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Agenda: Kathryn Ryan IVs Margaret Wilson


Attorney General.

This is ©Front Page Ltd but may be used for publication provided acknowledgement is made to “Agenda” and TVOne. N.B. This is a rush transcript and may contain errors and omissions. For complete accuracy the transcript should be checked against a tape of the programme.

Interviewed by Kathryn Ryan, Political Editor for Radio New Zealand

KATHRYN Margaret Wilson can I ask you what's your view of that excerpt, how reluctant was David Lange to ban the American ships?

MARGARET Well I think from my point of view at the time I was President of the Labour Party and we knew there were differences of opinion within the parliamentary party on the issue, the party was quite clear, I'd conveyed that to David, it seemed to me he perfectly understood the party's position and the real difference I think was over nuclear powered as opposed to nuclear weaponed.

KATHRYN On the issue of the Buchanan though, the officials there, Gerald Hensley are clearly suggesting that David Lange wanted time but he wanted to find a way out of this.

MARGARET I don’t know that for a fact but it seems to me a perfectly credible for David to take, he knew that there were opposing views and certainly I suspect he was trying to find a way through them, I know the party probably at the time had made its view clear so it made a compromise quite difficult.

KATHRYN It seems exceptional that this pivotal decision was made while David Lange as Prime Minister was away in the Tokelaus and his Acting Prime Minister had no idea about the whole matter, can you confirm your role that you gave that advice to Geoffrey Palmer.

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MARGARET Oh yes Geoffrey Palmer was the Acting Prime Minister at the time, once the ship arrived and decisions had to be made I clearly remember there was an executive meeting, I didn’t make the decision by myself by the way, we had a policy, we had an executive meeting, Geoffrey Palmer came to part of that meeting as I recall for this item, we clearly conveyed the view and we said we oppose both nuclear weaponed and nuclear powered ships.

KATHRYN This is extraordinary though, because this seems to me to be a decision for the executive, for the Prime Minister of New Zealand and not to be made by the party.

MARGARET Well the party was merely giving advice and the executive could have made the decision. My own personal view was having done numbers and that was my job to do is I rather doubt that it would have got through the caucus in which case then I think there was a majority in the caucus to ban nuclear powered and weaponed ships as well, so the executive would have found itself in a very difficult position.

KATHRYN So in the end the outcome would have been the same by your assessment?

MARGARET I think so, and also what seemed to me at the time was that some people felt the economic programme was more important than the foreign policy programme and therefore if you were going to do a trade or a compromise then this was the issue to do it on.

KATHRYN On the flip side of that when you look at it from perhaps you’re perspective and from your strong support of unions and of workers you are basically telling us now that there was a compromise accepted, that in order to keep the nuclear free policy in place there would be a concession on the economic programme.

MARGARET Well it was never as simple as that that you didn’t do the trade in the room and you did it like that at all, but it seemed to me that certainly the government at the time didn’t want its party walking away from it, and I didn’t want the party walking away from it either, I think nobody wins in that, but at the same time you occasionally reach those decisions where you cannot find the compromise, they're not often actually in politics, normally you can, sometimes you can't, this was one of them.

KATHRYN If there was a trade off here though, if there was an acceptance of the reform agenda providing the nuclear policy was left in place do you in retrospect think that that might have disadvantaged your average working class Labour supporter.

MARGARET Well the party certainly didn’t make that trade off, I can assure you no one said to me we'll give you this if you give us that.

KATHRYN Was it more subtle though?

MARGARET I don’t know, I mean in the sense it was a decision for the executive to make as to whether they in fact wanted to have a split at that time, now I'm surmising that this issue wasn’t important to have that split over.

KATHRYN So you’re adamant there's no way a deal was done if you like, formally or informally over the economic reform programme?

MARGARET No, no, not at all, because the party wasn’t acknowledged in any serious way by some members of the executive, it was by others.

KATHRYN You grew up politically with a circle of long serving and now very senior Labour politicians, Helen Clark, Phil Goff among them, how would you sum up what that crop of Labour politicians wanted to achieve back in the 70s say when you were at university together?

MARGARET Well I suppose we were influenced by the 60s the period of change happened in other countries a little earlier than New Zealand, eventually got to us, and we were reform politicians I suppose from the outset we wanted to changer things. The whole generation did not only in politics I think but in all aspects of New Zealand life.

KATHRYN Do you think in reflection that with the Rogernomics agenda and the effect that’s had over the last 20 years now, do you think that that group of politicians sold out in the end?

