A  Stuff  Circuit  interview
The  Demise  and  Rise
of  Andrew  Little
It was about three weeks after the biggest decision of his political career that Andrew Little finally broke down and really cried. And it was a reality TV show which got to him in the end.

He was at his Wellington home in Island Bay, alone. His wife, Leigh Fitzgerald, was at work, and his teenage son was at school. His only company was the family border terrier, Harry.

Little clicked on a YouTube link someone had sent him and he ended up going down a rabbit hole of X Factor clips. There was one in particular he remembers: you know the sort, someone who is down and out and finds redemption through insane raw talent.

“They absolutely wowed it, and I found myself in tears at the end of it,” Little recalls. “And then I watched a couple more.”

In all grieving processes, you never just know what’s going to hit you. For Little, who spent a career in law and as a union boss battling for the underdogs, it was the simple, heavily-produced X Factor story of hidden talent that finally triggered the torrent of tears for his opportunity lost.

Just seven weeks out from the election, he had realised that his dream of becoming Prime Minister was over and that it was time to hand over leadership of the Labour Party to Jacinda Ardern. The rest, as they say, is history.

And history will reflect that Little’s call was one of New Zealand political leadership’s gutsiest.

Since then, he has declined to answer questions about that decision, and the aftermath. But now he’s ensconced as a Cabinet Minister in Prime Minister Ardern’s coalition government, he’s ready to talk and to finally reveal to Stuff Circuit what it was like to weigh up ambition and ego against what was right for the party.

Ironically, given he admits himself that he didn’t come across well on camera during interviews as leader, when he sat down for the Stuff Circuit cameras last week, he was like a different person; the defensiveness - and the frown - were gone. With the weight of leadership lifted, he was compelling, candid, self-deprecating.

Little had only been in Parliament for three years when he stood for the leadership and won in November 2014. Since the 15-year reign of Helen Clark, who had resigned on election night 2008, Labour had seen a revolving door of leaders: Phil Goff, David Shearer, and David Cunliffe, had all held the job as the party sought a way back to power.

INTERACTIVE: Line up the features of Labour leaders’ faces to get more information.

JACINDA ARDERN - Presiding Labour Party leader

Since Aug 1, 2017

HELEN CLARK - 5,456 days as Labour Party leader

Dec 1, 1993 to Nov 8, 2008

DAVID CUNLIFFE - 377 days as Labour Party leader

Sep 15, 2013 to Sep 27, 2014

PHIL GOFF - 1,127 days as Labour Party leader

Nov 11, 2008 to Dec 13, 2011

ANDREW LITTLE - 987 days as Labour Party leader

Nov 18, 2014 to Aug 1, 2017

DAVID SHEARER - 642 days as Labour Party leader

Dec 13, 2011 to Sep 15, 2013

Little’s sway with the union movement carried him to the top. (Except in the immediate lead-up to an election, Labour leaders are decided through votes from the caucus, the party membership, and the unions). As a former national secretary of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, he commanded the union vote by more than three to one. It was enough for him to squeeze out Grant Robertson who had won more caucus and membership support. The margin was so tight that if just one MP had switched sides, Little would have lost.

The leadership changes, and the remnants of unease between various party blocs, meant Little inherited a fractured caucus when he took over. He knew that when he stood, but he was determined nonetheless.

“The Labour Party frankly had struggled since the last Labour Government and I thought I could contribute something,” says Little.

“We’d had a very successful fifth Labour Government under Helen Clark and Michael Cullen but actually there were some issues that hadn’t been resolved, they were still being played out and you had some personalities that I think weren’t harnessed in the right direction.”

Little says he set out to smooth those divisions and change the culture.

“We got to the point [in caucus] where we would have really good, thorough, robust discussions but the whole thing didn’t fly apart or people left in a huff or disappointed they didn’t have a say or that they’d been shut down.

“Look, it wasn’t perfect. There were the odd break out here and there. [The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement] was one where a couple of MPs had very strong views about it and wished to continue to express those out of the caucus, but actually they got a pretty clear response afterwards that that wasn’t acceptable any more. We were able to have some pretty tough discussions and keep people within the caucus and keep that discipline.”

