Michele Hewitson Interview: Andrew Little

By Michele Hewitson

Andrew Little feels the Actors' Equity union played its cards very poorly over The Hobbit. Photo / Richard Robinson
Andrew Little feels the Actors' Equity union played its cards very poorly over The Hobbit. Photo / Richard Robinson

Andrew Little, the Labour Party president and head of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union who has been doing a bit of Hobbit-wrangling behind the scenes - is a very busy man. He ignored my (many) messages for a day, including the threatening one: "I've seen you dance."

He said, when we did meet, that he'd kept all of my (many) messages, which was his idea of a threat, although nowhere as good as mine.

He said he wasn't ignoring me. He couldn't reply because he was in a seminar all day with Bill English. He was chuffed with himself for telling me this. He thought it was funny to imply that even an all-day seminar with Bill English was preferable to calling me.

I know him a bit because, years ago, I was a delegate (responsibilities: photocopying) during a strike and he stepped in, in an attempt to sort it out. He is, mostly, a very measured, courteous and serious chap - with the occasional lapse. The most memorable being the dancing, which he did at a pub and which somebody observed was like watching a spider on speed.

He doesn't quite deny this.

He will soon be a Labour MP - even if he doesn't win New Plymouth from National, he'll be high on the party list, although he says he has no say and no idea where he'll be on it - but he has long been a politician.

So he says what he recalls of that night was making a stirring speech about freedom of speech and an independent media, but I may have dropped off by that stage - it was a long night.

I also once saw him shout at an employer, in a meeting. He says he does "lose my rag, occasionally, I'm sure". Anyway, it was a surprise because he is (with the exception of the disputed dancing ) very controlled. "Controlled anger is, I think, permissible in industrial relations." He is a lawyer, so he knows about performance.

I'd asked what he thought of the Council of Trade Unions leader Helen Kelly calling Sir Peter Jackson "a spoiled brat". I couldn't imagine him ever losing his rag to that extent - not least because it could never have been a useful thing to do. He said, diplomatically, because he is a politician, that he thinks Kelly was "in an impossible situation ... So I think she can be forgiven for reacting in somewhat emotional terms."

It is hard to imagine him responding in emotional terms. "Well, I'm a human being so I do have feelings and emotions." I must have been looking sceptical, because he laughed and said, "yes, I do!" He does have what his wife, he tells me, calls an "English reserve". This can often be mistaken for being aloof, which would be a bad thing for a politician and, obviously, he says he's not. He must have inherited his reserve from his father (who was British), who was so amazingly reticent that he never talked about his first two families - he had two daughters each from a first and second marriage, and another five children, of which Little is one, from his third. I say amazingly because I am fascinated by this, and by the fact that he didn't know about one set of half-sisters until he was about 19. But he is so little interested (his liking for dreadful puns is catching) that he can't even remember which set of half-sisters it was he didn't know about.

He was having an emotional (for him) response to the Hobbit saga and you tell because when he is a bit emotional his long and, yes, spidery legs twitch under tables.

He has been what I call interfering and what he calls trying to help, behind the scenes. He spoke to John Barnett, and to Robyn Malcolm, whom he flatted with years ago when they were both at Victoria University. I asked, hopeful for a bit of gossip about him, because there is none, whether she'd been his girlfriend. But of course she wasn't because his days at varsity were what he calls "those innocent student days". He is such a goody-goody.

We were (well, I was) talking about Shane Jones and the porno films - and how that's one off the list of potential rivals on the list of future leaders of the Labour Party, on which they have both featured. Of course he snorts at that and, of course, John Key said that he was auditioning for that role at the recent Labour Party conference.

Still, you do wonder if he and Phil Goff have had that conversation. Wonder on. He says that of course they haven't, because "it's just not an issue". He made one of his terrible jokes, about Key: "I think he's spent too much time with Warner Bros executives and started talking about auditioning."

