The Man In Charge Of The Money

By May 8, 2021June 15th, 2021Feature Article, North&South
Grant Robertson

The Man In Charge Of The Money

With the economy recovering and the housing crisis escalating, Finance Minister Grant Robertson wields a lot of power. How will he use it?

By Madeleine Chapman

The call came at dinner. Grant Robertson, minister of finance, was attending the opening of a new museum at Waitangi on 5 February 2020. For weeks, he had been following reports of a new virus spreading on the other side of the world. Typically, Robertson doesn’t take calls while he’s a guest, but this one was from an old friend, Rodney Jones, whose work regularly took him to China. Robertson had a feeling Jones wasn’t ringing to make small talk, so he stepped out to answer his phone. “This is really bad,” Jones told him. As February turned to March, and the virus was declared a pandemic, Robertson was confronted with the prospect of a global recession.

New Zealand had never encountered a situation like this in its history. There was no playbook to follow. “We did look at other countries, but we were operating in an environment where we didn’t have much information,” Robertson recalls. “So we did things like ask, ‘What did we do after the earthquakes? What did we do after the global financial crisis? Is that a good model?’” By the time the decision was made in mid-March to shut the borders, Robertson and Treasury were rushing to deliver a financial support package that would ensure “cashflow and confidence” for business owners. Over the course of a weekend, a $12 billion economic support package — including $5 billion for wage subsidies — was developed. It was finalised on a teleconference with Robertson, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and “maybe James Shaw, I think”.

On 14 March, Robertson told New Zealanders what the financial future looked like. In short, not good. “A recession in New Zealand is now almost certain,” he told Parliament, “with the advice that we are receiving that the shock will be larger than that seen during the global financial crisis. This will affect every part of our economy now and for some time to come. We are going to see many New Zealanders lose their jobs, and some businesses will fail.”

Then, he walked through the reasoning behind the wage subsidy — “the largest investment in our lifetimes”. Robertson spoke for 15 minutes with a reassuring confidence, occasionally adjusting his glasses. Although he was neither deputy prime minister nor deputy leader of the Labour Party at the time, many New Zealanders mistook him for both. His widely praised economic response package amounted to 4 per cent of New Zealand’s GDP, compared to equivalent packages in Australia (1.2 per cent) and Britain (0.6 per cent). By September, CEOs around the country polled in the New Zealand Herald had rated Robertson as New Zealand’s top-performing cabinet minister.

One year on, Robertson is happy to be leaving his Beehive office, even if it’s just to walk across the road for a coffee. While waiting in line at the cafe in the National Library, he assesses the cabinet food before deciding against eating. “I’m fasting,” he says, explaining that “2020 was a year for stress eating”. He’s been fasting for “12 hours, ideally 14” each night for two months and says it’s working, “sort of”. He’s also been hitting the parliamentary gym three times a week.

Robertson is amiable, the type of person you would happily bump into at a function: easy to talk to and not too serious. He uses his hands a lot when he speaks. He wears square, rimmed glasses (he was first prescribed glasses when he was 18 months old) and his suit is only notable for the lack of a tie (he hates ties). On the way to the café, he greets almost everyone we pass, a reminder that he’s worked in the same building for 17 of the last 20 years. The breezy disposition is momentarily fractured when he places his phone on the table alongside mine to record our conversation. “I’ll just do this so Chris doesn’t stress out,” he says, referring to his senior press secretary, Chris Bramwell, who has sat in on all of our interviews and is, at this moment, purposefully heading our way. The Labour government runs a tight media ship, and in every one of our five interactions, Robertson is very on. He’s ready with an answer (generally a long one) to every question, seemingly without thinking.