MARGARET No well that was the split you see that could have come in the Labour Party and eventually did come in the Labour Party after I'd left the presidency it probably was inevitable I think that a group of us didn’t in fact. We knew there had to be economic change, there was no question about that, the argument was the nature and the form of that change, and I was concerned as Party President about the consequence of the change upon individuals and I could see that soon there would be a walking away of support from the government for that economic reform and that’s what happened.

KATHRYN Okay well let's look at this term of government then, you’re own record in the present government, particularly the Employment Relations Act, one commentator said that business views you rightly or wrongly as a dangerous zealot, is it simply an attempt by you to hang on to some of these old time Labour policies, at a time when business is heading to compete in a globalised world market?

MARGARET Hardly, I mean if I was really so wedded to the past we would have gone back to compulsory unionism and all those sorts of reforms.

KATHRYN Well some of your political opponents would argue that that’s where you’re headed.

MARGARET Well we're not I mean it's just silly and I think if you look at the facts, what I was looking for in fact, because I always said through that period that the most important issues facing us was a lack of skills and our capacity to be able to compete on a global market for the skills New Zealand needed. Now to get those skills you need an entirely different approach to how you treat each other in the workplace and therefore that’s why I was always for a relational approach that was fundamentally different from what happened in the 70s and the 80s.

KATHRYN You left the Labour portfolio after introducing the 2004 ERA amendment legislation, the Prime Minister says you asked to leave the portfolio, many people believe it was taken off you, which was it?

MARGARET Oh no I asked for this reason, it was quite simple to me that I had become the issue and what was more important was completing the policy, it would be completed a lot earlier and a lot better if I personally wasn’t there, so I stepped down.

KATHRYN So your political opponents won, your political opponents in business won?

MARGARET Well they may have in terms of me but the policy's still there, that’s the point I'm making, it doesn’t matter who's there as long as the policy is in fact implemented. The policy was implemented, I'd done most of the work at that stage and I think that was acknowledged, it merely had to be completed but we needed to complete it quickly, so I guess being brought up in that political tradition that says it doesn’t matter who do it as long as it's done my role in fact have been completed at that point.

KATHRYN How much opposition from within your own caucus did you face on that reform the second piece of the ERA legislation, did you make your colleagues agree to every single part of that bill.

MARGARET No it was a negotiation, life is a negotiation and that was and it to-ed and fro-ed, backwards and forwards and eventually the law emerges and what my concern was, always has been on this was to get a piece of legislation that works and I would argue that if you actually look at the record since the ERA, since the other legislation Health and Safety etc went through the record speaks for itself, so I was the issue not the policy you see, so it seemed to me it was much simpler to remove myself from the line of fire then the policy went through relatively smoothly from the opposition point of view, hardly any opposition at all after I stepped down.

KATHRYN The other major area of reform you spearheaded was the scrapping of the Privy Council as New Zealand's final court of appeal, the setting up of a Supreme Court, some see that again, some of your opponents again as part of a wider agenda towards republicanism, when do you think this country will become a republic?

MARGARET Oh whenever the people feel the need for it and I don’t think it's there at the moment to be honest with you. It wasn’t part of that agenda, I think for me it really was an access to justice issue, it was extremely important we had a court in this country people could get access to, so we could develop our own law.

KATHRYN Nonetheless when you became an MP you took an oath not to serve the Queen but the people of New Zealand, your maiden speech was very strong about independence for New Zealand. Would you pursue a more republican agenda if Helen Clark had not basically ruled it out?

MARGARET Well I think for me to pursue a republican agenda would mean you'd need a wide ranging debate and discussion on it and I suppose for some of us – it's a generational thing, you see my ancestors came out about 1840, I feel this is the only place I can stand, this is my country, I feel that when one takes on public life one takes it on in the service of the people of New Zealand not someone overseas and different, and I'm noted to be plain speaking and I think you should say what you believe, and I believe that.

KATHRYN Nonetheless you’re not going to front that as an agenda if you like.

MARGARET I don’t think you can in a way, I think these things evolve themselves and certainly the need to leave the Privy Council, the Privy Council was leaving us. So you know these things have their time and that was the time to do that. At some point in the future it'll be time to have a republic but it's not at the top of my agenda I must say.

KATHRYN What is in your sights now. You’re expected to introduce some reforms to the Treaty Claims process fairly soon, perhaps a time limit on the lodging of any more historic claims, what can you tell us about where you’re heading there?

MARGARET Well I think it is extremely important that we do get settlements on historic claims and I've been careful to ensure that in fact that is my primary and only role in the Treaty area because I think it needs that priority and precedence. Where are we heading? I think we are on track actually, I spose if I've made any contribution so far it's been able to streamline the process, put good management systems in to be more flexible maybe than we were in the past as well and to do the deal, I'm a negotiator that’s my skill.

