Labour's then-Deputy Leader Grant Robertson during the 2023 electio ncampaign

Grant Robertson is leaving Parliament for two new careers, having been frustrated and blocked from achieving some of his biggest political ambitions.

So, he is returning to Dunedin, and, unusually for a former finance minister, with seemingly no ambitions to enter the business world.

Instead, he will become Vice Chancellor of his Alma Mata, Otago University.

Meanwhile, he has become an author and started working on a biography of one of the city’s most intriguing characters, the arts patron Rodney Kennedy.

But he leaves behind a legacy which is only partly complete.

In part, that was because much of his term as finance minister was consumed with Covid; in part, it was because of the intransigence of Labour’s coalition partner, NZ First, and in part because Labour’s two Prime Ministers lost their nerve over some of the reforms he proposed.

However, his frustrations go back further than winning Government in 2017.

In 2014, he stood for the party leadership and lost out to Andrew Little by only .04 per cent. It hurt.

“It was always going to be difficult having got so close to winning the leadership and then not,” he told POLITIK later.

“It’s human nature, and I took a little bit of time to get my head around a new job and moving forward.”

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In many senses, he had a moral victory in the leadership election. He beat Andrew Little for caucus and party votes and only lost out to him for the union affiliate votes.

Little, therefore, had little choice but to reward him when another losing candidate, David Parker, in a move he now regrets, resigned as finance spokesperson in the wake of the leadership defeat.

Grant Robertson, as Opposition Finance spokesperson in 2016

So Robertson, who had been a diplomat and then worked for Helen Clark and had no previous business or finance background, took his place.

Perhaps because of that lack of experience, he first focused on issues outside the mainstream Parliamentary debate on the economy; he began to talk about a wealth or capital gains tax and then the future of work.

At times, it seemed like he was on a mission, ever ready to talk and debate ideas about how to equip the workforce for a constantly technologically changing society.

In 2016, he convened a high-powered conference to look at the future of work, which had as a keynote speaker the legendary Democrat economist Robert Reich from the United States.

Out of that came an idea modelled on Denmark’s flexi-security, which would give employers much greater flexibility to hire and fire workers but would see laid-off workers given generous benefits while an active labour market policy would see them directed to training or jobs.

By the end of 2022, that had morphed into the social insurance scheme, which was initially supported by both BusinessNZ and the CTU until someone (possibly the Prime Minister) added health insurance on top of it, and the employers withdrew their support.

Shortly after he became leader last year, Chris Hipkins finally dashed Robertson’s hopes when he ordered work to stop on social insurance.

POLITIK Grant Robertson with former economic adviser, now CTU economist, and one of the architects of the social insurance scheme, Craig Renney

Andrew Little had ruled out a capital gains tax, but in 2015, Robertson hinted that he still supported one.

He said an issue around speculation was driving up property prices and locking people out of the housing market.

“We do need to look at that,” he told POLITIK. “And we do need to look at the way we tax income and wealth unevenly in New Zealand.”

With the removal of Little from the leadership and the election of Jacinda Ardern in August 2017, Robertson was free to talk about capital gains tax again.

“We will have a working group that will have a look at getting a better balance into our tax system between how we tax assets and how we tax income,” he told Lisa Owen on “Q+A” shortly after Ardern was elected.

Almost immediately, NZ First leader Winston Peters opposed any idea of a capital gains tax.

It would later turn out that Peters would receive big donations from an investment banker, Troy Bowker, who opposed wealth and capital gains taxes.

So once NZ First and Labour were in coalition, Robertson would have a problem with Peters.

Budget day, 2019, the coalition together

Robertson appointed Sir Michael Cullen to chair the Tax Working Group. Not only did Cullen make his own opposition to a capital gains tax clear, but his final report represented what seemed like a half-hearted proposal to introduce one.

He presented the Government with what might have been called a stripped-down racing version of a capital gains tax, applying only to non-residential property and residential property that was not a family home, farms (but with substantial exceptions), small businesses and financial investments.

