Home run: Riding the night bus with Andrew Little

by Mike White / 01 August, 2017

Every Tuesday night, after a long day at Parliament, Labour leader Andrew Little takes the bus home to Island Bay.

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With the election campaign about to begin, Labour leader Andrew Little is running out
of time to convince New Zealanders he should be our next Prime Minister. Mike White followed Little for six months, regularly riding the bus home with him from Parliament, to better understand the man who would be king – and what his chances are.

February 14, 10.11pm: Supreme Court, Lambton Quay, Stop 5502

He walks down from Parliament soon after the last hints of crimson disappear from midsummer’s sky. Andrew Little obeys the lights as he crosses Lambton Quay, and ambles to the bus stop. He has a new suit: Hugo Boss. It must be election year.

He sits in the bus shelter beside a screen with scrolling ads: Dove anti-perspirant; 20 chicken McNuggets for $10; a 12-pack of Paseo toilet rolls – $5, two days only at Countdown.

This is his routine most Tuesdays. He’ll rise around 5am, eat breakfast alone while wife Leigh and teenage son Cam sleep on, do a round of media interviews, meet with Labour’s caucus, front in the House for question time, have more meetings, grab a kebab for dinner, do some paperwork, and head down to catch the bus home, the No. 1 to Island Bay in Wellington’s south.

He likes the bus. It’s a chance to press the flesh a bit, a chance to travel with real people, to save taxpayers a bit of money by not using his Crown limo. It’s thinking time, going over the day to the rhythm of the bus, the ping of the stop button, the quick compression of the doors, the “Thank you, driver” of those alighting.

On Valentine’s Day, lovers are few. Just glum Wellington Phoenix supporters cursing another loss, public servants pulling a late shift, and aimless uni students new to town. Cabs cruise for date-night carrion; cleaners unload buckets from cheap stationwagons outside office blocks; tired workers board the bus with shopping bags of microwave meals and chips.

There’d been little time for romance between Little and his wife, though she left him a bunch of red roses this morning and he responded with a card and chocolates.

They got together in 1999. She was a nurse running a brain-injury rehab unit, he was a lawyer with the Engineers’ Union. She asked for advice on an employment contract, he asked if she’d like to go to a Keb Mo concert. They shifted in together, had Cam in 2001, and got married in 2008.

Little wasn’t even an MP then; now he’s Labour’s leader and aiming to become Prime Minister in September.

He launched the political year in late January with his state of the nation speech at the Mt Albert War Memorial Hall in Auckland. A supporter behind him yawned often during his address, Green candidate Chlöe Swarbrick was attentive and applauded, and Little spoke about his recovery from prostate cancer. There was talk of tough fights, bravery, giving a damn, of balancing the books and building a better New Zealand. There was an ovation.

A week later at Waitangi, he chided Prime Minister Bill English for his absence and announced controversial broadcaster and former Alliance MP Willie Jackson was joining Labour. He’d hoped for a publicity triumph with his new star candidate, but it turned to shit, with internal bitching about Jackson’s past sins and too many men crammed into Labour’s list.

By the time Parliament returned on February 7, Labour backbencher Poto Williams had publicly slagged Jackson, despite promising Little that she wouldn’t. The perception of superficial unity and fickle loyalty to Little seeped from every headline. Bloody Labour, still can’t get it together, they whispered.

Little’s path to Labour’s leadership, to prime-ministerial pretender, was in some ways ordained, in others, a fluke of caprice and circumstance.

Mother, Cicely. Father, Bill – William Oscar Little. Bill had studied zoology at Cambridge University, learnt Arabic while serving in the Middle East as its borders were reimagined, been a driving instructor, and in 1962 answered a
recruiting call for teachers in New Zealand. He arrived with clipped moustache and plummy accent, and taught science at New Plymouth Girls’ High.

Cicely had been a medical secretary in London’s Harley St, met Bill during a driving lesson, and had five children in five years with him – Andrew being the last to arrive, with twin sister Val, in 1965.

There was a big rambling home in a middle-class suburb. There were bedrooms shared with brothers, and hand-me-down clothes. Nothing was flash, but nothing was wanting.

