Andrew Little says bringing stability to the Labour Party is his greatest achievement as leader. He wishes politicians would work together more to solve the nation's problems.

1 You've been sued for defamation twice since entering Parliament. As a lawyer are you more confident about pushing the line?

I was a backbencher when Judith Collins sued me for defamation in 2012. That was clearly more political and we got round a table and got it sorted. But as Leader of the Opposition I think you have to push the envelope and take on things that you know are tricky. I was conscious when I made those comments of being protected by qualified privilege. When I'd gone as far as I could in what was a reasonable offer of settlement, including an apology, then I was happy to defend it.

2 What has been your most challenging time since becoming the Labour Party leader in 2014?

The recent litigation was pretty tough at home. I'm used to litigation but I've got to be conscious it's not the same at home. I'd be lying if I didn't say I felt the pressure.

Advertisement

3 What are you most proud of achieving as Labour leader?

Stability in our caucus. I've tried to create the culture that it's okay to have a discussion and disagree with each other, sometimes vehemently, but once we make a decision that's it. It can be tough to give a blunt message but I'm not going to pussy foot round. I'm not going to say one thing to one person and another to someone else. Equally I'm not going to commit to a particular view until everyone's had a chance to contribute.

4 What was your childhood like?

Home was a very firm anchor for me. I grew up in New Plymouth. My parents emigrated from the UK when Dad was recruited to be a school teacher. Mum had five kids under the age of 5. My twin sister Valerie and I were the youngest. Growing up in a big family you get used to sharing. You also have a strong sense of security. It keeps your ego under control. Mum hated vanity in anybody so she knocked that out of us pretty smartly.

5 When did you become politically aware?

At 16 with the Springbok Tour. I was instinctively opposed. My parents were strong National Party supporters so realising I didn't share their political view was a big turning point for me. There were some frosty silences at the dinner table, especially when my sister Jennifer came home from university. Mum was great at changing the subject. That was also a time when public confidence in our legal institutions was being undermined by the Erebus and Arthur Allan Thomas cases which inspired me to study law.

Labour Party leader Andrew Little with his wife Leigh at their Wellington home. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour Party leader Andrew Little with his wife Leigh at their Wellington home. Photo / Mark Mitchell

6 You became president of Victoria University's student union and then the NZUSA. What did you learn from student politics?

When I organised a big march on Parliament in 1987, so many people claiming to be in touch with the left told me no-one would turn up. A group of us spent weeks putting notices up everywhere and on the day thousands of students marched. That taught me about going with my gut instinct. Some people say my current polls aren't good but the conversations I have with people tell me there is a strong appetite for change. Student organisations are full of egos so I learnt how to pull together the radicals and conservatives together. I also learnt that as a union leader you've got to bring your members with you or you'll be left high and dry.

7 What was your favourite case as a lawyer for the Engineers, Manufacturers and Printers Union?

My first case against the Tasman Pulp and Paper Mill on their obligation to consult workers on roster changes. We won the case but more importantly we got back round the table and worked with the employer to improve productivity. We gave our guys an incentive to get their work done and get home rather than trying to clock up overtime. Some members put up a fight but it ended up being a model we used in many other places. I saw the importance of the law not as an end in itself but as a catalyst for change.

8 How much credit should go to National for the recent care workers' union victory?

Well they opposed it all along until a judge told them to either sit around a table and sort it out or the court would do it for them. To their credit they did. The timing of the announcement in an election year was a bit cynical but the fact we've got union leadership capable of working with the highest levels of government and National Cabinet Ministers celebrating the outcome is a good thing. It should be a spur to the rest of the country to get round the table to solve difficult problems.

9 What skills do you need to be a good negotiator?

Keep your ego out of it. Don't take things personally. Use the strengths in your team. Sometimes there's a place for emotion and even anger. Humour is another thing. I know people think I can be a bit humourless but there are times when taking the mickey out of yourself breaks the ice so you can get back into it again.

Labour Party leader Andrew Little with his twin sister Val. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour Party leader Andrew Little with his twin sister Val. Photo / Mark Mitchell

10 You became Labour Party List MP after serving as party president for two years. What aspect of Parliament did you find most challenging?

The most frustrating thing is there's very little opportunity to do genuine problem solving. I came from an environment where you worked with your adversaries to find a solution. I'd forged a good relationship with Rob Fyfe at Air NZ because we were both committed to the airline succeeding. We actually fixed a lot of problems which was really satisfying. Select Committees are the closest you come. We do work with National on foreign affairs and national security stuff. It's important as a small country not to lurch from one stance to another. Chris Finlayson is a National MP you can work out a way to resolve a disagreement with.

11 Your wife Leigh is Catholic but you're not. How do you negotiate your religious differences?

Our son Cam has been baptised a Catholic. He goes to St Patrick's College in Kilbirnie. It wasn't something we talked about beforehand but Leigh was keen on it. Eventually he'll make up his own mind about how he wants to live his life. Occasionally I'll go along to church with Leigh. I quite like the singing and ceremony that goes with it.

12 Are you still close with your twin sister Valerie?

Yes we enjoy each other's company and humour. We're kindred spirits. She's a great performer. She has a group called The Drag Kings, women dressing up as various male celebrities, and runs a DJ business with her partner. We share some musical tastes but she's probably diversified more than me. I listened to a lot of jazz and blues in my 20s but Spotify would tell me these days it's mostly 70s and 80s rock. I still get to the odd live gig like Bruce Springsteen and Dave Dobbyn.

13 (Bonus question) How do you relax?

I take the dog for long walks. A bit of kayaking in summer, skiing in winter. A round of golf over Easter was very satisfying. I go to the movies with my son Cam, we saw Logan recently, and my wife and I binge-watched Designated Survivor on Netflix. I just finished reading Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. It makes a compelling case for drug law reform which has really given me something to think about although I still have issues with decriminalisation. If I got the chance mental health would be an issue I'd really like to do something about, along with housing.

• See also Andrew Little's previous 12 Questions interview in 2014