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The Nation: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd interviews Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Simon Shepherd: This week's reshuffle comes as the Prime Minister passes the halfway mark in her first term. She came to power promising transformation, and 100,000 houses. I asked her whether she's achieved as much as she thought she would have by now.

Jacinda Ardern: And I think when we reflect back in the context in which we were elected... You know, we were talking during the election about some really significant issues – everything from trying to make our rivers swimmable again to the need for investment in our hospitals that were mouldy, school buildings that needed to be built, and even, of course, the housing crisis. None of these were issues that could be solved in three years. They were 30-year problems.

So those are the areas where you believe that you haven’t got to where you want to go?

No. I think probably what I’m– The context I’m trying to provide there is actually none of those things were ever going to be solved in a three-year term, and nor would we have expected them to. However, in terms of the progress we’re making, an area where we would’ve liked to have seen a bit more pace would’ve been with the KiwiBuild programme. But keeping in mind, of course, that’s only one element of what we’ve been trying to do in housing. We’ve increased the number of public housing places. State houses ¬– we’ve quadrupled the building there. We’ve invested in a homelessness programme we’re now rolling out through the country. So KiwiBuild, however, is just one part of a much bigger plan.

But you are disappointed in the pace of KiwiBuild; otherwise, you wouldn’t have fired Phil Twyford from being housing minister.

Well, that’s obviously not quite how I would frame it. We have to acknowledge the housing crisis was an issue too big for one minister to solve. And I have credited Phil Twyford for the fact that we have quadrupled those state housing numbers, that we’ve seen 2000 public housing places and that plan around chronic homelessness throughout the country. But it is true; KiwiBuild hasn’t met his expectation, or ours, but we are not giving up.

So are you committing to trying to build affordable housing, like KiwiBuild is about? You are?

Yes, we are, and that’s an area that, actually, no government has attempted to do that before. And so there was no template for what we were doing around disrupting the affordable housing market, or the lack thereof.

But it hasn’t worked, so does that mean that you’re going to have to change the model? What is the one instruction that you’ve given to the new housing minister, Megan Woods?

Well, we’ve been looking at the entire KiwiBuild programme for a little while now. A bit of work’s been done on the reset. We’ve now handed that over to the new minister so she can bring a fresh pair of eyes. And, of course, we’ve got a team now of senior ministers – Kris Faafoi, Phil Twyford’s still there, bringing the experience that he has, and Megan Woods. And I’m going to give her a bit more time to look at that – not too much more.

But the reset was promised in January.

And the housing build programme hasn’t stopped. So it’s not as if everything paused while we did this work.

No, but it’s six months down the track.

But the buildings continued, and we’ve been looking at the policy settings of KiwiBuild to say, ‘What actually will help us pick up that pace and deliver what we intend?’

Okay, well, one of those policy settings that the Greens want, and you’ve agreed to, is rent-to-own or shared equity. Is that going to be in this reset?

That was actually one of the things that we said when we set up our government, when we were talking with our support partners, that we thought that was something worth looking into. But I’m going to wait for announcements till the reset is announced. We even said at the budget time that, actually, the things we wanted to invest in there, we were going to hold over for the reset.

Is there not just one specific detail that you can give us about this long-awaited reset?

You’re not the first person to have asked me about it,…

I’m still going to ask you, though.

…and I’ve given the same answer ¬– that the building programme continues. As I say, nothing has been held up there, but we are still working on making sure that we get those settings right. There have been a number of issues we’ve been identifying, and part that, actually, we’ve been trying to really put a product out there for first-home buyers. It’s a very particular market.

And they haven’t been buying them, though. I mean, there’s a lot of KiwiBuild homes that are still on the market.

But that is not to say that there isn’t still that need with first-home buyers. I think a lot of them struggle, though, with things like the deposit. So these are all settings that we’re, of course, thinking about as we work on this reset.

All right. KiwiBuild is probably a word that you probably don’t want to use much anymore, because it’s been a bit of a flop.

