The Burnside Polemic:
Interview with Gerry Brownlee, M.P. for Ilam (Transcript)
Joseph J. Fullerton, Toby Govin-Fowler, Lewis Grey; The Burnside Polemic & Hon. Gerry Brownlee, M.P.
Brownlee: [unrecoverable in recording; approximately one paragraph including “represent their interests”]
Brownlee: The most dramatic change is in the demographics of the electorate, and they reflect, pretty much, the demographics of New Zealand as a whole. Ilam is a remarkably representative electorate as far as the makeup of New Zealand is concerned, and even the income spread of New Zealand – but, the demographics, it’s almost a mirror. So, when I just got elected to Parliament the demographics had the European population at 82%. Now, that’s fallen back to almost 50. And it’s been the increase in numbers of people who formerly would’ve identified themselves as European now choosing to identify as Maori. The increase in the number of pacific islanders and then families settling and having over that time in the electorate with the biggest chunk of that coming from Asian countries.
Brownlee: Ilam didn’t suffer the vast extent of physical damage that was seen in other parts of the city but nonetheless there was a lot of damage to infrastructure—that’s below ground infrastructure. And also, to individual homes particularly in the part of the electorate that’s closest in to the city—
[Loud percussive noises, involving wood and glass making loud ‘clunk’ noises]
ANDREA GRIFFIN: HELLO, SORRY FOR THE INTERRUPTION, BUT I’M UM MY NAME’S ANDREA GRIFFIN I’M THE NEW ASSOCIATE PRINCIPAL HERE AT BURNSIDE I JUST WANTED TO GIVE YOU PHIL’S REGARDS HE’S JUST AWAY AT A MEETING THIS MORNING BUT HE’S ASKED ME TO PASS ON HIS REGARDS TO YOU AND TO THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING YOU’VE DONE HERE. HOW’S IT GOING, EVERYBODY, ALL GOOD?
Brownlee: So where did we get up to? How the earthquakes have affected the electorate—For example, you had Burnside High School effectively double-bunking with I think it was Avonside Girls’ High School coming here, and similarly you had damage to the university and the need for a whole lot of temporary accommodation on that side. Some depopulation of the university student base, and of course when it came to the secondary schools where there was—most of them had some kind of damage, but also—it was the foreign fee-paying students who were not available for a number of years after that, that had an effect on the budgets of those electorates. And then of course the people themselves who live out here individually in their workplaces all having quite different arrangements that they had to work with. And, just the part of the community that was generally dealing with what was a fairly big disaster.
Brownlee: We do border Selwyn which is a strong National seat, and we border to the north Waimakariri which is a strong National seat. And both of those seats come quite a way into the city now. So, in addition to that under MMP you have list members of Parliament and up until, for the six years prior to the last election, Nicky Wagner held the Christchurch Central seat. And you had M.P.s like David Carter—longtime resident and former member and now list member in Banks Peninsula—and also Nuk Korako coming into that role. So I haven’t felt isolated, if you like, in that sense. And I think that during the time of the earthquakes, all M.P.s from all electorates worked very cooperatively so that people could feel a degree of confidence in what was happening in the recovery sense.
Brownlee: I think it’s had a largely positive effect. I think we had a secondary school qualifications system that was more about making sure only half the people who participated in—or even studied for—those qualifications actually got them, under the old referencing system. I think a standards-based approach and the sort of progressive learning approach that has come in through NCEA has been a positive thing.
Brownlee: Well, I think it’s a . NCEA has been a qualification available in New Zealand now for—I think it came in around 2002, so it’s been there 16 years— and all qualifications need, I suppose—recognition of attainment in education, does need to be assessed from time to time. I think it’d be unfortunate if we lost the concept of people being able to reach the Merit or Excellence levels in a range of subjects, and I get very annoyed with people who say ‘well, it’s ridiculous, people giving you credits towards NCEA by doing all sorts of strange courses and other subjects’—I don’t think that matters. I think if you are an academic student and you have in the subjects that require a greater degree of academic rigour, the commitment that gets you excellences and you’ll get the opportunities beyond school to use that. Someone is—you often use these examples, and I hope it’s not a bad one—someone has qualifications in Art, P.E., Drama, Photography, and let’s say also got a barista’s course. They’re not going to progress to become a medical doctor or a lawyer, or whatever. That’s not the path they’ve chosen. But it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to enjoy and be proud of attainment at that level. Learning goes on throughout your life, it never stops. and a range of qualifications that you might attain, it’s just not realistic because beyond a certain point the experience you have in whatever you’ve chosen, of work becomes very important as well.
