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The Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Grant Robertson

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Grant Robertson

Finance Minister Grant Robertson is under intense scrutiny.

New figures show economic growth has slowed to levels not seen for six years.

And he has chosen not to answer questions about when he heard about serious allegations of a sexual assault cover-up in the Labour Leader's Office.

Simon Shepherd began by asking him whether the government is living up to its promise of transparency.

Grant Robertson: I believe so. I mean, the Prime Minister’s put in place a process where not only are the complainants going to get their cases heard, which is completely independent of the Party, there’s also a review taking place of how the Party has handled these allegations. And the Prime Minister has been very upfront. They weren’t handled as they should have been. We’ve got to get this right, and so we’re making sure we do do that in a way that’s transparent.

Simon Shepherd: What about you? Have you been open, honest and transparent as well?

Yeah, I have been. I mean, it’s really important for me that we put the complainants at the centre of this process. I don’t want to add to a whole lot of partial information and partial truth that’s out there. We’ve got some vulnerable young people involved here, and I’m very comfortable that I’ve done the right thing throughout this process.

Yeah. In terms of when you know, that is the question that everybody’s been asking you. Was it June 30th?

What I’ve said very clearly is that the allegations that were published on The Spinoff were the first that I had heard of them. Beyond that, I don’t want to go into that, because I don’t believe that that’s in the interests of the young people involved here. I’m very comfortable that at every stage of this process, any information I’ve had I’ve dealt with that appropriately, I’ve followed that up, and I’ve supported people. That’s my focus here, not a political game of who knew what when.

Okay, but the political game goes on. And in terms of the political side of it, I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that the findings will be made public, so I guess, how will we know and how can we trust that people will be held accountable if they need to be?

Well, I think it’s really important for the sake of the complainants that particularly in terms of the process that they’re doing with Maria Dew QC, they have control of that and Maria Dew does, so they will make their own decisions about what gets published. In terms of the review of how the party handled it, that’s clearly going to be a matter for the party to decide. But I think we should be publishing information, so long as it isn’t things that will affect the privacy of the complainants.

We appreciate that in terms of protecting the privacy of the complainants, but a public organisation like the Labour Party needs to be held up for scrutiny, doesn’t it?

Well, I believe that’s what’s happening in this case, and as I say, I imagine the party would want to publish anything it could, subject to any redactions it needs to make.

Is there any guarantee that it will publish?

Well, that’s entirely a matter for the party. I’ve been very clear that if they want to speak to me, I’m happy to do that.

Is there an unwritten rule within the party that if there is a politically risky issue that the Prime Minister should be shielded from it?

No, there’s not. And I think it’s really important to remember that this is the Labour Party, it is an organisation quite separate from the government. The party has its own rules and processes, as the Prime Minister has made clear, that process wasn’t good, and we need to improve that. I think it’s important that as a party, we do take ownership of that. That’s what’s happening right now.

The party and the Prime Minister has ordered a review of culture within the party. What would you like to see covered in that?

I think it’s really important that we have a good understanding within our party of how we respect one another, what sort of behaviours we should expect of people. And this could apply to any organisation, not just a political organisation.

That seems like deflecting the issue, though, to a wider audience. You’ve got to concentrate on your own party.

No, no. There are some important lessons for us all to learn about how we handle these sorts of situations, so I look forward to the outcome of the review.

And in terms of how you handled the situation –you saying that you’re comfortable, but are you open to scrutiny, are you open to addressing the way that you handled the situation?

Look, I know that I acted appropriately throughout this process, but the focus here has got to be the wellbeing of the young people involved. We now have a process where their voices can be heard. That’s what I’m focused on.

And will the public be satisfied, do you think, once this process has rolled out across all these reviews?

Well, I certainly hope so.

All right, let’s talk about the economy. Figures out this week show our economy’s growth has slowed to levels not seen for six years. Are we heading for a recession?

Well, that’s not the advice that I’m getting. I mean, we still have to bear in mind that the economy is growing, and a recession is defined by us going backwards for at least two quarters. That’s not what we’re seeing. We’re actually seeing in the latest quarter half a percent growth. The thing is, we are growing more slowly than we have seen, and that’s the point in the economic cycle that we’re at. And globally we’re certainly seeing that trend. New Zealand’s not immune from that, but I do believe that we’re well positioned to deal with that.

The OECD has come out this week saying that governments are not doing enough to prevent long-term damage, and that they should take advantage of the low interest rates to invest in the future. Money is cheap. Is this not the time- Is this the time, actually, to splash it around?

Well, we are investing significantly more. We have a budget that came into life on the 1st of July that has $3.8 billion worth, per annum, of new spending in our operating area – our public services; around $10 billion of spending on capital expenditure, infrastructure, new money. That’s a significant investment – way more than what was planned by the previous government, and indeed more than we planned last year, so we are beginning that process. We’re keeping a wary eye on what’s happening in the rest of the world, and if we see a further deterioration in economic conditions, we will act in response to that.

