My time with Andrew

An NBR contributor is hired by Andrew Little for an unusual assignment. It ends in tears.

Andrew Little declared himself a friend of business on January 28 in Auckland’s trendy Wynard Quarter, and for much of the past fortnight media commentators have been considering the finer points of his first major address of 2015. 

Although previously known as a union advocate, the Labour leader has moved impressively to stamp his credentials as someone who understands the realities faced by individual traders and those looking to join their ranks.

Small business – “the engine room of job growth” – will be a priority for Labour as it crafts its economic policy over the next two years, Mr Little promised.

Why? Because “the truth is stark,” he explained. “Doing what we are doing today won’t support the standard of living we as New Zealanders want in the future.”

Nice to hear. Political commentators have had a lot to say about this. But small business types would have paid even closer attention, too, one suspects, including the significant and growing number of us in the business of selling words or editorial services. 

Any wordsmith who has ever had to chase up a flighty client or late payment, or whacked part of a GST return on to an already-taut credit card, would do well to hope that this new emphasis is more than an empty gesture.

I know a bit about these things. Last October I was offered a slightly unusual small freelance job – involving, as it happened, Andrew Little. 

This was at the time of Mr Little’s tilt for the party leadership. Chris Matthews, an Aucklander involved in his campaign, called out of the blue one Friday morning to ask if I might be interested in spending some conversational time with the apparent leader-in-waiting.

I scratched my head. Why me? I’ve never belonged to a political party and wouldn’t work for one. My local electorate Labour MP here in Wellington seems a nice guy but I’m not really what one might call a natural supporter of his party. 

On the other hand, though, that seemed to be the point.  What I was being asked to provide was not media advice or training, after all, but to take out a few hours to talk with Mr Little and then independently distill his views as they might sound to an outsider. Mr Matthews seemed to think his man could do with a bit more clarity. 

As assignments go, it sounded offbeat but I’ve taken far odder ones in my time. If I could accept a working invitation from the custodians of Mecca and Medina to visit Saudi Arabia a few years ago, why couldn’t I meet with Andrew Little? 

Besides, I was curious. I knew Mr Little a bit back when he was active in student politics in the late 1980s and liked what I knew of him. He seemed a smart man, genuinely interested in people and unencumbered with ego problems. 

As a nosey-parker, too, I was interested to know more about the opposition’s calamitous recent history and perhaps even some of its current internal tensions. 

Happily on that last point, this was something Mr Matthews immediately hinted at with a number of less-than-enthusiastic references to Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern, along with a slightly baffling digression on how the party’s fortunes will yet be reversed by installing the MP for Kelston, Carmel Sepuloni, as deputy party leader ahead of the next general election. 

Scrolling back through a number of more recent clips of his television interviews, though, I could see why Mr Little’s friends might feel he needed a touch more clarity. 

Like many trained lawyers, and indeed working journalists, I think he tries to parse tumbling thoughts into cogent words as he speaks. Sometimes this serves him better than others. There were occasions when I couldn’t make head or tail of what he was saying. 

We met in downtown Wellington on the sunny afternoon of Thursday, October 16, in the office of the public law specialist Roger Palairet. 

Along with Mr Palairet there was Mr Little and his campaign manager. The atmosphere was congenial if a touch odd. Nobody had thought to turn the lights on, which lent a slightly film noir-ish air to the next couple of hours.

But the conversation was illuminating enough. We talked about Mr Little’s view of his own personal attributes – a lifetime of private sector engagement, an intimate knowledge of the organisation and a track record for bringing people together – and how these may or may not rejuvenate his party. 

We chatted about his time representing journalists as a union leader. He spoke about his general engagement with the media. 

From there, the conversation moved on to last year’s ghastly election campaign, Labour’s perceived image problems and what seems to me to be the piquant irony of a party claiming the mantle of diversity and yet almost consistently refusing to welcome businesspeople into its ranks. 

Interesting stuff. I wrote up my notes as best I could, and sent them off along with an invoice for the time spent. Both were received with thanks.  

Then came the silence.

Four months, many inquiring telephone calls and gazillions of emails on – as of the time of this writing – I’m still none the financially richer for having taken this oddball assignment.  Not by a bean. I’ve been left feeling rather like a one-man nocturnal performer in a Christchurch insurance office. 

Oh well. Isn’t that how things so often are for we self-employed and small business types grinding away in the engine room of the economy? 

  • Listen to David Cohen talk about his unpaid invoice – and when Mr Little actually coughed up – on NBR Radio.
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