Brownlee: Well I think we’ve become a far more tolerant society, which is a good thing. I think the other point I’d say, it’s much more subtle because when I say tolerant society, you can look at all the changes that we’ve experienced with regards to the way people can choose to live their lives. But I think we’ve become slightly more willing to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit. I don’t know whether it’s just unique to Christchurch, because people had to do stuff during the Earthquakes, but it was interesting to me just to read yesterday of someone asserting we are now an entrepreneurial city that a lot of people are doing things differently, having a go at things, particularly in the business field, and I think that’s a good thing. I think people will always find their niche in whatever they’re choosing to do, what they’re good at, but you do have to have a strong, vibrant, economy and that means you have to have risk-takers, et cetera et cetera and so I suspect there’s one thing I’d say that New Zealand’s a little improved on—or, not improved on, but is different now—is that there seems to be a greater respect for people who take those sorts of risks.
Brownlee: Yeah, so the Parliament itself sits under the direction of the Speaker, and the legislate program is proposed or put forward each day but it’s planned out some months ahead by the Leader of the House, who always comes from the government. So, when we were in government, I was Leader of the House for nine years and the opposition has an honourable Shadow Leader and so you have a communication between the two sides at a fairly high level. By that I mean it’s not detailed, it’s that I’m now told what their program is, and when I was Leader of the House I’d tell the other side what our program is. And then there’s a degree of negotiation about how that might progress, to make sure that Parliament’s spending as much of its time on stuff that’s really important in the debate
Brownlee: I don’t think six weeks is enough time to make a reasonable comparison. He didn’t in that time face any particular crisis that he had to deal with, in fact it was a remarkably quiet time. So nothing domestically, nothing internationally. So, you know, he held the fort quite well.
Brownlee: What is your example?
Brownlee: The case you’re talking about is the review the government has set up to look at the appointment process for a police commissioner—deputy police commissioner. There’s two things that are important here—was it described as a roadblock?
Brownlee: Totally wrong description. The first thing: New Zealand is a country that has a very high level of international respect for lack of corruption. We’re not a corrupt society. We don’t have people using their position to gain personal gain. In order to keep that reputation, because it’s important, we’re a trading nation. We’re a trading nation. We enjoy a lifestyle that’s far in excess of what we could enjoy if we simply traded among ourselves. If we were a totally domestic economy we would not enjoy the same level of wellbeing, of economic capability. By that I mean that we’re four or five million—we say five million—people, or close to it, but we trade with a billion people in China, and a similar number in Europe et cetera. So we’ve got vast markets. And part of keeping those markets open is that the customers that you’re dealing with knowing that you don’t behave in a corrupt manner, that you’ve got stable government, you’ve got a sound legal basis in which they can deal with you, and they’ll be treated fairly. And that synthesises right down to making sure that in every case, public appointment or public expenditure that there is a declaration of interests that people might have in a circumstance so that everyone knows what the situation is. Now in a society that is relatively free from dramatic criminal activity and violent criminal activity, we have to have a police force that is totally trusted—by everyone. So we have to have the best people in the job. In this case, there was a question raised about the appointment process for a particular gentleman. There was a choice made to put someone in to chair—or to lead—that investigation. But as soon as you find out that there is a connexion between that person and the person who was appointed, then you start to ask that question: Well, how objective can that inquiry be? And it took the government several days to realise that, actually, the connexion was not acceptable and that a more neutral person should be appointed. And now if that’s described as being obstructive, then I think people who make that accusation fail to recognise that the opposition in the Westminster system has an obligation to protect the things—very loudly—that really contribute to the betterment of New Zealand.