These days, Robertson has a lot to think about. Last year’s election, which allowed Labour to govern unhindered by coalition partners, has turned 2021 into a moment of truth for him as much as for Ardern. The duo have been linked in one way or another since they were first-time MPs together in 2008. It was actually Robertson who was forecast as a future Labour leader as early as 2010. When he ran for leader in 2014, he nominated Ardern as his deputy — they ran (unsuccessfully) on a ticket of “generational change”. But it was Ardern who took the leadership just before the 2017 election, and when she became prime minister, she appointed Robertson as finance minister. His first Budget, in 2018, promised “a transformation of our economy”. It was followed by 2019’s “Wellbeing Budget”. Neither really lived up to the dreams of sweeping change nursed by the progressive left, but Robertson’s standing within the government was only strengthening.

Throughout Labour’s first term, Ardern travelled to the regions every Thursday. It was ensured that Deputy Leader Kelvin Davis would be otherwise occupied, leaving Robertson to act on Ardern’s behalf and appear before the media. He’s certainly the only minister who can rival Ardern’s ability to convey unwelcome information in a human way. As de facto deputy, Robertson played the role, both publicly and privately, of Jacinda Ardern’s right-hand man.

After its historic win in 2020, Labour no longer has built-in excuses — in the form of Winston Peters and New Zealand First — when it comes to delivering on those early promises of transformative change. The government is emerging from full Covid-crisis mode, and the economy and housing are set to become the overwhelming focus of the remainder of Labour’s second term. Robertson’s fourth Budget, due to be delivered on 20 May, will lay the foundation for whatever Labour plans to do with its majority. As second in command — and the man in charge of the money — Robertson holds a lot of power, if he chooses to wield it. He, perhaps even more than Ardern, will shape New Zealand’s post-pandemic future.

Grant Robertson speaking
Grant Robertson announces legislation to help companies during the Covid-19 lockdown, April 2020. Photo: NZME.

Grant Robertson has lived a consistent life. The man who tweets incessantly about the latest Super Rugby results is the boy who, for almost a full decade, attended every single Otago home game with his brother Craig. The man who excels in Question Time thanks to his ability to recall a surfeit of policy information is the boy who memorised every major candidate and their electorate in the 1981 general election (he was 10).

The most notable difference between the boy and the man is his faith, or lack thereof. He grew up in a Presbyterian family. “Our social life was the church,” he says. At church events in Dunedin, seven-year-old Grant would be quizzed on rugby statistics by the men in the parish, and much to their delight he always knew the answers. On summer weekends, when Shell Trophy cricket wasn’t being played at Carisbrook, he could be found out in the garden shed, otherwise known as Grant’s Commentary Box. Amongst the tools and a detached trailer was a desk, positioned below the one window. And on that desk sat a radio which would play the commentary highlights from trophy matches while Grant scribbled notes on a pad.

At 13, Grant decided the church wasn’t for him. His mother, who was on the socially liberal end of the Presbyterian spectrum, later admitted to doing “a silent fist pump” at the news. In the years since, Robertson has circled back to accept the role that religion played in his life. “I would put myself in the category of being an atheist,” he says. “[But] I’ve come to accept that the value base that I have did emerge in part from [the church].”

As Robertson was stepping back from the more organised elements of religion, his father was stepping in. In fact, the reason the family was living in Dunedin was so that he could become a minister. “That didn’t work out for my father,” Robertson remembers. “And obviously you’ll know the story of what happened with him.”

There’s never a good time to learn that your father has been living a secret life of crime, but the timing was particularly inconvenient for Robertson, as it derailed his plan to tell his parents over Sunday dinner that he was gay.

The story of what happened with Grant Robertson’s father goes like this: Born in 1941, Douglas (Doug) Robertson met Yvonne Wilkie in Lower Hutt when he was working as an accountant. They married and had a son, Stephen in 1968, then moved to Palmerston North a year later when Doug got a job at the Eastern and Central Savings Bank. Two more sons, Craig and Grant, followed in quick succession and, in 1973, the family moved again to Hastings. The Robertson boys were all precocious readers and top students: Stephen, the eldest, is now a professor teaching history at George Mason University in Virginia, while Craig is an associate professor teaching communications at Northeastern University in Boston. Grant considers himself “the academic failure of my family”.

