stopped calling it a Labour-led coalition?

These are issues of semantics. To be honest, I actually don’t think the general public cares what we call ourselves.

Yeah, but Mr Peters cares, doesn’t he? Because he’s said many times, ‘words matter’. So have you changed the way you describe the government because of his concerns?

Oh, look, we need to be honest—

…because of his concerns?

No. No. We need to be honest about the descriptors, you know? And we are a coalition government. I have, many, many times, called us the purest form of MMP government that we’ve ever had. Everybody knows we cannot pass legislation without the support of all three parties. And of course, that means that we work by consensus. For me, what we call it on a website is neither here nor there. It’s the way we work that matters.

Okay. So the way you work and the influence those other parties have, do you think it’s what the voters thought they were getting when they voted you in? Do you think it’s what they want, in terms of the influence that, in particular, New Zealand First has?

Oh, well, again, I would reject the sense that— or the sentiment that we have that dominancy. We are working through issues by consensus and, I think, getting outcomes that New Zealanders, yes, did vote for. We were able to form a majority government because voters voted for the parties who are now in office. They then told us, ‘make it work’. And that’s what we’re doing. The fact that this week, for instance, we announced an increase in the number of refugees that will be coming to New Zealand in 2020, the fact that we have implemented a significant agenda around the Families Package, around what we do in skills and trade training. You name an area, and we will have done something as a government.

So you think you’re getting a proportionate share of the gains, as compared to your other partners in this government?

Absolutely. Keeping in mind, of course, that, actually, there are areas where we just all agree on. There are issues that we all campaigned on — issues like housing, education, health investment. We all made a point of investing in those services. We’ve all made a point around the infrastructure deficit. We actually all made a point around environmental standards. And so, actually, that’s just getting on with the things that, as a matter of principle, we all supported work on.

Yeah, there is some variance in your views, though. And Mr Peters has said this week that he didn’t agree to the Employment Relations Bill in cabinet. The following day, you said, ‘Anything that goes before parliament goes through cabinet process first.’ So for clarity’s sake, did Mr Peters sign off on that employment law reform in cabinet?

This is where it gets into just process points here, so excuse me if I sound a little dull as we go. Of course, everything that goes before parliament goes through the legislative cabinet committee and is signed off. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t reforms that happen. Even for a government that was just one party, they may change, post a cabinet decision, elements of a piece of legislation when it’s before the house. That’s just the prerogative of the government of the day. We are working through some issues around employment legislation and continue to do so. But as Mr Peters himself has said, that law will pass, but we are continuing to work together on the details.

But Mr Peters also refers to whether something has been approved in cabinet very frequently. He did it in relation to ‘three strikes’. He said that hasn’t been before cabinet—

And he was correct on that.

And he said that about the refugees as well.

And he was correct on that.

So that’s why it’s important. Did he rubber stamp that law—

Again—

…going forward in cabinet—

The point that I’m making is that even if we were one party, we could pass a draft piece of legislation to go into the house and still have changes made to it as we go. That is the process that we use to make sure—

Absolutely.

…that the legislation is meeting select committees’ expectations and the public.

And I understand that process—

What I will point out— Coming back though, I think the point that you’ve made is actually that on those three issues, they have been quite overblown. We’ve simply pointed out that on some of the questions we’ve been raised, we hadn’t made a final decision yet. That was the case with refugees. We’ve now made a final decision, and everyone in the public can see that we’ve landed on something that all three parties are happy with.

So simply put, did he or did he not agree to it at cabinet?

Again, the first stage—

Was that a yes?

But that doesn’t mean that we’ve finalised the final iteration—

Absolutely.

…of the legislation.

I understand that. And that’s obviously what some union leaders that have expressed some concern about when it comes to this particular bill. They’re worried that you’re going to get a watered-down version, and it will be watered down because of New Zealand First. So is Labour reform, as it’s laid out in your party manifesto, a bottom line for you?

Again, as even the Deputy Prime Minister himself has said, this bill will pass. We’re working on some details collectively. I will keep my confidence around those negotiations, as I do with all of our negotiations, but we are the Labour Party. Issues of employment legislation, of course, are critical to us. But I’d say, actually, they are to New Zealand First as well, and that’s certainly the sentiment that I’m feeling as we go through these discussions.

So it’s so critical that you’re prepared to stand your ground on it, in order to get what you laid out in your manifesto? Is it a bottom line?

We have some fundamental aspirations with this legislation. It’s why we proposed them. But as you’ll see from the very beginning, when we stood up and said, ‘Actually, we’ve reached agreement with New Zealand First around the way that 90 days will apply’, we work collaboratively to try and make sure we get the best outcome for us as a government, but also for the people we represent, including workers.

So, basically, you’re saying, you’d like to get it as it stands in your manifesto, but you have to negotiate—

No. No.

…that so you can’t be sure—

No.

…if you’re going to.

No. What I’m saying is you will have to wait.

Well, is it a bottom line, then?

You will have to wait. What is a bottom line is that we absolutely have an expectation that we will bring balance back to the workplace — that’s what that legislation does.

But as you said, you’re a Labour Party—

Yes.