While Little felt that internally the party was sorting itself out, externally things didn’t seem to be improving. As election year loomed, polls indicated that Labour was not going to be in a position to unseat National.

Commentators posed that Little was not making ground against John Key - and then, in December, Key stood down. This, it seemed, was Little’s moment. Except, it wasn’t. Nothing really changed. Under new Prime Minister Bill English, National was cruising.

In March, amid speculation about whether the leadership needed to change, Little’s deputy, Annette King, stood down and was replaced by Ardern.

Political cartoon - Sharon Murdoch

Political cartoon - Sharon Murdoch

Was that an own-goal, a move which sealed his fate as leader, given how much Ardern shone? Little is adamant the answer is no.

“I’m not a leader that keeps talent away because I’m fearful of my own inadequacies. I want the best people around me.” And in Ardern, he recognised someone with enormous potential.

“When I was doing our extended road show throughout most of this year, she was with me in most meetings and we got to know each other pretty well. I’d seen her around the front bench meetings, her ability to analyse some pretty tricky problems, the strength of her advocacy, her ability to communicate and have an impact on people.”

And yet, even with a new deputy shining, Labour could not lift itself in the polls, sitting around 30 per cent.

Little says he initially wasn’t too concerned, believing that once the election came more into people’s focus, Labour would lift, experiencing the same boost other Opposition parties around the world have. During this year’s election in Britain, for instance, the Jeremy Corbin-led Labour Party was languishing until it surged during the campaign and came unexpectedly close to toppling Theresa May’s Conservatives.

But as the election countdown clock ticked in New Zealand, Little became concerned that Labour wasn’t moving from 30 per cent - and that concern deepened when a slide set in, seeing Labour enter a downward spiral.

Asked what he thinks was the cause, Little outlines a series of reasons the party - and he in particular - suffered.

One was the defamation trial he faced in April when a couple sued him over comments made in Parliament regarding their donation to National Party. “I don’t think most people really cared about the detail of it but here was the Leader of the Opposition, the guy who aspires to be Prime Minister, in an election year in a witness box having to give evidence,” Little says. “It didn’t look right for somebody who ought to have looked like he was preparing to lead the country.”

Next was the controversy over the international intern scheme organised to bring volunteers to help the party during the campaign. The scheme blew up in the media when some of the volunteers complained about living conditions.

Little admits the whole saga was a disaster and a major distraction.

“You get well-meaning sometimes zealous people in a party who think they know better than the decision-making hierarchy of the party and they went off and organised this and it came to the notice of the party when pretty much it was all about to happen. And it became very difficult to unwind it and the very thing that we feared and that we thought was the biggest risk - something does go wrong and it becomes public - that happened.

“And when you stand up and say, look, this shouldn’t have happened, you take responsibility to fix it, of course it’s going to reflect on you.”

The other factor, he believes, was the impact the election year conferences in July of NZ First and the Greens had on Labour.

Speculation about Labour’s internal polling around the time of NZ First’s conference led to commentary about the prospect of NZ First taking over as the second-biggest party.

The Greens, meanwhile, attacked NZ First as racist, and then experienced an initial surge in support after co-leader Metiria Turei spoke of how she had coped as a beneficiary (in a speech which eventually backfired against the Greens and Turei).

By late July all of these events conspired to create a situation Little began to think was becoming too much for him to deal with.

“I think a media narrative had been building for some months that, ‘This guy’s not going to do it, and there’s not going to be a change of government’. And one of the factors I had to weigh up is, ‘Can I overcome that narrative that is now pretty well set?’”

And then came what would be the killer blows that began on Wednesday July 26.

As a rule, says Little, he won’t look at his phone during meetings. So when he felt his phone vibrate in his jacket pocket during a meeting with Weta Digital bosses and Ardern on the morning of July 26, he studiously ignored it.