Bill was a conservative and a National Party committee member. “My first political act was, as a 10-year-old, delivering fliers for the local National Party candidate,” recalls Little. “Never again.”

In the years that followed, his older sister exposed him to progressive ideas she’d picked up at university, and by the 1981 Springbok tour, Little was arguing with his father about apartheid.

Piqued by Arthur Allan Thomas’s wrongful jailing, and fascinated by the Erebus tragedy investigation, Little decided to do law at Victoria University.

In February 1983, he stepped off a bus in Wellington, the first time he’d been to the capital, and began a student life that would last nearly a decade – and a political immersion that’s led to this year’s election. By 1987, he was Victoria’s student president, and then national students’ union president for the following two years. He completed his law and arts degrees, took a job as a lawyer for the Engineers’ Union, and in 2000, at the age of 34, was elected to head what had become the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU), the country’s largest private-sector union. There had always been talk of Little entering politics, but he held off, instead becoming Labour Party president.

Finally, in 2011, he stood for the party in New Plymouth, and got thumped by 4000 votes, but made it into Parliament on Labour’s list. As Labour struggled against an omnipotent John Key, Little’s impact was negligible, and in 2014 he was again trounced in New Plymouth by National’s Jonathan Young, hardly a charismatic political titan. This time, the majority blew out to nearly 10,000 votes. For two weeks, while special votes were counted, Little wasn’t even guaranteed to survive in Parliament, being the last candidate on Labour’s list to make the cut.

Given this, it surprised many and staggered others that Little put his name forward for the party leadership alongside Grant Robertson, Nanaia Mahuta and David Parker, when David Cunliffe resigned following 2014’s disastrous election. “I thought I had the best range of skills and experience on offer,” he says. “At a time when we’d suffered our third election defeat, I thought we needed to be prepared to do things differently, and I thought I could do that better than anybody else.”

Labour’s voting system sees three sectors choose the leader: its MPs get 40 per cent of the vote, party members 40 per cent, and unions 20 per cent. Little knew he had scant support from other MPs, “but I’d rung around the whole caucus and said, ‘If I stood, and if I won, would you support me? I’m not asking for your vote in the first ballot, but just, if I win, can you work with me?’ Everybody said yes.”

Of Labour’s 31 MPs, only three others supported him in the first round of voting – the lowest backing for any candidate. Grant Robertson, meanwhile, was the clear favourite with both MPs and party members (only a quarter of whom supported Little in the first round). But where Little succeeded, unsurprisingly, was with the unions, eventually picking up 75 per cent of their vote. After three rounds of voting, Little had gained 50.52 per cent of the total vote, to Robertson’s 49.48 per cent.

While Little gradually united the caucus, the response from elsewhere has often been cool.

A year into his tenure, The Dominion Post published an excoriating editorial titled, “Andrew Little is not the man to lead Labour out of the wilderness”. It characterised Little’s annual conference speech as “awkward and unconvincing… bellowing… empty posturing… blustering”, and ended with the denunciation: “Neither as a union politician nor as a parliamentarian has Little been a bold or lively reformer. He has little charisma and a lack of new ideas.”

A year later, political journalist Barry Soper described Little as “so earnest that he’s more like a trauma therapist”, with a sense of humour seen “about as frequently as a solar eclipse”.

Soper laid the blame for Labour’s continued low polling – under 30 per cent – squarely with Little and his inability to communicate. Little is Labour’s fifth leader in eight years and all were swatted aside by the impervious, imperious Key, none able to get within about 15 percentage points of National in the polls.

Soper’s take was published on December 2, 2016. Three days later, at 12.45pm, a remarkable and utterly unforeseen thing happened: John Key announced he was resigning as Prime Minister.

An hour later, Little was interviewed on radio and did his best to appear gracious. Five minutes later, he gave a press conference; his deputy, Annette King, on one side, the New Zealand flag on the other. He remained diplomatic and thanked Key for his service. But his eyes gave away his astonishment and excitement. A straightness replaced any stoop, the corners of his mouth inclined to a smile, and you sensed that as soon as the reporters left, he danced a wee jig of political merriment. Finally, suddenly, he could have a chance – he could be Prime Minister. 

Andrew Little at Victoria University with Grant Robertson, one of the rivals he beat to become party leader.