Look, no, I have no problem talking about KiwiBuild.

All right. Well, let’s talk about another word that you used a lot when you came in – transformational. I counted it a lot in your Speech from the Throne. So, do you think you’ve been less transformational than you thought you could’ve been, coming in?

No. You know what, I’ve always held the view, though, that if you genuinely want to transform the way that you do things or the direction of the country, if you don’t bring people with you, then the moment that cycle ends or your term in office ends, it will all be undone. Transformation means making it stick, and it only sticks if you bring as many people with you as possible.

Is it slower than you hoped?

There are some areas where, of course, the wheels of government take a little longer. But, no, I’m still definitely on the path that I’d hoped this government would be. Take an example – I’m particularly passionate about child poverty. We set ourselves goals to halve child poverty, and we’re on track to do that. With the two budgets we’ve had, already estimated that 50,000 to 74,000 children will be lifted out of poverty from just those two budgets’ worth of investment. That’s the kind of transformation I want to see.

You talk about the wheels of government; what about the wheels of coalition? I’m talking specifically about the capital gains tax. Scrapping that, have you betrayed your Labour base?

I don’t believe so, and I’ve certainly not had that feedback from people that they take that view. Did I believe in it? Yes. Still do.

Are you personally disappointed that it’s not through?

Yeah, I was, I was. And I was open about that at the time. But MMP means, of course, that you bring together parties, and you’re required to form consensus, and this was an issue that we just couldn’t form consensus on. But I also had to acknowledge it was also an issue that Labour had campaigned on for multiple elections, and we just hadn’t been able to succeed.

So why did you go as far as you did in ruling it out while you are leader? That could be the next term. And you’re so popular at the moment, you may be able to govern by yourself. Should you have done that?

Well, look, as I said at the time, though, I wasn’t just thinking about the fact that we’d failed on this occasion. We’d also failed in 2011, 2014. Each time, we’d taken a different approach. This time, we took the approach of trying to bring in experts, bringing in some other voices to the debate. And it came a point where I just had to listen to what the people of New Zealand were saying.

So the people of New Zealand are out of step with the Labour voters and Labour supporters?

Oh, no, look, I have to acknowledge, of course, that some of the views that I might hold, of course, because I’ve said that I’ve believed in it. I still have to listen to what people are telling us as well. That will happen. But I also hear that people want us to fix those elements of the system that they believe are unfair, and that includes things like multinational taxation, and those things are things we’re addressing still.

Okay. Do you think you’ve missed a chance to leave a legacy with this reform of tax, especially capital gains tax?

My view — if I can leave office having put in place a framework that means every government takes an eye to child well-being through what we’ve done with the child poverty legislation and that future governments have a framework for making sure that we take action on climate change and that we’re on a path to meet all of our obligations — that’s legacy too.

Okay. We’ll talk about climate change in a sec, but are you angry at New Zealand First for sort of scuppering this?

No. No, look, ultimately, they’re elected by people who support certain policies, and they had held that position prior. I had hoped that time and that process we went through might’ve been able to change their position. It didn’t.

Winston was too stubborn, was he?

It’s MMP. You know? And that’s the system that’s served us well.

Okay. Let’s talk about climate change. Now, you described it as your nuclear-free moment. Yet we’ve got reports out this week that household emissions are going the wrong way — they’re up 20 per cent last X number of years. It’s higher than under the National Government. And it seems to be due to Kiwis’ love of cars. And yet your government has done nothing about electrifying the fleet so far.

That’s actually not true. There is work that has been going on.

It’s not major. There’s work that’s going on, but in terms of what you have announced.

Keeping in mind, of course, we have set ambitious goals and do have a work programme underway. Let’s look at where our biggest area of contribution, of course, to our emissions profile is, unfortunately, basically, through our food production. That makes us unique. So we’ve put in significant investment into research to try and find those solutions to bring down emissions that are generated through agriculture. We’ve set a goal of being 100 per cent renewable for our electricity generation by 2035. We’re transitioning the Crown core fleet of vehicles to EVs, but also doing—

When are you doing that?