GDP figures out this week show that infrastructure spending is actually down 11%, so since you’ve been in, have you actually dropped the ball on infrastructure spending?

Not at all. We’ve actually proposed over $40 billion of capital spending. The previous government only had $30 billion for the period that we’re looking at, so it is going out. Of course there is some programmes, like KiwiBuild, which we would’ve liked to have seen go faster, but in terms of, for example, transport spending, we’re spending about the same amount in terms of a percentage that the previous government did in a same sort of period.

How much of that, though, is actually shovel-ready? The problem is that the industry’s concerned that there’s not enough to replace the projects that you’ve put on hold from the previous government.

Well, it’s important when you think about those projects that many of them were just proposals and ideas. There actually wasn’t money set aside for them. In terms of what we’re doing, yes, there has been a bit of refocusing in our transport programme so that we’re getting on with rail, expenditure and roading. Roading in the regions, safety improvements – that work’s been done right now.

Yeah, sure, but in terms of light rail this week, we’ve seen that 300-odd-million has to be repurposed by the NZTA because it’s not ready to go. So is there this hole that the country’s going to fall into in terms of infrastructure spending?

I really don’t believe that. In the case of light rail, we want to get this project right. It’s one of the biggest transport projects that New Zealand will ever see, and we want to make sure that it’s delivered well. But in the meantime, we’ve put a huge amount of money into upgrading our rail system that had been neglected. Right around the country there is work going on on improving regional roads, the safety issues that New Zealanders want us to deal with. There is a lot happening in the transport area, and more will be happening in the coming years.

If things actually turn to custard around the world, and that affects New Zealand, would you consider, as a government, spending what’s called helicopter money, where you’re going to hand out cash to the people to stimulate the spend?

Yeah, look, at the moment that’s not something that I’m considering, but what we are doing is keeping an eye on that global situation. And I certainly understand the importance of the government playing its part in this part of the economic cycle. That’s why we spent so much more money in this budget. But we’ll continue to look at that, because the Reserve Bank can only do so much with its monetary policy changes.

The OECD has said this week, it’s up to the governments to actually spend the money.

And I take that seriously. That’s exactly why we’re spending significantly more money than had originally been planned, but we will keep a close eye on what’s happening, because global conditions are deteriorating, and if they deteriorate further, we will act.

One of the sectors that is keeping the economy afloat is agriculture. But at the moment, there’s a whole raft of reforms going on there, where you could probably lose some political points. Should you be pressing on so fast with a sector that’s holding the economy up?

Oh, look, we know we very much value wat the agriculture sector does, but my conversations with that sector indicate that they understand that we do need to move to a more sustainable footing. The truth is, we trade in the world on our clean, green image. We have to live up to that, and that involves us taking an approach to land-use, in particular, that’s more sustainable. The job of government is to actually work with the agriculture sector to support that more sustainable land-use. That’s what we’re doing, and we funded that significantly in the budget.

Quite a bit of kick-back from the agriculture sector at the moment, though.

From some elements, but a lot of the people I talk to in the agriculture sector are saying, ‘We know that we need to move towards a more sustainable footing,’ and there’s actually fantastic work being done, in terms of making sure we’re improving the health of our waterways, and moving to more sustainable land-use. We’ve just got to support that as a government.

One of the criticisms that the Opposition has, that National has, is that you don’t actually have a plan for growth. Now, you’re about to launch an economic plan. What’s in it?

Well, basically, what that’s doing is bringing together the work that the government has underway so it is all in one place, and we can give people certainty by that.

Is that an admission that you haven’t really communicated your vision?

Oh, no, not at all. What it is is a very big vision. It’s one with a lot of moving parts, because we’ve got to make some big shifts in our economy if we’re going to protect the living standards of New Zealand into the future. We are far less productive as a nation than countries in Europe and around the world. We haven’t done enough to improve our sustainability, and we haven’t done enough to include people.

So how are you going to raise the wellbeing of everybody economically? Because our GDP, the amount of money per person is low in New Zealand compared to other OECD countries.

Well, in fact, our GDP growth is actually still very good comparable to the rest of the world.

That’s the overall GDP, but per person... it’s low.

Yeah. And the challenge for us is a long-term one. I think most New Zealanders would accept the fact that improving productivity is a decades-long challenge. But that’s why we’ve brought in the research and development tax credit. That’s why we’re spending over $40 billion on capital expenditure. That’s why we’re investing in skills for things like fees-free and the training programmes that we’ve got. All of those things are important shifts for the New Zealand economy, but they will take time to bed down.

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