In 1978, Doug had what his youngest son calls “a mid-30s crisis” and decided he wanted to become a Presbyterian minister. The decision wasn’t a complete surprise. Doug’s grandfather was a minister and his father played a large role in the local parish. Doug himself was a lay-preacher, driving his kids around the Hastings area every weekend as he spread the Good Word.

The path to ministry cut through Knox Theological College in Dunedin, so that’s where the Robertsons moved. With dad a student and mum staying at home to look after the kids, it was made clear to the three boys that when it came to money, they no longer had much.

Not having much became too much for Doug. He lasted two years as an enrolled student of God before dropping out and taking up a job as an accountant at local law firm Ross Dowling Marquet Griffin. For the next 10 years, Doug remained heavily involved in church groups, all the while siphoning money, nominal amounts at a time, out of the firm’s account and into his own. The Robertsons were richer as a result, but not rich enough for anyone except Doug to notice. The family went out for dinner on birthdays and had two cars — crappy cars, yes, but there were two of them.

On a wintry Friday in 1991, Doug Robertson was arrested and charged with “theft by person in a special relationship”. He had stolen, in total, $120,000.

Robertson was 19 years old when his father was arrested. His mother called him at his student flat on Castle Street and sent him down to the University of Otago campus to tell his brothers. There’s never a good time to learn that your father has been living a secret life of crime, but the timing was particularly inconvenient for Robertson, as it derailed his carefully considered weekend plans: to tell his parents over Sunday dinner that he was gay. “I made the decision that there were other things on people’s minds and I just pushed that back a little bit,” he remembers.

By the time Doug Robertson’s trial began, his eldest son, Stephen, had left the country (as planned months earlier). By the time Doug was imprisoned in 1992 on a two-year sentence, middle son Craig had graduated and moved to Christchurch.

Grant Robertson with brothers Stephen (centre) and Craig.
Grant Robertson with brothers Stephen (centre) and Craig.

Only Grant remained, still a student, in the city where Doug Robertson’s trial had been big news. Both brothers remember Grant taking on the lion’s share of responsibility within the family. “He hasn’t been able to be the ‘youngest child’ very much in the last 25 years,” says Stephen, corresponding from Virginia. Despite being hundreds of miles apart, the two brothers separately give eerily similar answers to my questions. The Robertsons run a tight media ship.

“He took on the role of the only child,” says Craig in Boston. Grant visited his father in Dunedin Prison every week for 15 months, although it took him a long time to come to terms with what he’d done. In 2009, when Doug Robertson died, his youngest son arranged the funeral.

By this point, Robertson was deeply involved in student politics at the University of Otago. While at King’s High School in Dunedin he’d been named, to his own surprise, head boy — a role that was typically given to the captain of the first XV or the top sportsman in the school. Since Robertson was neither, he only accepted the role after being convinced that his classmates wanted him to take it. “I remember distinctly saying to [the principal] ‘You need to assure me that I didn’t just get it because the staff voted for me.’ I needed to know that the kids had voted for me as well.”

The following year, Robertson joined the students association at the University of Otago while studying politics and history. It was the introduction of student fees in the early 90s that really got him fired up about student politics. After his dad’s imprisonment, Robertson found himself suddenly poorer. He was able to obtain a student allowance after presenting clippings of the trial as proof of his changed financial circumstances. He could see how increasing the cost of learning would cut out whole communities from gaining a higher education.

Robertson’s hero was David Lange, an “overweight guy with glasses” who showed him how far oratory skills could take you. He went along to student protests, most of which were against the introduction of fees. In 1993, after much volunteering and picketing, he explained, “one thing led to another and you end up finding yourself the president of the association”. One thing led to another? I ask. He laughs.

“Clearly, one has to put oneself forward for elections as part of one thing leading to another.”

