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On The Nation: Patrick Gower interviews Steven Joyce

On The Nation:
Patrick Gower interviews National campaign chair Steven Joyce

Patrick Gower: Now, to National’s campaign manager, Steven Joyce. Good morning, and thank you for joining us.

Steven Joyce: Good morning, Paddy. No worries.

Winston Peters said, ‘Send them a message.’ What message have you heard?

Oh, well, obviously, you know, we lost the election. And so there is a number of messages. I actually thought he campaigned pretty well. He got out in front at the start and stayed there, and we worked to try and close that gap, actually made some progress but ran out of runway. I thought Mark campaigned pretty well, but we didn’t get there in the end.

It’s a blow, though, isn’t it?

Well, it’s obviously you don’t want to lose an election ever. And certainly, we’re very competitive, and we want to represent the people of Northland, and so that is obviously disappointing. But you pick yourself up, and you work pretty hard, and you work hard to earn the respect of Northlanders in the next election.

So what went wrong here? It’s a safe National seat, safe as. The prime minister said, ‘Zero chance of Winston Peters winning.’ What went wrong?

Well, it was a pretty unique by-election in about four or five different ways. Firstly, the circumstances that led to it were, you know, very unique. The second thing is - I was trying to remember a by-election in New Zealand where you had such an experienced politician up against somebody who by definition is very new, and I don’t think we’ve had that. I don’t think we’ve ever had a senior politician like Winston Peters enter into a by-election like that. And so that was pretty unique. You had, for us, a fairly short period for which we could get Mark known in the electorate, and that proved to be just too short a period. And, of course, you’ve got a region which their view is - and I think, you know, it’s a fair enough view – that they’re frustrated in terms of whether they have made as much progress as they would like to make. And, you know, we understand that. In fact, we are as impatient for Northland as they are. But they decided that actually, they wanted to send a fairly sharp message in that regard, and we heard it.

Yeah, and it was an incredibly sharp message. Because, let’s face it – you know, you put a huge amount of resources into this. You ran the campaign, the prime minister went up there three times, you had ministers through there every day, you had the bridge bribe – you gave it the whole lot.

I don’t see that as a bribe, but, yeah, go on.

Yeah, but, yeah, we’ll come back to that. But, you know, you ran this thing. You take some personal responsibility for getting it wrong? You do?

Absolutely. I do. You’ve got to have broad shoulders, and, you know, you step up, and you try and do these things, and, you know, most times, I’ve been lucky enough that, you know, the team and I and the prime minister and I have been able to get over the line. But on this occasion not, so of course you take responsibility. I look at it, and if you go through it, you know, we had of the opposition votes swinging in behind Winston, but we also lost some of our votes. And there’s reasons for that, and we’ll need to reflect on that, and I think we’ll reflect on it in a pretty clear-headed sort of way. And in fact, last night during the function, there was already the process going on, and I thought it was pretty constructive, actually. And I think we’ll come back stronger and better for it. You know, you learn from your losses as well as your wins. And sometimes, people say, you learn more from your losses. So we’ll be, you know, very focussed on learning what needs to be learned and actually making sure that it makes us stronger and tougher in 2017.

Winston Peters says it’s a sea change, a game changer, that it’s the beginning of the end for National.

Well, I mean, you know, if you’re Winston or the Labour and the Greens, and they’re going to pitch that, of course they’re going to, over the next couple of weeks, because you would. And, you know, they’ve made that call a number of times already, you know, over the last six and a half years. I don’t think it’s that at all. I think what we have is a by-election which we’ve lost, predominantly on local issues. I think you’ll find that certainly, talking to the National voters up there, even the ones that didn’t vote for Mark, are still supportive of the party as a whole but they just feel that they need to see more happening in Northland. And, you know, we’re going to do that work for them and earn the right to represent them again. But there’s lots of things to work and we’ll be working on them.

So you’re not hearing a National message in this? You’ve heard a local message; you don’t think there is a National overarching message that people are starting to tire, that it’s third-term-itis, basically?