I’d have to check on the end date that we’ve got, but we’ve already started that. We’re trying to move to hybrids and EVs at the moment. But, of course, you have to wait for your leases to come up. But also, we have been doing some work — Julie Anne Genter — on what we can do to incentivise Kiwis to pick up EVs as well.

Yeah, I know you’ve been talking about that work since the end of last year.

And we’ve had a $70 million fund to, of course, put in the infrastructure. We need recharge stations, and so we’ve been doing that as well.

But there’s nothing in the budget this time around, and James Shaw and Julie Anne Genter have been talking about this electric policy since the end of last year.

And it’s not too far away now, but I’ll leave it to the minister to announce that. But again, half of our profile is, of course, not through vehicular emissions, and I should add $14 billion is going into public transport and alternatives to using our cars to get around. That is the biggest investment you have seen from a government ever. Because it’s one thing to say we need to transition to EVs — EVs are expensive.

That’s true.

We need, for instance, families to have choice, and public transport needs to be available.

So you’re worried about hitting the poor with an EV policy.

I think we have to be realistic that an EV policy isn’t the whole answer. We need people to have options around buses and trains.

Yeah, but the productivity commission says one of the quickest hits would be electrifying the electric vehicle fleet.

But, of course, we have to keep in mind the cost of that to individual households as well. So, of course, it’s never a single option for us, and so that investment into those alternative transport options is really important too.

What would you say to the schoolchildren that organised the climate marches this year? I mean, would you say you’re doing enough?

Well, I’d say, firstly, thank you, because we need to continue to highlight why it’s so important that the government is investing in the way it is, and unless we keep having that continual pressure from the generations who are going to pay for it if we don’t—

So you welcome that pressure?

I absolutely do. Our programme isn’t complete yet. But keeping in mind the goals that we’ve set, some countries haven’t even committed to 1.5 degrees, which is what we have, and also, Simon, keep in mind — we, at the moment, have parties across the House supporting it, but that’s not guaranteed.

No.

Now, I don’t want what we do to be undone. Climate change cannot be on a three-year cycle. We’ve got to make it stick.

You’ve just told us earlier in the interview that there are lots of work to be done.

Yeah.

And that you’re not happy with the way that some things are panning out, like KiwiBuild.

Oh, no one would claim perfection, I think, in government.

Okay. So I’ve got a question for you — should you be spending so much time on the world stage when things at home aren’t done to your satisfaction?

I think my question would be where would you say that I’ve done that? Most of the events that I attend are ones where there’s an expectation that New Zealand is represented at, so— things that all leaders represent us at — APEC, the UN General Assembly Leaders week.

Davos — do you need to go to Davos?

Oh, Davos, I don’t intend to go to any time in the near future. That was in January, at the end of the summer period.

And you were there to sell the Wellbeing Budget, basically, weren’t you?

Oh, at the same time, keeping in mind I also was in the UK. It was a chance for us— We announced at that time some of the transitional arrangements that will help make it easier for our exporters through the period of Brexit or otherwise. So using that time wisely, I also met with as many of my counterparts as I could within the EU, because we’re negotiating our free-trade agreement. That is going to be the most valuable FTA to our exporters. I’m very careful when I consider the time I spend outside of New Zealand, because I’m very mindful it needs to be for the benefit of New Zealanders.

What would you say to critics who believe that it looks like you’re auditioning for a future job, maybe, on the world stage?

I’m not interested in a job outside of just being the prime minister of New Zealand. It’s a privilege to do it. And again, if Davos is your example, I would say even then, that particular event, I put in as much as I could for our exporters in particular, because that’s my job and that’s where my focus is.

So you’re committing to being— You’re running as Labour leader at the next election and hopefully being prime minister.

Yes. Yes. Absolutely.

Okay. So, I wanted to hone in on Oranga Tamariki. So, Melanie Reid from Newsroom had an investigation into Oranga Tamariki’s attempt to take a newborn baby off its teenage mother. Did you see that? And what did you think of that kind of practice?