In 2001, Marian Hobbs was in trouble. The Labour MP and cabinet minister was flailing during Question Time. The Opposition targeted her as the weak link during the first term of Helen Clark’s Labour-led government, and it was working. Hobbs desperately needed an advisor — someone who could ingest all the memos and briefings and spit out the most important parts. So she called Grant Robertson, who she’d met during the year he spent as co-president of the New Zealand University Students Association.

Robertson, then 28, was in New York working as a diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He’d gone straight from student politics to a job at MFAT, project-managing New Zealand’s aid programme in Samoa. “I was stuffed at the end of 96,” he says of his last year on the NZUSA executive board. “We’d made very little substantive progress on the issues. Around the edges we had, but substantively we hadn’t.” Not long after he started at MFAT, he was complaining to an old friend, who suggested he join the Labour Party. “I thought, you know what, I want to be involved in something where we make the changes rather than shout about the changes.” When Hobbs asked for his help, Robertson got on a plane and came home.

“He was just brilliant,” says Hobbs, who now serves on the Otago Regional Council. Robertson prepared Hobbs for Question Time by playing the role of other MPs, usually Act’s Rodney Hide. “He would just fire questions at me, every possible question in the book, and I would go bang bang bang bang bang . . . He gave me back my confidence.” So Hobbs wasn’t remotely surprised when Heather Simpson, Helen Clark’s chief of staff, descended from the ninth floor to poach her advisor.

“A minister who used to fluff her questions, a minister who was in and out of scrapes suddenly was coming through with solid work? When the Opposition couldn’t fluster me in question time . . . she saw that very quickly.”

Simpson offered Robertson a position in Clark’s office. It had no title and no description but he accepted immediately. When he left parliament four years later, the role still had neither of those things. At one point, Robertson asked Simpson if perhaps he should have an official job description. Simpson smiled and told him, “I don’t know that you need a job description for one line that says ‘Do what you’re told, Grant’.”

Grant and Paula Bennett 1996 NZUSA executive board
Grant (centre) and Paula Bennett (top left), 1996 NZUSA executive board. Images: Supplied

What he was told to do was count to 61. With a complex coalition arrangement across four parties, Labour needed someone to make sure that minorparty MPs were happy and ensure the government had the necessary 61 votes to pass any given piece of legislation. That someone was Robertson, who had developed a knack for relationship-building.

I ask Robertson if this sort of practice in wrangling with coalition partners came in handy during Labour’s first term with New Zealand First and the Greens. He laughs. “Yes it did, although each experience is unique.” It’s the shortest answer he’s given yet. We stare at each other in silence for several seconds until he imitates a batsman playing a forward defence shot. We move on.

We’re having a drink over Zoom. We were supposed to be watching the White Ferns play England at Eden Park, but with a sudden level change and Auckland’s fourth lockdown, our beer was moved to his Beehive office and my flatmate’s quiet bedroom. Robertson is drinking a Prohibition Porter, reluctantly gifted to him by Newstalk ZB host Heather Du Plessis-Allan after she made a bet with Robertson that the Māori Party would win the Tāmaki Makaurau electorate in the 2020 election (it didn’t). I am drinking a dirt-cheap New Zealand Lager, which delights him. He’s always been a lover of beer (all kinds) but these days only drinks dark beer, a restriction he attributes to “having an old stomach” that no longer agrees with lagers.

After two years, Simpson and Robertson were once again looking for an advisor to join Clark’s team in the lead up to the 2005 election. Simpson suggested Jacinda Ardern, a young advisor fresh out of Waikato University who was at that time working in New Plymouth MP Harry Duynhoven’s office. Robertson invited Ardern for a coffee at the Beehive café, Copperfields, and offered her the job. “The thing I remember really well was how worried she was about letting Harry Duynhoven down.” He laughs. “It was great, it was like she was really loyal to this person who had given her this opportunity.”

Robertson and Ardern shared an office on the ninth floor for a year. Both left Parliament after the 2005 election (Ardern to the United Kingdom via New York and Robertson to the Wellington campus of Otago University as a senior research marketing manager). Then Robertson received another call from Hobbs, suggesting that he run to succeed her in the Wellington Central electorate in 2008. He won, and entered Parliament as a first-term MP alongside Ardern, who got in on the party list.