Brownlee: Yesterday, and Wednesday, and Tuesday, Parliament spent a lot of time—not Wednesday, sorry—discussing, or going through what I call committee stages of the Electoral Integrity Bill. The electoral integrity bill basically means that if a member of parliament steps outside of the party line, a leader of a party may decide that is ‘distorting the proportionality of parliament’ by effectively not representing the views of ‘the party’. The only judge of that is the leader of the party. If that law is passed—and it’s likely to get a third reading, the government parties support it, next week, we won’t support it—the law would say the party leader is paramount in determining who sits in parliament for that party. And that’s not democracy. That’s dreadful. I joined the National Party because we have a rule that says we are able to speak freely but we all choose to belong to a caucus. And we have lots of disagreements inside that caucus about all sorts of things but we reach compromise positions or we might come up with a different solution. But we’re able to speak publicly. On behalf of our electorate, on behalf of our party, on behalf of the people specifically who work for us to get elected. And the idea that the party leader, under this new law, can simply say “Oh, I don’t like that”, it’s not going to happen. And people say “Well, you know, it’s no big deal, we live under M.M.P., parties are paramount, so we recognise it”. Well, the Westminster system is supposed to encourage people to turn up to Parliament, get sworn in with allegiance to The Crown, and to the country as free and unencumbered individuals. And then that free and unencumbered individual might choose to work with other people. That’s fair enough, they told people at the ballot box that that could happen. But if something were to happen to cause that other commitment to change, that doesn’t take away the fact that they’ve sworn their allegiance to the Crown to be a member of parliament. And for the law to change that is quite a drastic thing. The other point I make is that if you look at history, the Labour Party was formed when individual members who were in Parliament at that time decided to leave the parties they were with and form the Labour Party. So later, it split and you had the ‘Social Democrat Labour Party’ et cetera et cetera. So these things have happened, and they’re not bad things. So the Labour Party was formed out of a split like that. The National Party was formed out of members of The Reform and The Liberal Party both leaving those parties and forming the National Party inside Parliament. In more recent times, you’ve had the breakdown of The Alliance in the early 2000s, the Green Party had previously been a member of the Alliance and they’re still on their own and ultimately got re-elected as a separate party. Jim Anderton was exactly the same with his New Labour party. So you can’t—I don’t think we need a law that constrains the ability of people to engage in free political expression. Then you start to chip away at the basic core of democracy. It’s a very very bad bill. And it’s all there, largely because of New Zealand First who want it because Mr. [Winston] Peters has had a lot of trouble with people leaving his party in the past.
Brownlee: I wasn’t. I was only foreign minister for about five months [laughing].
Brownlee: I think he lost—when he became President of the United States, there was not only a great deal of affirmation for him in the United States but also internationally. And I think he squandered that, progressively over the two terms in the presidency. The President of the United States is effective for about six years if they get two terms, but by about halfway through the second term everybody’s thinking about the next guy. My view is that he squandered that. And I know that people are critical of Trump and there’s a lot of things I disagree with Trump on, particularly when it comes to trade and that sort of thing, he’d go back to the Dark Ages on that, but you’ve got to say that his very firm hand on North Korea has started a process that will take many years to sort out, but if you think about two years ago, the world was wondering about whether or not North Korea might send a rocket to the United States. They said they had the intercontinental capacity to get it to the west coast of the United States. That’s now gone. And I think there’s a lot of that sort of stuff that Obama—as it strikes me—could have done in a more refined way, if you like, but he just seemed to never get to it.
Brownlee: Well, I think you’ve got to look at the internal growth statistics of the United States. You know, Bill Clinton used to say—he coined the phrase—“It’s the economy, stupid” which just meant that if the economy’s right, then the president’s doing everything, he’s going to be okay. And that’s where Trump has a bit of an ace at the moment. So yeah, the opinion polls don’t like him but I think if there was a presidential election tomorrow, or if he stands again in 2020, he’d win.
Brownlee: I don’t have a view on it.
Brownlee: A very good leader. A very capable leader. And the problem we’ve got is that really, since Helen Clark, there has been quite a move towards the almost cult following of the leaders. By pointing out that she was at 4% when she became Prime Minister, and was a formidable and capable Prime Minister. John Key was always popular, because he was capable, and he really was an engaging type. He went from 8% at the start, right up at the start of his leadership. Then we had Jacinda Ardern who’s come out of the blocks really quite strongly and is considered to be a popular prime minister. Ultimately that popularity will be dependent on how well her government does. And that will come down to how much New Zealanders feel better—or otherwise—off with her leadership. Simon Bridges is—as you said—at 10%, I think he will go up. He’s quite capable of doing that, but I don’t think it’s in any way a concern at the present time, because people in New Zealand don’t actually vote for specific leaders. No, they’re chosen by caucuses. So you vote for a policy mix, whichever you think is going to be best for the country.