April 11, 10.20pm: Courtenay Place near Taranaki St, Stop 5514

Andrew Little was getting his hair cut just round the corner from here when he heard the jury was coming back. For weeks, he fought allegations that he defamed hotel owners Lani and Earl Hagaman by suggesting they received favourable treatment for a donation to the National Party. And for four days last week, he sat in Wellington’s High Court facing possible damages of $2.3 million: off the campaign trail, on every news broadcast, accused of a lack of judgment and contrition.

Yesterday, while the jury deliberated, he decided, bugger it, he’d carry on with his schedule, and travelled up the Kapiti Coast. He visited a rebuilt primary school in Paraparaumu. He smiled and obliged, but seemed distracted. Then there was a lunch for Labour Party members in Paekakariki. French toast and fish and chips. About 25 people, background music and a hissing espresso machine making Little raise his voice as he spoke of health and education and water we can swim in.

Sixteen-year-old Kapiti College students Sophie Handford and Niamh Prendergast came along to learn more about Labour’s leader, even though they can’t vote yet. They reckoned if you showed 20 of their fellow students a picture of Little, maybe five might recognise him. A few more would know who Bill English was.

“If you showed people a photo of John Key, every single person out of the 20 would recognise him,” said Handford.

“And probably more people would know who Max Key was than Andrew Little – which is a sad thing,” added Prendergast.

At the other end of the table was 88-year-old John Grundy, a former Methodist minister who’d been a Labour member for more than 60 years and seen countless party leaders in that time. So how did Little rate?

Grundy paused and hedged a bit. “I think he’s straight-talking. I think when he’s the prime minister, he’ll become a reasonably popular prime minister.” There was a sense of Little being condemned by qualification and modest compliment as Grundy continued. “He will develop gifts in leadership he may not have at the moment.”

Another attendee described Little as “solid”. It was the kind of description you give to a reserve prop who trains hard but rarely makes the team. Or an unremarkable clerk who ticks boxes Monday to Friday. And this was from those predisposed to flatter him.

Back in Wellington that afternoon, the Hagaman jury was still out, so Little went to get his hair cut in Taranaki St. “I got a phone call to say the jury was going to be back in 10 minutes. But I said to the barber, ‘Nah, just carry on.’”

When he got back to the office, it was explained he’d been cleared on many charges and the jury hadn’t been able to reach a decision on the others – a result Little admitted was better than he’d expected. Now he could get back on the road, holding meetings in small towns and cities, introducing himself and new deputy Jacinda Ardern.

Their first public outing was in early March at Victoria University’s orientation week. They wandered among students with Macs on their laps and sushi for lunch. The university clubs had stalls – Little moved from lacrosse to sci-fi to canoe polo, happily back on his old campus. The only disruption was a preppy New Zealand First acolyte trying to photobomb Little’s interactions. He was gently shepherded away by red-shirted Labour youth.

That evening, 200 people packed out a public meeting at the capital’s Botanic Gardens as late sun tinged the tops of cabbage trees. Ardern introduced Little, saying he was unflappable, focused and determined. “And all that determination is focused on his huge sense of social justice.”

Little’s speech was forceful, highlighting housing, delivered in a voice that perpetually sounds like it needs a squirt of CRC. “If you like what you’ve heard tonight, if you believe in what you’ve heard tonight, if you believe in a New Zealand that gives everybody a better chance, more fairness, better opportunities, then hop on board, help out.”

As party faithful spilt out into the twilight, most seemed satisfied, or even marginally energised by Little’s performance.  “I just think,” started a
woman in a flowing dress, “that we’re muppets if we don’t vote for them.”

A New Zealand First supporter tries to get in on the act as Little and new deputy Jacinda Ardern mix with students at Victoria University in March.

The person Ardern replaced at Little’s political side was Annette King, who’d helped him rally a caucus previously factionalised under David Cunliffe like a Byzantine court.

King says Little is “not your typical politician. Not the flash-Harry politician. He’s a very serious politician, a very considered politician.”

He’s private, loyal, a man of his word, she says. “But he has a really great sense of humour and he’s got a beautiful singing voice… That’s something a lot of people don’t know about him.”