In his maiden speech, Robertson thanked his partner, Alf. He met Alf Kaiwai in his twenties, playing rugby for the world’s first gay rugby team, the Wellington-based Krazy Knights. The Krazy Knights were formed in 1998 as a way to buck stereotypes and be a safe space for gay men within rugby culture. During its short run — only two seasons — Robertson was a number eight and Kaiwai the halfback. At that time, Robertson had no intention of settling down. “I was genuinely a person who did not think I would ever have children and wasn’t particularly trying to. I guess I just — accepted is probably the right word — that I wasn’t going to. And then I met Alf, and one of the things Alf said to me really early on was, ‘I’ve got kids and my kids come first’, and I was like, absolutely.” Kaiwai had two children, 8 and 13, that Robertson “happily inherited”. They now have four grandchildren.

Robertson doesn’t speak too much about his family (Kaiwai has worked as a bus driver and Uber driver). He is glad that new MPs’ private lives aren’t as interrogated as his was during his first term. “We had our civil union at Old St Paul’s not long after I became an MP and we had paparazzi across the road.” After his maiden speech, Robertson was congratulated on his bravery by some colleagues, which he finds amusing. “Everyone else talks about their families, so why wouldn’t I?”

Robertson entered Parliament during a major changing of the guard for Labour. Clark and Michael Cullen were departing, and 13 new MPs were in. Of the intake, which also included Chris Hipkins and Phil Twyford, Hobbs predicted that Robertson would be the star and eventual prime minister, with Ardern as his deputy.

Ardern and Robertson are very similar in a lot of ways. Both worked as political advisors before becoming politicians. Both are strong at communicating ideas and handling media questions, although Robertson has tended to work more behind the scenes. Both have campaigned on traditional Labour themes of lowering poverty and reducing inequality.

Of the two, Robertson’s track record is more radical, or at least, more vocal. He’s the former Otago University Students’ Association president who was arrested (“but not charged”, he’s quick to note) after a protest over tertiary fees. While in Clark’s office, he played a key role in the interest-free student loans policy, and was known to be unafraid of debate, at times going up against Simpson. As an MP, he was known for sometimes challenging the party line in caucus meetings. He was a strong advocate for having a capital gains tax as part of Labour policy. Ardern, meanwhile, kept her head down. In their first term, Robertson was known to hold court with reporters, socialising and maintaining relationships, while Ardern was rarely sought for comment on any issue.

The 2008 election loss, and Helen Clark’s resignation shortly after, marked the beginning of a long slump for Labour. Phil Goff led the party to a heavy defeat in 2011 and was succeeded by David Shearer. Amongst all the reshuffling and ticket-forming, one thing led to another and Robertson (by now the health spokesperson) found himself as Shearer’s deputy. Of the 2008 intake of 13 new Labour MPs, Robertson was the only one considered for leader or deputy. When Shearer stepped down in 2013 (after infamously brandishing two dead snapper in the House), many within the caucus urged Robertson to put his name forward to replace him.

At the time, every political blog in the country relished asking the same question: is New Zealand ready for a gay prime minister? Ultimately, Robertson lost to David Cunliffe after gaining the most caucus votes but losing by a wide margin among Labour party members. “I think that it was an issue to an extent, but I wouldn’t overstate it,” Robertson told Express magazine in 2020. “For some people, seven years ago, they didn’t feel New Zealand was ready for a gay prime minister. Obviously, I think that’s wrong, I thought it was wrong then and I think that’s wrong now, but that was on the mind of some Labour Party people.”

Ardern’s decision to set aside a capital gains tax during her prime ministership caused a rare rift in her working relationship with Robertson. “He lost the argument,” says Marian Hobbs. “They had to cool off their thing for a while.”