Brownlee: Well you’ve got to say in politics, what is discipline? Judith Collins has gone out and retweeted something that’s wildly inaccurate. Well, I would say that there’s fake news and there is news specifically for the government. And beyond that, I wouldn’t make a comment.
What do you believe to be the most pressing issue concerning young New Zealanders?
Brownlee: Young New Zealanders?
Brownlee: I think flexibility of workforce. Because when I left school, it was still an expectation that you would train to do something and then you’d do it for the rest of your life. The reality is that for most of my generation, that never happened. There were lots and lots of things that you did. And that’s just going to increase in future. I think that the rapid expansion of technology is not going to slow down. The three of you are sitting here with laptops, even ten years ago that would have been unusual. Five years ago, you might have had one between you. So it’s flexibility in the workforce and the workplace that’s an issue that we’ve got to keep on top of.
Brownlee: Slim. I’ll tell you what, I don’t think people have got this in their heads, there’s the complication of the Treaty of Waitangi. And the other thing is: What is so bad about things that we’ve got to tip it on its head? In the end, I have a huge respect for the royal family—I wouldn’t want to be one of them. They don’t have their own life, it’s . People say ‘oh, it’s great, they’ve got this, they can do this and they can do that and they’ve got enormous amounts of money’ or something, but they’re slaves to the system—
Brownlee: Well, the politicians have the ability to change the chief whip, so they [the royal family] don’t have the ability to change their masters, unfortunately. But I just don’t see this happening, the Treaty of Waitangi, while there’s a lot of to-and-fro, people arguing about it and that sort of thing, in the end it historically was quite a significant document because it meant that there was a European Westminster-style democracy put in place for New Zealand—it might not have been all that good all the way through and various things like that, but it was done largely without, despite what people might say about the land wars, done without the
Brownlee: No, it was a very silly move. I’m not going to say their names, because I’ve got no respect for them, but I know who those two people are now. A large number of New Zealanders know who those two people are now. And a large number of New Zealanders know what their general, broad way of thinking is now. Had they just come here and done their speech, a small, small, small number of people would have met them, would have listened to them, and made a decision about whether they want to subscribe to that view and they’d be on their way. The moment you start shutting down free speech, the opportunity for people to say what they like—within reason, within reason—then you really do chip away at the freedoms we have. We’re an enormously free country compared to others and we take so many things for granted. When you look at the struggles in Zimbabwe at the moment, they’ve just had a general election and now they’re at war with each other because they won’t accept the result. We had a situation in New Zealand when our party got the biggest number of votes, and we’re not government. And no one picks up sticks, guns, bullets, whatever. It doesn’t happen. We’re not that sort of country. We’re a free country. And you’ve got to be very careful that you don’t destroy that by getting too upset about the more nutty things people go out and say. The other thing is, you can’t know what you’re against if you—or what you’re for—if you don’t hear the things that are completely contrary to what you’re thinking and believe.
Brownlee: Well, within reason. If the view was—some of that stuff he says, I saw him on—see, there you go, he was on Sixty Minutes, on T.V.! He’d never have got that sort coverage if they hadn’t kicked him out. It fascinated me when he said to the reporter “How do you feel, in this world, as a white woman?”, and she said “Well, I’m not”—Did you see her? She said, “I’m not!”
And he said, “What?”
And she said, “I’m not a white woman!”
And he said, “What are you, then?”
And she said, “I’m a Maori woman!”
And at that moment you could see, on T.V., that actually that’s the difference in this country! We don’t wander around branding people in any particular way, do you know what I mean? And it goes back to that thing I said before, where the demographics are changing so rapidly you wouldn’t want to go around saying ‘so-and-so is Maori and so-and-so is European and so-and-so is Asian’, it’s becoming an irrelevance in this country.
Brownlee: That’s right! And that’s why that voice should never have got all that newspaper coverage, all that radio coverage and that T.V. coverage. Yet the people who objected to them being here created . Crazy.
Brownlee: Well, thank you very much.