Talkback host, union delegate, and occasional firebrand Willie Jackson is back in Parliament after a 15-year hiatus - and is now a Minister to boot. He tells Shane Cowlishaw about his plans for the Employment portfolio and the evolution of Maori politics.
There’s a hearty chuckle from new Labour MP Willie Jackson as he’s asked what’s worse, talkback or the Caucus room.
Leaning forward at a table in his Beehive office, Jackson takes the diplomatic route.
“Talkback, definitely talkback. I did talkback for ten years, every day for ten years and I’d had enough. I don’t miss it one little bit, not one little bit.”
For seven of those ten years Jackson hosted Radio Live’s flagship afternoon show with former Labour MP John Tamihere.
That partnership came to a controversial end in 2013 after inflammatory comments made by the pair regarding the Roast Busters scandal, but after the dust settled Jackson continued on with new partner Alison Mau.
Earlier this year, however, Jackson handed in his resignation after being shoulder-tapped by then-Labour leader Andrew Little to stand for the party in the coming election.
It was somewhat of a coup for Labour given Jackson’s previous ties to the Maori Party and removed the risk of him standing against Peeni Henare in Tamaki Makaurau.
But it wasn’t long before the turbulence started.
In May Jackson, unhappy with his place at 21st on the Labour list and running the real risk of not making it into Parliament considering the poor polling results at the time, complained about the ranking.
Eventually the matter was dropped by Jackson and as the party rode Jacinda Ardern’s popularity into government, Jackson found himself not only back in Parliament but a Minister.
Questioned about whether he was happy with the employment portfolio, he says it’s better than he could have hoped considering the dire early situation Labour was in.
“Mate, I didn’t even know if I’d get a portfolio. Think about it, I got announced on February 6th and I thought it was all going to be over on February 7th.”
He points out that he is the only fresh Labour MP to be made a Minister, although his time as an Alliance MP between 1999 and 2002 and experience as a trade unionist likely helped.
Now ensconced in Government, Jackson is also part of a Maori caucus that is perhaps the strongest ever.
So what does he see the future holding for Maori politics?
Maori Party destruction
When Tariana Turia quit Labour over the foreshore and seabed controversy to form the Maori Party in 2004, Jackson was one of her biggest supporters.
Over the years he continued to support Maori politicians from across the spectrum, including fellow troublemaker Hone Harawira, while building his broadcasting career.
When Jackson announced his decision to stand for Labour, he also decided to campaign full-bore on wiping the Maori Party from Parliament.
Having got his wish after co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell was beaten by Tamati Coffey in Waiariki, Jackson is unapologetic.
“I came into the game to destroy the Maori Party, just like their game was to destroy us. Labour wants to destroy National and National wants to destroy Labour, go ask the Pakeha politicians the same question.”
“It’s the game we play, the game we play is take each other out. Not their families or anything, their families are all good people but I was clear from the start as campaign manager we had to take them out.”
He says the Maori Party “gave it a good go” but made strategic mistakes and took the wrong advice at times.
His thoughts are similar on Harawira, who stood in Te Tai Tokerau but was beaten soundly by Kelvin Davis.
In October, Harawira launched a scathing attack on Jackson calling him a “dirty, lowdown skunk” over comments that Maori had moved on from the foreshore and seabed legislation.
Jackson says he is glad Harawira won’t be a disrupting factor in Parliament and was disappointed to see him flinging insults on television.
“What’s our relationship now? Nothing. Will we patch it up one day? Maybe. The kaupapa’s bigger than our own relationships but I’ve made it clear to him don’t get in touch with me again.
“I don’t need to be reminded about being Maori, I was born a Maori, I wake up one every day...that’s an insult.”
Jackson believes it’s now time for a big, strong party rather than individual voices and can’t see the need for a Maori political party.
The Maori Party itself was a product of the great anger at the time regarding the foreshore and seabed betrayal and, while the future could bring about circumstances that required its regeneration, now is not the time, he says.
“We’ll get to the foreshore and seabed and other stuff but those are not priorities for us, we were very clear in terms of our campaign don’t talk about tino rangatiratanga or foreshore and seabed when you’ve got families that are sleeping in cars.”
Improving the quality of life for Maori on the bottom rung will be one of Jackson’s key priorities as the new Employment Minister.
He’s dismissive of National’s claims about the high average wage, saying the figure is misleading and boosted by a few high earners while many struggle to survive on $20,000 to $30,000.
Before any big changes, he admits he has some catching up to do.
Having not kept a close eye on the unemployment rate he was surprised to be told by officials after becoming Minister that it was at its lowest rate in a decade.
“When I came in I said to officials ‘geez how do we win this, how do we become the Government’ because they said ‘there you go Minister, 4.6 percent, lowest it’s ever been’ so you would think the old Employment Minister might be redundant but far from it, look at the Maori unemployment rate, look at the Pacific Island employment rate.”
There’s plenty to do lifting wages in West and South Auckland, as well for the disabled community, but the Government’s first priority will be the regions.
There was early controversy over comments from Shane Jones, the Regional Economic Development Minister, about getting young unemployed Maori into work through a “work for the dole” scheme.
The language created a predictable avalanche of media coverage and was quickly dismissed by the Government.
Jackson is not a fan either and says while he is not opposed to a bit of tough love some people are not ready for work.
“I think I’ve been clear about that, he’s got his own language, the brother’s got his own language and that might earn him a few points with New Zealand First.”
Cutting off the dole could mean whole families suffered, when what the person really needed was six to 12 months of quality training.
Jackson will take a paper to Cabinet this week with a set of proposals to boost the resources of NGOs in different regions that are struggling financially.
He’s confident of getting Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s backing as the area was a priority.
“They (the NGOs) say they’ve got the strategies and we’re hopefully going to support them...they’re a forgotten group, it’s almost like 'oh who cares about them?' Well I care.”