One year, one apology for being a man and one election defeat later, Cunliffe was forced to step down as well. The chorus of Labour MPs supporting Robertson for leader grew louder. This time around, he says, “at a personal level, my expectation was higher”. He had a strong running mate in Ardern, and the duo became known as ‘Gracinda’ (“not my name”). He had majority support from the caucus as well as party members. But he didn’t have the unions. In the end he lost, with 49.48 per cent of the vote to Andrew Little’s 50.52 per cent. Robertson says that he decided in that moment to never run for leader again.

“I just knew in my heart,” he says. “It’s a really big thing to put yourself up for these roles. And some people might argue that I was reacting emotionally to losing twice, but it was a bit more than that for me.”

Three years later, in the face of Labour’s worst polling in decades, Little announced that he was stepping down — only seven weeks out from the 2017 election. This time, Robertson, now the finance spokesperson, wasn’t in the running to take over.

“Having had a go at that, not succeeding, I just wanted to get on with doing the stuff I’d come to politics to do,” he explains. As his 2008 self once put it, that was “to help build a modern, inclusive New Zealand where we do not accept children growing up in poverty”.

“To be frank, it’s mentally quite good for me that I did that. It just means it’s no longer part of what I’m thinking about,” he says. “And stuff just happens, one thing led to another” — this time he deliberately uses the phrase — “and Jacinda ended up leader.”

During the tumultuous years of the Goff-Shearer-Cunliffe-Little carousel, Labour embraced then drew back from the idea of a capital gains tax. In 2011 and 2014, it was party policy, as a way to soften housing speculation. Little ruled it out, but Ardern initially chose not to do so. Then, just nine days before the election, with the issue threatening Labour’s election chances, Robertson announced that it would introduce no new taxes until after the 2020 election. That meant voters would have the ultimate say on whatever Labour chose to adopt from the recommendations of its proposed tax working group.

As finance minister, Robertson wanted a capital gains tax. Sir Michael Cullen, Robertson’s predecessor as finance minister and one of his political heroes, led the tax working group to a consensus that a capital gains tax should be implemented. And that’s when the walking back began. In April 2019, Ardern announced that she was ruling out a capital gains tax for as long as she was in office. Much of the immediate blame, or credit, depending on where you stood, fell on Winston Peters and New Zealand First, which had adamantly opposed a capital gains tax all along. But the minor party was hardly responsible for Ardern’s long-term undertaking.

According to Hobbs, Robertson had always been more enthusiastic about a capital gains tax than Ardern — in part because he represented an urban constituency while Ardern worked to create a rapport with small businesses and small town communities. Ardern’s decision to set aside the issue for the entire duration of her prime ministership caused a rare rift in their working relationship.

“He wanted it. He lost. He lost the argument,” says Hobbs. “They had to cool off their thing for a while.”

When I next see Robertson, I ask about disagreements between the prime minister and her deputy. He laughs at my suggestion that he brings the metro perspective and Ardern represents the small towns. And laughs again when I cut to the chase and say I’m asking specifically about the capital gains tax decision.

“Possibly this won’t be unexpected,” he begins. “But first I’d like to slightly challenge the premise.” He goes on to explain that while he is a city voice, decisions are made as a team — “I’m not shying away from the fact that I’m a forthright person within that team” — and that there are other city and rural voices within Labour’s team.

Robertson mentions that Labour will be making some announcements on housing “very soon”. I probably don’t need to leave space in the article for them, he says, and then steps out into traffic.

But that’s not what I asked and he knows it. He takes a deep breath and for the first time I can see him thinking before he answers. “Jacinda and I are friends. We share a lot of political values and a lot of ideas about how to get things done. But we aren’t going to agree on every single moment or response. So there is a dynamic that takes place, and I’m not commenting on any specific issue, but there is a dynamic that takes place that inevitably will do that.” I wait for him to play another forward defence shot but he doesn’t.

“I also really believe there’s a danger in believing there are silver bullets, in anything, just about, but especially in housing. So the idea that one particular policy is no longer available to us is not the end of the road or the end of the world. There are a range of things we can, are, and should be doing to address housing affordability. It’s more, now let’s work out what those other things are.”