The phone buzzed again, so, as the meeting carried on and turned to matters that were more pertinent to Ardern as arts and culture spokesperson, curiosity got the better of him. He slipped the phone out of his pocket and glanced at the text message. “And there it was, it was a double-take moment.” Every time Labour did internal polling, Little would be texted the results. This one showed the party had slumped to 23 per cent.

“Because I’m not a panicker by nature, I quietly put my phone back in my pocket and carried on. It probably wasn’t until a half hour later when I was out of the meeting and heading back to the office that you start to think through the implications of this, that I thought this is serious.”

He called Ardern into his office to talk through his options. “She was very clear she said, 'you must stick at it and carry on'. I said, 'I’m going to have to talk to other senior colleagues', and I did share it with other senior colleagues and it kind of started five or six days of consideration and reflection by me and others as well, and conversations about what should happen next.”

Internal polls, generally, never see the light of day. But polls carried out by media organisations become big news.
So, by the Friday, when Little had been told the result of the TVNZ poll due to be made public over the weekend showing Labour at 24 per cent, things had become critical.

That day, Little and Ardern spoke to every member of the caucus, briefing them on the poll results.

On the Saturday night, senior MPs and party figures gathered at Ardern’s home in Auckland. Everyone was in the city for a major fundraising auction. “It was suggested that we should just get together because I needed to be positive and upbeat for the purposes of the auction but we needed to think about what would happen next.”

Little says by that stage, there was a range of views about what the right path was.

“One person at that meeting, a senior MP - I don’t want to go into names because I don’t think it’s the right thing to do - but one person was very clear that they thought it was time for me to step aside. Others were a lot more ambivalent about it.” Nobody though, says Little, was attacking him personally.

“As one said, ‘Look, this is more in sorrow that it hasn’t worked, but we’ve got to do what’s right for the party’, which is absolutely right.”

The next day, the Sunday, a media feeding frenzy erupted. Partly it was the poll result, but partly it was Little’s admission in an interview with TVNZ political editor Corin Dann that he had considered resigning.

Despite the furore the comments made, and the commentary that he had shot himself in the foot, Little remains adamant he could not have given any other answer.

“A party political leader eight weeks out from an election having nevertheless taken the party through a whole heap of change then has a devastating poll result and [being asked], ‘Had you ever thought about resigning?’ To say, ‘Oh, the thought never crossed my mind’, just doesn’t look real.

“I think that I had established a style of leadership that I think was more open, more blunt, more honest. That is who I am, for good or ill.”

On the Monday, Newshub journalists told Little’s office they had a poll showing Labour at 24 per cent and it would be broadcast that night. The third poll in the space of a week putting Labour at 23-24 per cent was firm evidence of a collapse in support - no one could argue it was a blip in a polls.

Little, still trying to put on the face of a leader campaigning to be Prime Minister, flew to Auckland to front an event, but knew that he had a decision to make.

After the event (the campaign launch for East Coast Bays candidate Naisi Chen), Little and his staff headed to the Stamford Plaza Hotel in Auckland City, where they were staying for the night. He was with chief of staff Neale Jones and chief press secretary Mike Jaspers, and was joined by candidate Willie Jackson, who had arranged to meet Little for a beer.

During the evening, the group talked about what Little should do. He spoke to colleagues, including King and chief whip Kris Faafoi. “They were saying, 'this is getting difficult, this is getting really difficult'. And what was important to me was, having built a caucus that was unified in purpose, I was conscious that if I didn't make the right decision that could fracture and that would cause even more problems on the campaign.”

At one point in the evening, Little rang his wife, Leigh Fitzgerald. Being the partner of a political leader is tough. Leaders spend a lot of time away from home, and often the criticism and comments directed at the leader are felt just as keenly at home.

Looking back on the past few months, after Little’s decision, she says: “The silver lining in all of this is that probably during that period after Andrew resigned we spent more time together than we had in the last three years. And so, it was lovely.”

And yet, when Little rang her on that Monday night, right at the crucial moment he was making up his mind, she was not encouraging him to jump.