Mike Williams didn’t know that, either – and you’d think the political commentator might have, given he’s known Little since his union days and preceded him as Labour Party president.

As far back as January, Williams was suggesting Little become more three-
dimensional, so the public could see him as a person, as well as a politician. Everyone knew who John Key’s wife and kids were – they even knew his cat’s name, Williams says. Little’s life beyond Parliament largely remains an enigma.

Asked if Little is the right person to lead Labour, Williams replies: “He’s the best they’ve got at the moment, I think.” He immediately admits that’s scarcely fulsome endorsement, and adds that Little is growing into the job. “There’ve been no great disasters under Andrew. He hasn’t got up and said, ‘I’m sorry I’m a man’ or something.”

Williams says his fingers are crossed that Little’s appeal and Labour’s static polling – rooted anywhere between 26 and 32 per cent – will improve during the campaign’s thrust and parry. “Watch this space, I still hope to be inspired.”

Time and again, those who know Little describe his dry wit and easy company – then suffix that with puzzlement this doesn’t come across in the media. They wish he’d “lighten the fuck up”, and prescribe “a beer for breakfast”. When Little ran for Parliament in 2011, the Listener’s Diana Wichtel described him as having “the sober public air of a man born slightly middle-aged”. His political opponents have tried to make the “Angry Andy” tag stick.

Porirua community law centre solicitor Chris Ellis was at law school with Little – and with Wayne Eagleson, chief of staff for John Key and Bill English, who was already a member of the Young Nats in those days.

Both Little and Eagleson have maintained their early political stripes, with Eagleson the National Party’s eminence grise, “the Cardinal Richelieu of the Beehive,” says Ellis. “And Andrew is what he is – a patently honest, straight-up kind of guy… he’s always been in there battling for the little guy, and making sure they get a fair shake. And what worries most of us who have an affection for Andrew is whether he’s actually just a bit too decent to survive in politics.”

Ellis says the fact Little takes his job and politics seriously has almost become a flaw in the eyes of the public, who expect John Key’s blokiness, respond to Bill English’s “hokey farmyard charm”, or wish for the Oscar Wilde wit and one-liners of David Lange. “An unleavened diet of earnestness and heartfelt bloody anguish about our current predicament is pretty hard to stomach. It’s a level of anxiety which comes across as a kind of slightly offensive rectitude – and I know that’s not there,” says Ellis.

“Are you still talking to him?” he asks. “Will you tell him Chris Ellis has made an offer to help him gag up his speeches. That’ll make him laugh. But I kind of am serious. I’d love to sit him down with somebody who respects his viewpoint, like [playwright] Dave Armstrong, and just say, ‘Okay, that’s the speech you were going to give, and here’s the speech that we would give, if we were playing just slightly more to the gallery. And then you find the middle line. But unless you do this 10 more times between now and September, we have grave fears for your safety.’

Little at his home in Wellington, which he shares with wife Leigh, son Cam, and enthusiastic terrier Harry.

May 9, 10.27pm: Wellington Hospital, Riddiford St, Stop 6017

Little’s son, Cam, was born here.

In five days, Little is due to give one of his most important speeches of the year, at the party’s congress, and he’s been writing it tonight. He wrote about Cam, recalling how he and Leigh brought their baby home and put him in his cot, using the memory to emphasise the importance of having an
affordable, warm house. Cam is almost 16 now, at college with one of Bill English’s boys, a bit harder to put to bed nowadays, Little joked in a speech lighter on gags than Chris Ellis would have advised.

The weekend’s congress at Te Papa is meant to be a ra-ra for the troops, to enthuse them for the campaign, to launch them onto a thousand streets door-knocking and pamphleteering. The lead-up isn’t going well, though.

The previous week, Labour announced its party list. Any hope it would give Little a platform to laud talented new candidates was instantly swamped by news Willie Jackson was miffed at his low ranking of number 21. This became a pretext for party members to again attack Jackson, highlighting his involvement with charter schools – something Labour promised to get rid of.

Little tried to soothe the situation, but internal bitching continued to spill publicly. “I’m annoyed as much about party members who took to social media and decided that was the right place to argue all sorts of things,” says Little. “That didn’t help.”