KATHRYN Doesn’t it mean though Margaret that you are bypassing the Waitangi Tribunal increasingly, that the Crown is directly negotiating?

MARGARET No I don’t think it's as simple as that, I think that there is a role for the Tribunal in that it is important that those histories are told from the perspective of the claimants, however once that is done then that sits there, it can be done actually in conjunction with direct negotiations and that’s precisely the innovation that with the Tribunal we've been trying to introduce, so it's understanding if you like the importance of the histories the importance of direct negotiations they can work together.

KATHRYN But increasingly government is rejecting the recommendations of the Tribunal and the high profile case last year was the oil and gas claim.

MARGARET Well I think that’s on contemporary claims and I think therein lies an important distinction. On the historical claims the government looks at those very seriously, participates, tries not to delay unnecessarily and then we move to negotiations. We don’t accept everything that is said as being a breach of the Treaty and rightly so but we take them seriously. On the contemporary claims however I think that is different and that’s where you do get a greater clash I think between a government policy and the Tribunal.

KATHRYN I want to come back to the contemporary claims but first of all can you tell us will we see a time limit on the lodging of any new historic claims, that is claims dating back before 1992?

MARGARET I would certainly like to see that and I think that what I'm doing at the moment before I take it to my colleagues in cabinet for decision is to work out first exactly how many more claims or what is the likely number of claims to be lodged. You see we're told constantly there's over a thousand claims, well when I made inquiries I found out no distinction is made between contemporary or historic claims, in fact many of the claims sitting there with a Y number have already been resolved, so I'm in the process now of getting that work done and hopefully can make a recommendation to my colleagues.

KATHRYN So time limits, looks like they're coming, will the government also make….

MARGARET This is just on the lodging of the claims, I don’t think you could put a time limit on when in fact you’re going to complete negotiations.

KATHRYN Well the government's aiming for ten to 15 years.

MARGARET We have that as our target and that’s precisely why if in fact we can continue the way we are I think that’s realistic, I think it's realistic that most of the major claims will in fact be resolved by then.

KATHRYN Let's look at the contemporary claims, they are for breaches of the Treaty after 1992, isn't it a fact that they're always going to exist if any breach of the Treaty post 1992 falls into the contemporary claims category are we ever going to get to the end of having Treaty claims?

MARGARET Well I spose in theory you could say not, I think myself that probably will happen that as the historical claims are completed, as in fact society does move into a different phase more development I think, more opportunities for Maori, the use if you like of the adversarial system will become less to assert a claim, in other words I think it's an evolutionary process, and while it might be true in theory as long as the legislation remains the same it is in practice I rather doubt that it will be to be frank.

KATHRYN Will we ever clarify some of those complicated issues. I mean what is your understanding of what tinorangatiratanga is for example?

MARGARET Well for me I spose it depends on which hat you’re wearing whether you’re wearing a legal or a political or a social hat, but for those who use the term and for whom it's important, my understanding it actually relates to sovereignty and that can vary between an assertion if you like of being the only right, for me I prefer the term autonomy I think that’s what the Treaty was about in Article 2 that what was guaranteed Maori on the matters that were stated there was in fact that they should have a self determination on those.

KATHRYN You were the Minister in June last year who announced that the government would legislate to assert Crown ownership of the seabed and foreshore, the government then completely backtracked before coming back to your idea, were you burned by that?

MARGARET No, because I think that these are really hard and difficult issues and it's my job particularly as Attorney General to state what the law is, I have a responsibility also to uphold the rule of law, I have to be able to state what my understanding is of the rule of law, I did, it's for others to accept or reject it and as it's turned out I think myself I did say at the time of course is that we must also recognise and accept Maori customary rights you have to do both.

KATHRYN Looking at Labour's attempts to sell the Treaty to the Pakeha electorate and indeed the seabed and foreshore legislation, how important is John Tamahere to that process and how much will be lost if he is forced to resign?

MARGARET Oh I think John makes a very important contribution to the whole process, but then I think it's sometimes underestimated the contribution that other members of the Maori caucus also make, and I think also many of the European Pakeha members of the caucus.

KATHRYN So is that a way of saying that if you have to get by without John you will?

MARGARET Well don’t forget I'm a former party president, you know we all have our role to play and it's an important role and we're much enhanced by people's participation within it, but at the end of the day none of us are indispensable and that’s the strength I may say of the Labour Party.

KATHRYN Might be a good time to ask you whether you will stand for Labour at the next election?

MARGARET Oh yes I've put my nomination in for both Tauranga and for the list.

KATHRYN And when will that election be?

MARGARET When the naming of the election is not for me to say but the Prime Minister will announce that whenever the time comes.

KATHRYN Margaret Wilson, thank you very much.


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