No, I don’t think so. But then, you’ve always got to be careful, right? So it’s not like you’d just say, ‘Oh, well, forget that’ and away you go. You know, you’ve always got to take lessons from everything. And don’t worry – we’ll be searching through all the messages that we’ve picked up and the things that we’ve learned over the period, and we’ll be applying them. So it’s not a case of being, you know, complacent and not listening, but it’s also not a case of overreacting in a way that, you know, the left obviously want us to. Because they’re looking for a sea change of their own. They haven’t got one out of this one, but Winston has certainly run a good campaign, and he’s won it.

Yeah, and last week you sat here and you said that this was not just about who people were going to vote for in Northland; it was about what they were going to vote for. And you said they would be voting for strong and stable government. By definition, then, and by your own definition, your government is less strong and less stable now, isn’t it?

Well, it’s back to where we were between 2011 and 2014. As you point out yourself, one less seat means that we’re in virtually an identical position as to we were then. And that makes some things more challenging. I mean, Winston’s been out there saying he’ll support RMA reform. I’m not convinced, but, you know, I think that we can listen to that. But even as late as this morning, the Maori Party have been saying, ‘Well, actually, we think there’s some things that we can do in that area,’ so we’ll have those conversations. But, you know, in a few key areas, we’ll have to work harder to bring the support together in Parliament, and we quite likely will not be able to, just as I said last weekend, not be able to advance the same level of RMA reform as we would have. Which is a bit ironic, because that would have been good for Northland, but, you know, that’s the way it works. You have elections, and you get a result.

And I want to come to that, because RMA is crucial to your overall programme. And as you said last week, it probably won’t go through in the way you want it to now. So what do you do? Who do you talk to? Do you talk to Peter Dunne first?

Well, look, it’ll be a case of, you know, frankly, Nick Smith will be taking the lead on that – he’s the minister for the environment – yes, he will be talking to Peter Dunne, he will be talking to the Maori Party, and he will be talking to ACT. And, you know, you shouldn’t assume necessarily that ACT would support everything that Peter Dunne would support. So we’re back to working our way through that. I think it’s important reform for New Zealand. It’s particularly important for regional New Zealand. If you talk about Northland, a very resource-based economy, and it’s those reforms are important. And maybe Winston’ll come through with his promise. Who knows?

Yeah, well, will you talk to him about that?

We always talk to him. But, you know, I mean, we’ve tried a few times in the last few years. But look, he might have mellowed. You know, he’s won a seat in Northland – we’ll just see what happens. But, you know, I think he’s serious. I’ll say this – I think he’s serious about representing the interest of people in Northland. And I think that’s a good thing. You know, he’s made a lot of commitments over the course of this campaign – many more than we have. But, you know, maybe that’s a situation where he will say, ‘Well, actually, for Northland, given that I’m now the MP for Northland, we’ve got to do something different in RMA reform than I would have previously considered.’

We’ll just pick it up, what you said there. You think he’s mellowed?

I’m being slightly cheeky, Paddy, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Yeah, but that is part of it. You will talk to him more. Do you think you can work with Winston Peters? That's the question here, really. Do you think, not just on the RMA, but on other things as well? Because his numbers can help you.

Well, they could do, but I think that the more material thing first is to work with the partners that have been with us through thick and thin. You have to respect those people absolutely first, because they have helped and been supportive of the government, so you wouldn’t sort of just run from them over to have a chat to Winston. But I think constantly the Prime Minister has shown his flexibility in terms of working with different partners over the course of six and a half years in government. I think he’s shown that.

Yeah, so he might work with Winston, but what we do know is when you’ve tried before, Winston has actually ignored you.

So we’ll just have to wait and see. As I say, we’re not holding- don’t worry, we’re not holding massive hopes about that. I think our primary partners remain United Future, of course ACT and the Maori Party. They will always be our confidence and supply partners.