But Little didn’t help things, either. That morning, he was quizzed about Jackson by Morning Report’s Susie Ferguson. As he desperately tried to avoid suggesting he’d close Jackson’s charter school, or water down Labour’s policy, his responses became confusing and inarticulate. When he repeatedly alluded to principles and policy instead of giving simple answers, listeners heard someone obfuscating and evading, pirouetting somewhere between opaque and obtuse.

Act leader David Seymour issued a press release labelling Little’s interview a “train wreck”, other commentators lamented Little’s performance and, privately, even some of his inner-circle were shaking their heads.

Later in the day, Little had to jump on a suggestion from Labour’s corrections spokesman Kelvin Davis that some prisons could be run on Maori values. It wasn’t Labour policy. Others in Labour’s Maori caucus had lent support to Jackson’s charter schools. Then Poto Williams had suggested turning the legal system on its head by requiring those accused of rape to prove their innocence. Little, again, stressed Labour had no intention of implementing that. The impression people got, though, was a caucus divided on policy.

Despite everything, Little, who turns 52 in the weekend ahead, sticks to his message that the party is in great heart on the eve of its congress, and its MPs are united. “But I think every member of caucus has got a pretty clear message now that this is not a time to be expressing personal views.”

 

“Andrew Little has never demonstrated an ability to win votes,” says Victoria University political scientist Jon Johansson bluntly. “Look at the contests in New Plymouth.”

Johansson, a specialist in political leadership, was incredulous Little stood for Labour’s leadership in 2014. “I don’t know how anybody with any self-
respect, with the very mediocre record he had, could put himself up for election. He didn’t have caucus support. He didn’t have public support. He wasn’t even the best union leader. And so far, I think that view has been validated, because he’s not been able to resonate.

“I think [conservative political commentator and lobbyist] Matthew Hooton for once landed on the right compass bearing when he said Andrew was a competent union leader, but he hasn’t stepped up. He is actually just a good old Kiwi boy. But his wooden way of communication doesn’t project his personality.

“I know people who think very fondly of Andrew, but they scream at their radios because they can’t believe how bumbling he is in some of his media performances. He comes across as badly vacillating, caught between the lines he’s been told to say, and what he might think.”

Asked what virtues Little does possess, Johansson is brief. “He has that quality of one-of-us-ness. He’s a pretty regular New Zealand bloke. Well motivated. Yeah, I can’t think of anything else. I just don’t think he’s a leader. I still don’t have a clue what Andrew Little’s New Zealand is, circa 2020, circa 2030. So how can I feel excited about that?”

Johansson believes that although National took its foot off Labour’s throat when Key resigned, even Little in his heart of hearts is probably eyeing 2020’s election as more realistic to win.

For there to be a Labour victory this year, Little would need a breakthrough moment – like John Key sharing the stage with Helen Clark over the “anti-
smacking” bill; like Clark staring down caucus colleagues scheming a coup. “And in the absence of that moment, Labour is going to lose. And in my pessimistic view, I don’t know how they can fix themselves. My bog-standard Leadership 101 advice is trust yourself, because you’ll hear so much advice from everyone around you. And if only Andrew could do that and reveal things that have so far remained hidden, that would be his breakthrough moment.

“I mean, when was the last time a Labour leader could just stand up there, know what they thought, and express it?”

In despairing moments, Johansson’s found himself swiping at his iPad, trying to find out where David Lange’s son Roy is. “Isn’t that wishful thinking…”

Little and wife Leigh Fitzgerald leave Labour’s congress in May.

May 30, 10.30pm: Rintoul St, Stop 6121

Little’s first night in Wellington, back in February 1983, was spent here, at a Simon and Garfunkel concert at Athletic Park. The park’s gone now, superseded by a retirement village, but
Little’s pretty much stayed in the capital ever since.

In his congress speech, he talked about his first house, a three-bedroom starter in Brooklyn for $315,000, up a hundred steps. That speech hammered housing, resurrected the spectre of Micky Savage hoisting a dining table into the country’s first state house in Miramar, and got two standing ovations.

“We can do better… We will succeed…We are putting people first… We have the vision, we have the guts, and the plan… The election is ours to win.”