…so if you can’t express that it is a bottom line on labour law, people are going to think—

And the public will see the emphasis on the labour law when that law passes, as the Deputy Prime Minister has said it will. And there are incredibly important provisions there that, yes, will pass. We’re working on some detail. And when it’s finalised, we’ll be making it public. And the public will see that we continue to put emphasis on rebalancing relationships in the workplace.

So you mentioned that you think some of the chatter around the coalition has been, well, overblown.

Yes.

But, clearly, you were blindsided by New Zealand First’s approach to the three strikes, the refugee quota, the Crown-Maori liaison—

No.

…and employment relations. So did you know he was going to say all those things before he said them?

No, I actually refute that I was blindsided by that.

So did you have prior knowledge?

For instance— Let’s use an example. On refugees — the question was asked of the Deputy Prime Minister around government policy. And the point he made was that it hadn’t gone through cabinet. He was absolutely right — it hadn’t gone through cabinet. It now has, and we have an agreement to bring 1500 refugees into New Zealand.

So none of those things that New Zealand First has stood its ground on came as a surprise to you? Three strikes didn’t come as a surprise to you?

No. Everything— As we’ve said, we use a process—

Right.

…and daily on issues, actually, that are legislative issues,—

So why did you—

…issues that are relating to spending. As I’ve said, we cannot pass things without forming consensus. From time to time, questions have been asked before decisions have been finalised. And so the public has seen a little bit of the iterative process we go through. But that’s MMP—

So you’re talking about the Crown-Maori liaison, where you had people—

No, I’m not talking specifically. That’s MMP government. But I’m proud of how we’re making it work.

Okay. So there have been a few questions lately about who’s actually in charge of this government. So do you think there is an element of sexism involved in that?

Uh, look, I haven’t given too much thought or time of day to that debate, actually, generally, from any assumption—

So, now, I’m wondering what you think about that. Whether there is an element of sexism in the suggestion that Mr Peters is calling the shots?

Regardless of what’s driving this sentiment, I dismiss it.

Okay, well, you have said, very clearly, that government policy is set out in the Speech from the Throne, Confidence and Supply and Coalition Agreement, right? Everything else is a negotiation.

Yes. We have also added to that, of course, the priorities that we set out in the—

Recently? In your speech?

On Sunday. Around the future direction we’ll be taking.

Okay. Well, let’s look at a specific example. The speech from the throne mentions Whanau Ora and a review around that.

Yes.

But your election promise was $20 million of extra funding over four years. So the money’s not specifically mentioned. Will that funding go ahead?

And that’s a good example. You know, you could pluck anything from all three parties’ manifestos. The moment that you form a coalition government, you establish where you have agreement. And we’ve done that, I think, to an extent far greater than any former coalition government. The fact that on Sunday, we laid out an agenda that went beyond all of our coalition agreement, our confidence and supply, and said, ‘Actually, here’s where we’re going’. So, election manifesto items for any of the parties, if we want to pursue them, they have to be agreed upon.

So, Whanau Ora, you can’t guarantee that you’re going to get the extra money, then?

Whanau Ora — we’ve said that we want to demonstrate the benefits that we instinctively believe are being generated for families. The Minister for Whanau Ora, Peeni Henare, is doing a great job of leading that review, but I’m not going to predetermine any budget discussions that we’re having, Lisa.

Right. But you would fully appreciate the fact that Winston Peters has said — and this is a quote from him — ‘Whanau Ora is just a giant koha fund set up in a separatist system to appease the Maori Party’. So how do you fancy your chances of getting the $20 million across the line?

Each of these issues, we work through, through the strong relationships that we have and the processes we have. We, as a starting point—

But you can’t guarantee that money?

As a starting point, any party’s individual election manifestos aren’t what is at the centre of what we’re working through as a coalition. But, of course, we’re undertaking this review so we can demonstrate the value of Whanau Ora.

We’re almost out of time. I just want to cover two things with you. Questions have been raised about how you personally handled the Chief Technology Officer’s job and your statements around Clare Curran’s resignation. So, in your year as prime minister, have you, at any point, misled the public?

I certainly— I certainly set out to never mislead the public. Will I make mistakes? Yes. But never is that my intention.

And you haven’t misled the public in your year in the top job?

That is never my intention. I’m not going to say that I’m not fallible and make the odd mistake, but I never set out to mislead.

So during the course of this conversation, you have described a coalition which you obviously feel is working really well. If you’re happy with the way it’s going, would you commit to a second term as the arrangement is now?

Yeah. We work with whatever the public gives us. And as I’ve said, the public—

But you’d be happy to do it over again with the parties as they are?

I work with what the New Zealand public delivers. And the fact that we’ve made this coalition work so well, I think demonstrates my ability to lead a coalition government. But it’s ultimately always going to be up to voters what we are delivered after an election.

Do you want to commit now to running with New Zealand First at the next election?

As Labour leader, my job’s always to elevate the Labour vote. For now, I’m making this coalition work. After election day, we’ll see what the voters give us.

So no commitment to run with— alongside either party?

We are all distinct parties. And we will all run on our agendas, but we will equally be able to demonstrate at the end of this term of government that we can also work well together.

Appreciate your time today, Prime Minister.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz


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