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Why I was wrong about Andrew Little

Once a harsh critic of Andrew Little, Shane Te Pou wants to offer a mea culpa about one of the Government's 'strongest performers' 

Most political careers end badly — sometimes with a deafening bang, but more often in whimpers of unfulfilled ambition, recrimination and regret.  This is never truer than with opposition leaders, when their grasp for the main prize is stymied at the hands of voters or, worse still, ungrateful colleagues.  

That's one reason why Andrew Little’s emergence as one of the coalition Government’s strongest performers is so singularly impressive.  

Few were as scathing as me when it came to pointing out Little’s shortcomings during his stint as Labour leader. To be blunt, I considered him hopeless — and didn’t hold back in saying so. He became leader with barely any support from parliamentary colleagues, relying instead on the overwhelming backing of affiliated unions, and this alone cast a shadow over his leadership. If the vast majority of his fellow MPs, who saw him up-close on a daily basis, concluded he’s not up to leading them, it sets off alarm bells.  

This was reinforced by Little’s failure - reflected in a relentless series of dire opinion polls - to connect with voters who couldn’t warm to his abrasive persona. The ‘Angry Andy’ thing, once it took hold, proved impossible to shake.  

But fair’s fair. It’s time for a mea culpa from me. Do I think Little was the guy to lead Labour to victory after all?  No way. Whatever the x-factor is that propels politicians like John Key and Jacinda Ardern to the top job, Little did not have it. But, at the same time, I was among many critics who greatly underappreciated Little’s talents as a politician — and, more importantly, his character as a man.  

Little’s record in his brief tenure as Minister for Justice and Courts and Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations has been one of frenetic activity and considerable accomplishment. In a Government that attracts criticism — not without justification — for paralysis-by-committee, Little is an admirable aberration. Beyond those high-profile portfolios, Little’s work as Minister with oversight for the GCSB has helped cement the new Government’s relationship with allies, earning the goodwill of the New Zealand tech community in the process. Meanwhile, his personal dedication, carried over from his time as leader, to bringing closure for the families of Pike River’s victims is making all the difference.

Andrew Little could have walked away from politics. Nobody would have blamed him, and some — myself included, if I’m honest — would have cheered him to the exits.

Without doubt, however, it is in the areas of criminal justice reform and Treaty settlements where Little is building his most enduring legacy. In both respects, his legal training, work ethic and fundamental decency are reaping rewards. And far from evading the tough slog of reform, he seems to relish it — not something you could say of all his colleagues.  

Little’s work on resolving Ngāpuhi claims, to take one example, has been tireless, as he fronts dozens of hui, large and small, up north and as far as Australia, but far removed from the media spotlight. In doing so, Little engenders the goodwill and mutual trust essential to a lasting resolution. His efforts to master te reo and tikanga Māori, along with his deep engagement with our complicated history, signal his seriousness and win respect from even the most hardened skeptics.  

Equally, on criminal justice reform, Little is leading, not following. Tackling the law and order crowd carries risk for any politician, but Little is unfazed. He openly calls the current system “broken” and makes no apology in pursuit of long overdue, unmistakably progressive reforms.  This is underscored by righting past wrongs, establishing the Criminal Cases Review Commission last month, as well as quashing convictions for historical homosexual offences. Beyond an impressive legislative workload, he deserves credit for bringing sharp focus to a scourge of family violence that afflicts way too many Kiwi families from all walks of life, leaving indelible damage in its wake. 

Andrew Little could have walked away from politics. Nobody would have blamed him, and some — myself included, if I’m honest — would have cheered him to the exits. He might also have chosen another well trodden path — a retreat to backbench sniping and plotting. That he did neither is testament to his genuine passion for Labour values, and a willingness to make whatever difference he could. As leader, he never quite adjusted to the spotlight — but, away from it, he is proving himself a gifted and courageous minister. I’m glad to have been so wrong about him.

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