Because there’s something personal there for Winston Peters, isn’t there? This was about utu in some senses. He wanted to get back at John Key for 2008. He’s wanted it a long time, and he lumps you in with that as well. ‘Winston Peters doesn’t like Steven Joyce.’

Apparently, yeah. You just have to have that conversation with Winston, not with me, because I just don’t have the time to spend time guessing other people’s motivations all the time. It was a hard-fought campaign. We had a young candidate who, frankly, I think did a very, very good job in the short time available. He was on a massive learning curve, and I cannot think of a single parliamentarian that’s had to go through what he’s going through as a candidate in terms of a learning curve. He came up from 30% to 40%. Your first poll said he was 30%. He finished on 40%. He made some progress, but we ran out of time.

Did you get the wrong guy? I mean, did you get the wrong person for the job? Because that does happen. That’s no slight on Mark Osborne, but was he the wrong person for this job?

I don’t think so. I mean, we have very democratic selection processes in the National Party, and it takes two to three weeks in a large electorate like this to come up with-

And was that too slow at the very least?

Well, possibly. It’s one of the things we’ll definitely look at, because, frankly, we ran out of time. I’ve said that to you previously. That was the risk, and that’s what happened. We did run out of time to get him over the line, and so we’ll go back and look at all of that.

And when you say democracy, you know, there’s a translation for that, and that’s factions and power plays-

I don’t think anybody could describe the Northland electorate as full of factions at all. It’s generally the experience what you would in other terms call the Kaumatua of the National Party whose job it is to get together 120 or 150 of them to find a candidate who they want to have represent them, and that’s what they did. The difficulty with that is the time, particularly now that we’re dealing with a situation where, I think, almost half the votes were cast ahead of Election Day, which we haven’t talked about yet, and no doubt we will over time. Elections are changing in New Zealand, and, actually, the votes started being counted within two weeks of Mark being selected as a candidate, which makes it pretty hard.

How much of this, because you’ve been on the ground there a lot as well- How much of this, do you think, was backlash to the Sabin issue, backlash to the Sabin fallout?

It’s significant in terms of backlash to Mike having to resign so early into his tenure as an MP. I’m sure that is a significant element to it. And quite possibly some people would have said, ‘Well, actually, we’ll take the devil we know instead of another new guy.’ I’m sure that’s a possible situation. But I think there’s any number of things. It’s like all these things. When an election doesn’t work out for you, there’s a number of reasons why that’s the case, and I’m sure between us, we could come up with eight or 10 reasons. I’m sure some people have already made a list of 12, including most of the-

And we’ll have one question on one of those and just a quick answer on it. The bridge bribe - did you get it wrong?

Oh, look, I don’t think so, but it’s one of those things where you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

Would you do it again?

I think there’s a number of things we’d- I’m not saying we wouldn’t-

You might not do it again, but you’ll go through with the bridges, won’t you?

Absolutely, because, quite genuinely, that infrastructure is really important for Northland, and it’s the roading infrastructure scheme. Now, we are doing significant work there, but the message we got out of Northland voters is you’re not going quickly enough. We understand that, and that’s the bit we’ll be working on very hard in time for 2017.

Just briefly before we go, an Auckland question. Do you think Auckland has lost the America’s Cup, or is it still in play?

I literally don’t know. You’ve read the reports; I’ve read the reports. They haven’t advised us of anything formal. If they have lost the qualifier rounds, then we’ve been pretty clear to them that means that we wouldn’t be involved as a sponsor. And obviously that has ramifications for the team, but I’ve heard conflicting reports. And it is the America’s Cup, so I believe you shouldn’t believe anything until you’ve had it firmly in writing. I understand there’s to-ing and fro-ing going on all the time.

It’s not looking good, though, is it?

It is looking pretty challenging, and I think just the fact that we made a conditional offer based on the America’s Cup qualifiers back in January, and here we are at the end of March suggesting there’s issues going on that are yet to be resolved.

Thank you, Minister, for your time this morning.

Cheers.

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

ENDS

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