“At the time I said to him, ‘I don’t want you to do it’,” she says. “I just thought he’d worked so hard. I just said to him, ‘well, I don’t think you should do it. I think you can get them over the line’.

“It wasn’t a huge disagreement. I just voiced my opinion.”

But by this stage of the evening, Little was firming up his mind. “I get to a point making tough decisions where I just get clinical about it, and say, right, what are the factors I’ve got to look at, what do I have to discard?” Little says.

“I just got to this point, about half past 10 that night I said, ‘That’s it, it’s over’. I think those are the words I used: ‘It’s over’.”

The next morning, all his media engagements were cancelled and Little flew back to Wellington to tell the caucus. Right up until the announcement, there was speculation about what he was going to do - very few people knew his decision.

At the airport, he was met by RNZ journalist Mei Heron who reported that Little had said he wasn’t resigning.

Asked about that during our interview, Little seems uncomfortable, indicating that he was trying to walk a tightrope at that time.

“I remember that being reported and I don’t recall the exact words I used. I definitely remember seeing Mei Heron and she button-holed me and stopped to talk to me. I don’t recall the precise words, I think I was probably thinking a couple of hours ahead about what I really needed to say at the crucial time.”

But any impression that he was having second thoughts is incorrect: he’d woken up in the morning knowing that his decision the night before was right.

Back in Parliament, Little told caucus, nominated Ardern as his replacement, then fronted the media to announce his decision. And then he packed his office and, together with Leigh, headed home in a taxi, his personal belongings in a box.

He and Leigh spent a few days in Sydney with friends of his from university, a chance to get away from the inevitable autopsies and media storm. He was comforted by support from his family, including his twin sister, and close friends, and even kind messages from strangers (which still arrive in his office).

And he sat back and watched as the election campaign took a dramatic twist.

The one thing that made his decision easy, says Little, was his confidence in Ardern.

“In all of this, and in the end the factor that got me over the line was my confidence in Jacinda Ardern to step up and do the job.” He’d seen her develop and was confident that she could campaign successfully and lead the country.

“She has amazing analytical skills in arguing about issues, to cut through and get to the core of an issue and focus on what’s important. It is decision-making, it’s judgment, it’s dealing with people including difficult people, it’s presenting and advocating to an audience or to a group.”

She also has the ability to communicate in the media, what Little calls the “magic” that he admits he doesn’t have.

So, he says, he was pleased when “Jacinda-Mania” took hold and Labour immediately rose in the polls.

“It was incredibly gratifying and satisfying to see that because I knew that that was not just a possibility but a real possibility. Of course that’s leavened by the, ‘Gee, that could have been me’. Of course that’s there, but yeah I guess there’s that thing about ego, you know.”

His wife, Leigh, has seen the emotional toll it took on him.

“It was really stressful, I felt really upset for him.

“It was a big role that he had, and obviously he had that ambition to be Prime Minister, not for himself but for the country and lead with the ideals that he had. And to step away from that and allow somebody else to do that, Jacinda - who is doing a great job, I might add - but to do that, on a personal level was really hard for him.”

She remembers on the day he resigned going in to help him pack up his office. “And gone before lunchtime is actually true, we were out that door by 2 with all the possessions gone and that’s pretty tough. He wasn’t crying but he was very withdrawn.”

But she acknowledges that, in hindsight, he made the right decision.

“They wouldn’t be in Government if he hadn’t have done that.”

Little is upfront about that too: without making the decision he did, he wouldn’t be in the position he is now, a Cabinet Minister with the heavyweight portfolios of Justice, Treaty Negotiations, Pike River, and GCSB and SIS.

It’s reward for his decision to stay in politics, and why he says he never considered “throwing his toys out”.

“I quickly got to the point where I thought, there is a contribution I can make. I kind of have to weather the ‘Gee he didn’t make it kind of commentary stuff’...but then I think you go back to the reason you’re there for.

“You know, [I] might not have made it as leader of the Labour Party but I still believe in myself enough to make a good and valuable contribution to the next Labour-led Government.”