I did not see that specific removal, but I’ve seen similar stories before. I was the spokesperson for children…

So you didn’t actually see that particular—?

Not that particular rem— The actual footage of the removal, no, but I have seen other incidents like that in the past. I’ve been the spokesperson for children for Labour for a number of years, and this has been an issue that has been debated for a number of years.

Should you have watched that? Because that’s been in the headlines for the last couple of weeks.

I know. I certainly know the circumstances. I know the case; I know the issues around it; and I know the theme that’s being raised here. The issue that we have with child protection issues — there are two. One is, of course, that no one wants children to be raised outside of their families. It’s heartbreaking for the families and for the wider community. But also, no one wants the child abuse rates that we have in New Zealand either. Now, the State is always the parent of last resort, and it is not the best option. We need a system that prevents the State becoming the parent, and we are trying to turn that ship around. For instance, the 1st of July — a whole new set of standards of care are coming in for Oranga Tamariki. We have an opportunity there. What I would like to see is us doing much more work and better work with the likes of Ngati Kahungunu to prevent children being uplifted in the first place, and that, I hope, will be the outcome of this particular case.

Okay. Are you concerned that we’re creating New Zealand’s version of a stolen generation?

Well, look, I’ve certainly heard that language used. I’ve heard that issue raised, and I think it is fair to say that we do have a disproportionate number of Maori in care. The numbers speak for themselves. The challenge for us is — what can we do to turn that around?

Some Maori leaders are saying, ‘The model has not worked. No matter what you call it — CYFS, Oranga Tamariki — let’s abolish that and start all over again.’

Well, the one thing— And this is where I just wanted to throw in this — the opportunity here is that that message has been heard, and that’s why this huge amount of reform work has gone on, and it hasn’t actually started yet. It starts very soon, and we won’t be perfect from the first moment it begins. However, there are already opportunities within that for partnerships, for instance, with the likes of Tainui, where they have had hundreds of children who haven’t been taken into care because of that partnership. We need more of that, and this is our chance to do that.

Okay, let’s talk about beneficiaries. Now, the Welfare Advisory Group delivered its report pre-budget — three out of 42 recommendations have been adopted by the government, and it’s major one, which is increasing core benefit levels by up to 47 per cent— that’s a no-go.

Actually, a significant number of them are being progressed. The ones that we’ve funded within the budget, of course, have been making sure we have additional caseworkers, abatement is one of the recommendations they made, the removal of the sanction around—

70A sanction, yes.

Yes, that’s correct. And then, of course, we’ve also indexed benefits to wage increases, and so that is, the Children’s Commission has said themselves, one of the biggest things you could do for child poverty.

Okay, but the report said it needed, like, billions — up to five billion — and you’ve thrown nowhere near that money at it.

Well, actually, I will give a moment of pause there. From the moment we came into office, the first hundred days, we put $5.5 billion into, for instance, changes to the families tax credit that goes to beneficiaries’ family; we entered the energy payment, which goes to families on benefits; we’ve, of course, put in indexation and the sanctions — that was hundreds of millions in the last budget. So when you take all of that, that is billions of dollars already. And all of that is the reason that we’re now able to keep track of our child poverty measures, because they’ve predominantly benefited those who have been on low and fixed incomes.

So, have you done enough there? Does that mean there will not be benefit raises?

There is more work to do, and we’ve acknowledged that. We’re now working through some of those additional recommendations. But the work isn’t complete. We never said it was, but we have said it will take time.

Okay. Finally, so you’re halfway through — bit over halfway through the first term. How would you rate your leadership out of 10?

Oh, no, I never answer that question.

Why not?

Because I’m not the one who has to decide whether I stay or go. Voters make their decision. And I will always be my own worst critic, and that’s probably as it should be. It means that I’ll keep driving harder.

Prime Minister, thank you very much for your time.

Thank you.

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


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