After the very public and very embarrassing failures of KiwiBuild, the government has made only incremental moves to cool the market, with Ardern all but promising the nation that astronomical house prices will not fall. In February, Housing Minister Megan Woods faced ridicule after sharing a video promoting the fact that the government had helped just 12 families — yes, one dozen, a regular amount of bread rolls to purchase at once, 12 — into homes through the $400 million Progressive Homeowner Scheme launched in July 2020.

And the government’s firm response to the expected economic fallout from Covid — that $12 billion support package — has helped set the scene for further heat in the property market.

Interest rates at record lows encouraged more borrowing. New Zealanders stayed home and came home, and the cost of imported building materials increased. All of this contributed to house prices rising at a staggering rate: The median house price in Auckland rose $100,000 in February; nationally the rise was $50,000. A growing number of New Zealanders, particularly those facing a life of renting, are becoming tired of half-baked ideas.

On the walk back from our coffee in early March, Robertson mentions that Labour will be making some announcements on housing “very soon”. I probably don’t need to leave space in the article for them, he says, and then steps out into traffic. His press secretary gasps and he steps back in time for a car to speed by. “They’re facts,” he says, by way of explanation. “Rather than things that are going to alter the arc of history.”

On 23 March, Ardern, Robertson and Housing Minister Megan Woods made their announcement. There were many utterances of “no silver bullet” as they extended the bright line test — which requires investors to pay tax on profits gained from selling houses they don’t live in — to 10 years and announced the removal of tax deductibility on mortgage interest payments for residential property. The latter shocked property investors, while the former was considered a half-measure by none other than Treasury, which had suggested a 20-year test. The biggest expenditure announcement was a $3.8 billion fund for infrastructure and land, though no money was allocated to the actual building of state houses, which will be left to councils and private developers.

Reactions were swift, intense and varied. “Just bizarre, it’s crazy,” was the president of the NZ Property Investors Federation’s assessment of the new taxes. “It’s a drop in the bucket and it’s a leaky bucket at that,” said an underwhelmed Jarrod Kerr, Kiwibank’s chief economist. Judith Collins criticised Robertson for going back on his word after saying that Labour wouldn’t extend the bright-line test in a September 2020 interview. Those with multiple houses were loudly upset, and those still hoping to purchase their first were quietly hopeful.

Robertson’s budget will be released on 20 May. It should give the country a clear sense of the long-term financial effects of the lockdowns, closed borders, and ever-extending wage subsidy schemes. Unemployment rates are lower than expected but Robertson suspects they’ll rise again soon as the domestic tourism season ends.

The budget will also be a clear indicator of where Robertson and Ardern plan to take New Zealand between now and the 2023 election. Labour has an outright majority and with that, the opportunity to follow through on their 2017 promise of transformation. Even though the word “transformation” itself has been phased out of Labour’s vocabulary and replaced with “foundational change” or “enduring change”.

“You’ll often hear Jacinda talking about making ‘change that endures’,” Robertson tells me. “The idea that you’ve got to do things that allow you to have a decent run at government. Because as much as we would all like it to be another way, things don’t happen quickly in government. One term is not enough to deal with the kinds of issues that we want to deal with.” It sounds reasonable, and also like a defence of a slow-moving government.

I can’t help but ask him one more time if he has leadership plans for when Ardern’s time is up. He’s adamant he does not. “I’m very committed to what I’m doing now,” he says. “I suspect that whenever this phase finishes, it’s more likely that that will be the exit rather than coming back again another time.”

As we near his office, Robertson’s press secretary checks his calendar on her phone. Every minute of his day is coloured in, already accounted for, including time set out to eat a proper lunch and visit the gym.

On the way back inside, he greets everyone he walks past with a quick joke. Robertson bids me farewell and heads deep into the Beehive, where one thing always leads to another.

Madeleine Chapman is a senior editor for North & South.

This story appeared in the May 2021 issue of North & South.