There were no conga lines around the auditorium at the end; no chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, Bill English has got to go”; no portraits of Little with “HOPE” written underneath. But as delegates shuffled out past the Otaki women’s-
branch table selling pickles and jam, past the half-price T-shirts and $2 raffle tickets, most felt heartened.

The jollied mood didn’t last long, however. By the following Tuesday morning, Little had delivered another stumbling performance with Susie Ferguson, appearing unable to back up figures in his own press release about people being worse off under the government’s budget, sounding more defensive than decisive. And the New Zealand Herald’s Claire Trevett had written an article explaining that Labour’s rules allowed a brief pre-election window for its MPs to roll Little if they wished.

Little is somewhere between frustrated and fuming. “I can’t explain why she would’ve written that story when no one is talking about alleged coups of any sort, whatsoever. So it was gratuitous and mindless, in my view.”

More generally, he feels some media aren’t giving him a fair go. “I think Radio New Zealand, in particular, has a habit of questioning me on matters of minute detail in a way they never do with Bill English.” Increasingly irked, he has complained to RNZ.

Little knows how important his media performances are and has undergone training – about 10 sessions in 2016 and a couple this year – most recently with Maggie Eyre, who helped transform Helen Clark’s image.

But still, there’s a sense Little’s media responses meander and stray down cul-de-sacs like an Uber driver in a new part of town. That his answers are elliptical to the point of elusion. That he just needs to keep it simple, succinct, straightforward.

However Little remains bullish about his media image. “I’m satisfied it’s improved significantly and I’m feeling very satisfied with the performance I’m delivering.”

Willie Jackson, interviewed at Labour’s congress, has attracted criticism and controversy since Little encouraged him to join the party. As former party president Mike Williams notes: “Willie’s got a big ego and a big mouth, so he was always going to be a risk.”

You can scoff that image isn’t important, argue that it’s policies not party leaders that really matter to people. Good luck with that.

A recent Bauer Media election poll (which had Bill English at 39 per cent as preferred Prime Minister, Little at 13 per cent and his deputy, Jacinda Ardern, at 16 per cent) showed that for 80 per cent of respondents, the party leader was important or very important in deciding how they’d vote. Only two per cent maintained it wasn’t important.

Jennifer Curtin, associate professor in politics at Auckland University, says John Key is partly to blame, for reinventing how we measure political figures. “He changed the landscape in the sense we want our leaders to speak to us through the television, and be like us, and understand us, and have an association with us that’s almost like, ‘He’s my friend.’”

So how is Little doing in this new environment? “He’s doing better than Cunliffe – which, I suppose, isn’t hard. I think he comes across as trustworthy, authentic, and as well-meaning and wanting to put policy out there in front of personality. I could imagine he’d be a very competent Prime Minister. He’s just never going to have the glamour factor.”

However, Curtin says Ardern could provide some of that and, as a team, they have wider appeal.

Longtime friend and union colleague Paul Tolich admits Little isn’t telegenic, but says nor was Helen Clark. And nor is Bill English. “I know [Little] like the back of my hand. That’s why I’ve always supported him. He’s a very polite, very genteel, very decent sort of bloke. He’s a little bit reserved, a little bit shy. He’s very much his own man. He’s deeply thoughtful, he’s considered – he’s a classic lawyer.”

The more Little gets out and engages with people during the election campaign, Tolich predicts, the better he’ll do. And Little maintains that as he travels the country, people are telling him, “The winds of change are blowing.”

But in mid-June, a One News poll put National on 49 per cent and Labour on 30. Days later, a Newshub poll had National slightly up on its previous poll in March, at 47.4 per cent, and Labour down 4.4 per cent to 26.4. That’s very similar to the 2014 election result (National 47, Labour 25), suggesting any winds of change are blowing in the wrong direction for Little, and raising questions about what he has achieved since assuming the leadership.

Little insists people are warming to Labour, and its own polling had the party much higher. “We’re not 26 per cent. We’re not 26.4 per cent. We’re around the early 30s. At 26 per cent, you don’t get 250 people turning out on a bitterly cold, windy, wet night in Whanganui, sticking round for an hour and a half, listening to what you have to say and asking questions. There is a mood of change and it’s our job to go and capture that mood, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Ultimately, it’s all about numbers. Win the election by one seat and Little will be the great genius, with doubters silenced. Lose by one and he’ll be a great failure, the latest in a sequence of unfulfilled Labour leaders.