Along with the family home, personal art collections, boats and “household durables” would also be exempt. It would be levied at marginal income tax rates.

We now know that fortified with support from Bowker, Peters and NZ First effectively made a capital gains tax a confidence issue within the coalition, and in April 2019, Ardern killed it, saying the Government did not have a mandate for one.

However, last year, Budget documents pro-actively released showed that Robertson had asked Treasury in the run-up to the Budget to look at a wealth tax.

Once again, it was Hipkins who would frustrate Robertson, and in July, he announced the party would not campaign on a wealth tax and would only implement one if he were Prime Minister.

That provoked a wave of support for Robertson from within the party, and there is now a very lively debate within it about such a tax, with many members believing it would have done better in the election if it had campaigned on a wealth tax.

Campaigning at Victoria University in 2017

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Robertson’s other great mission was the wellbeing budget, an idea that was also being explored in Britain.

The influential Financial Times columnist and economist Martin Wolf is a supporter of the concept. However, he has some doubts about how far wellbeing can be measured across all government activity.

Nevertheless, he concludes that a narrower focus would be to use wellbeing measures (such as Treasury’s Living Standards Framework) to shift resources towards areas of spending most likely to reduce the causes of great harm, such as mental ill health and loneliness.

“One does not have to buy all of the broader package to accept this shift in priorities toward alleviating the biggest harms,” he said.

“All parties should agree on this as the minimum goal for policy in a civilised and prosperous society.”

Not only has Robertson impressed Wolf, but the Australian Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, is also a true believer. He has become a close friend of Robertson in the process and plans to introduce a wellbeing budget into Australia.

The first Wellbeing Budget appeared in 2019, but the hoped-for expansion and development of the idea were stunted by Covid the following year.

Robertson conceded as much yesterday.

“This is going to sound slightly boring and technical, but Covid really got in the way of the full rollout of the wellbeing approach, and there was a lot more that I wanted to do there,” he said.

“We got some of it, with the multi-year funding and the clusters and so on, but embedding that fully so that is the way that governments decide what they’re going to do with their budgets, how we measure our success, that got interrupted severely by Covid,” he said.

But Covid raises another question about his time as Finance Minister, and that is the huge fiscal spend that he appropriated to deal with the consequences.

There must always be a question as to whether the Government got spooked in April 2020 with a set of Treasury scenarios that forecast that GDP could fall by as much as a third and unemployment could rise to 26 per cent in the year to March 2021.

Robertson acknowledged yesterday that the early forecasts had influenced the Government’s hand.

“I remember the day when a briefing came over from Treasury, and it said unemployment is going to go over ten per cent,” he said.

“I remember thinking to myself, I’m not going to let that happen.

“And so what I’m proud of is that we saved lives, but we also saved livelihoods and the work that we did, getting the wage subsidy, getting those supports through kept unemployment low.”

POLITIK Grant Robertson in his electorate at the infamous Aro Street debate in 2020

That may not be the way the new Government sees it but it was a Labour response and Robertson is a Labour man.

“I believe in what the Labor Party stands for,” he said yesterday.

“I believe in the principles of the party and the importance of a social democratic voice in politics.”

Robertson has many passions, sport, the arts and Dunedin, in particular, and he will bring some of those together with his biography of Kennedy, who acted as a sort of hub linking artists and writers like  Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, James K Baxter and Charles Brasch together in the 50s and 60s in Dunedin.

But Robertson has another interest in Kennedy, and that is that Kennedy was gay and was charged and convicted of engaging in a homosexual act in a Dunedin public toilet.

The effect of that was so traumatic on Kennedy that he publicly opposed the Homosexual Law Reform legislation.

Robertson, as our highest-profile gay politician, has always acknowledged the struggles and forces that earlier generations of gay men had to face.

Thinking of what they had to endure probably makes losing political battles seem trivial.