He said, when I asked what he thought about the porno movies, "you know, we are all sinners at the end of the day and no one's perfect". I asked, with no great hope of an illuminating answer, what his sins might be. "Ha, ha. Spending too much time with journalists, I think." That was one of what I called his slippery answers. He says what I call his slippery answers are just answers I don't like. "And it wouldn't be the first time I've dealt with a journalist that doesn't like the answers I gave." Maybe he was giving slippery answers. "No, I'm giving the right answers." He said, later, "It's you media folk who are slippery". I wrote this down. He said, helpfully, "Slippery with two pps". He is, I should point out here, in a possibly slippery jibe, head of the journalists' union.

I'm not sure who (as in which hat he was wearing) he was being the day I saw him. He is, I think, practising for his campaign. I was initially surprised that he slagged off (he would not, of course, put it quite that way) another union: Actors' Equity. I'd said that it had been a bad week for the unions, thus, to pinch a bit of union lingo, collectively lumping all unions in together. He said, "It's been a shockingly bad couple of months for Actors' Equity. It's been a difficult week for unions ... And I'm not going to defend the Actors' Equity because the handling of it has been an absolute disaster." Is it helpful of him to say that? "I've spoken to people in Actors' Equity. They know my view."

Apart from that shouting (which was acting), I've never seen him as angry - and I have observed him in action over many days. He was annoyed at the anti-union rhetoric and that the opportunity for such rhetoric had been provided. "To some extent, yeah. Because, a lot of unions, and I like to think my own included, worked very hard - and you have to in the voluntary unionism environment - to faithfully represent your members."

But it doesn't do him any harm, as an about-to-be MP to be seen to be capable of criticising a sector of the union movement.

He has long been seen as not Left enough by some factions of the Left; as too friendly with big business. An indication of where he sits is that he is equally scathing about Fran O'Sullivan and Chris Trotter. In other words: he is firmly in the centre.

I wondered, a bit rudely, how he'd go campaigning, with his English reserve. I can't imagine him kissing babies. He can't imagine himself kissing babies, which is a relief. "It's probably outlawed these days." Then he had a politician's thought: "It depends what's in the best interests of the child!" He said, stating the obvious, "I'm not going to be kind of, shallow, flouncy, sort of bounce about. I'm more of a listener than a, you know, flash Harry."

I'm very glad to hear it.

He is not, by the way, at all aloof. He has a kind of goofy charm, when he relaxes. He reminds me a bit of John Key (he can figure out whether he should take that as a compliment or not), without the mangled diction. I asked if he got what people like about Key, because it would be useful if he did, obviously. He laughed and said, "I think if I got it, I probably wouldn't shout from the rooftops about it." This is either clever or slippery, and possibly both.

He is probably the highest-profile union leader in the country (until Helen Kelly and the hobbits popped into view). He claims to never have given any thought to what his profile is. Perhaps he's working on it. Apparently he put on a comic turn at the recent Labour Party conference. Audrey Young, the Herald's political editor, described him as "a laid-back version of infomercial queen Suzanne Paul". He was a bit taken aback by this . "Um. Was that meant to be complimentary?"

I think so, but I'm not sure that another observation from a conference attendee - that it was there that people realised he had a personality and a sense of humour - is absolutely complimentary.

If I was him, I'd keep that sense of humour locked up in a strong box. He once told me he couldn't "carry a joke if it had handles on it", and I'm in full agreement with him there. He made a couple of awful jokes, so awful I didn't even recognise them as jokes until later. But because he does have a personality and a sense of humour, here they are. "There's been a lot of preciousness in the Hobbit dispute." And, in reference to the Save Our Hobbits rallies: "There was a lot of emotion whipped up." (The name of the bloke from the Australian union is Simon Whipp.)

Other than the dancing and the puns, he's got to be a top prospect for a future leader of the Labour Party - although it is no doubt slippery of me to say so.

- NZ Herald

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