“Thirty-five per cent is the minimum we need to achieve to be credible. In reality, our target has to be higher than that, but anything less and you’re off the planet.

“If we don’t get 35, personally I’d have disappointed myself and the party. And it’d be hard to stay on after that. We don’t tend to tolerate leaders [who lose]. You get one shot.”

Little waits for the No 1 bus on Wellington’s Lambton Quay, near Parliament.

June 20, 10.37pm: The Parade, Island Bay, Stop 6133

Just across from Parliament, where Little catches his bus, is a statue of former Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser, cast in bronze, captured leaning into the northerly. It’s Fraser, with his union background and internationalist views, who Little aligns most closely with – and whose portrait hangs in his office.

Fraser wasn’t flamboyant, nor a shallow performer, so perhaps the comparison is credible. “I grew up with a mother who… the thing she most denounced was vanity and conceit,” says Little. “So there’s always been the thing in the back of my mind about not looking like a try-hard and being natural about who I am.”

Who he is, most agree, is a decent bloke, a genuinely motivated bloke, struggling to get that across to voters – struggling to impress on people that these things remain important. Sometimes the ghost of Phil Goff slips into step beside him: another decent guy with a good story, unable to connect with the public as he lost the 2011 election to John Key.

Bill English is a different foe. He’s mortal, unlike Key, who was like one of those sci-fi superhumans who can’t be killed, no matter how many times they’re stabbed through the heart. English is a better match for Little. Both men give dour a respectable name. English mines his Southland farmer narrative to embellish his common touch; Little relies on his years battling for workers to show he has dirt under his fingernails and scuffed shoes.

And Little is confident. He feels he understands the country’s problems better than English: people’s inability to buy a home, rent a home, get healthcare, have their kids in uncrowded classrooms.

He wants something different for his son Cam, and for everyone else. “Regardless of the circumstances of your birth, whether you’re rich or poor, whether you’re Maori or Pakeha, whether you’re born here or settled here, that you get to enjoy the fullness of New Zealand. You get to own your own home if you work hard and save hard, that you get to go to the beautiful parts of the country, and if you want to go into business you have the opportunity,” he says.

“We’ve just got to have a country where we say, ‘You have a fair chance. You have a fair chance to get ahead and have a decent life.’ And a whole heap of parents are now realising that for their kids, that’s not what their future holds.”

Just past the Island Bay shops, Little thanks the driver and steps off the bus. Cam will be in bed by the time he walks from the stop to his family’s simple brick house, a couple of blocks away. There’ll be a welcome from Leigh and from Harry, their dog. There’ll be a chance to chat, iron a shirt for tomorrow, and get several hours’ sleep. There’ll be another early start in the morning and another long day; an election campaign that will consume the next few months and decide his future.

Andrew Little hitches his bag over his shoulder, leans into the northerly, and heads home.

This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.

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How reading books helps fight Alzheimer's disease
80291 2017-09-21 00:00:00Z Health

How reading books helps fight Alzheimer's disease

by Nicky Pellegrino

Aside from the pleasure it gives, reading staves off Alzheimer’s and helps make your personality shine.

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Privacy complaint lodged over Paula Bennett campaign text
80293 2017-09-20 14:02:57Z Politics

Privacy complaint lodged over Paula Bennett campai…

by RNZ

National's deputy leader Paula Bennett is at the centre of a complaint after her campaign sent a text to 40 constituents that included phone numbers.

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Fuel crisis: Neighbours detail swamp kauri mining at leak site
80287 2017-09-20 13:49:28Z Economy

Fuel crisis: Neighbours detail swamp kauri mining …

by Lois Williams

The Northland property where the Marsden-to-Wiri fuel pipeline was broken was mined for swamp kauri two to three years ago, neighbours say.

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Three great Auckland food events featuring oysters, quinoa and venison
80280 2017-09-20 13:04:17Z Dining

Three great Auckland food events featuring oysters…

by Kate Richards

Oysters, quinoa, kawakawa, venison and more, feature on the creative menus of these three upcoming Auckland food events.

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