In the hot seat

By Paul Mulrooney

Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway graduated with a BA in late 2016. It's been all go ever since.

Pinch-yourself moments. They’re the times when you just have to grip your own skin tightly to help convince yourself that something truly extraordinary is happening.

Cabinet minister Iain Lees-Galloway, has had lots of those since graduating from Massey University with a Bachelor of Arts in late 2016.  For some years he had juggled his role as MP for Palmerston North with distance learning study to finish his BA, a degree he was happy to complete ahead of last year’s general election.

As the election loomed he was Labour Opposition spokesman for various portfolios and part of a party still struggling to gain a foothold in the public’s confidence as a viable alternative government.

Everyone knows what happened next. A leadership change and a whirlwind campaign led by a charismatic Jacinda Arden pledging “the fight of our lives,” provided the platform for Labour to win enough of the percentage of the vote to take a seat at the coalition negotiation table with kingmaker New Zealand First. A government was formed and Lees-Galloway was appointed to Cabinet.

He took the portfolios of Minster of Workplace Relations, ACC, Immigration and was appointed Deputy Leader of the House.

Lees-Galloway, who has incorporated his wife Clare Lees’ name into his own is under no illusions about the responsibility he has undertaken.

“It’s a big workload and they’re all portfolios where there’s a fairly ambitious set of commitments in our manifesto,” he says. “I’m not bored.”

Top of the agenda is passage of the Employment Relations Amendment Bill. Lees-Galloway says the limiting of the use of 90 day trial periods to businesses with fewer than 20 employees was one example of efforts to work constructively with employers as he sought to “rebalance” the existing industrial relations framework.

“That’s the real challenge to bring some balance back to industrial relations to strengthen working people’s bargaining in the workplace so they have a genuine opportunity to get the gains they deserve from a growing economy, and to do that in a way that is enduring and isn’t going to be unpicked.”

" pinch yourself and think 'what was life like 12 months ago?'" - Iain Lees-Galloway

Lees-Galloway is referring to the “chopping and changing” that industrial law has experienced since the early 1990s when a previous National Government introduced the Employment Contracts Act.

“This is not about compromise; it’s about achieving ambitions that are fit for purpose and that businesses can work with,” he says.  “I think a lot of the old ideological debates are behind us now. There is a much greater desire to work collaboratively with the Government of the day to put something in place that lasts, because businesses don’t enjoy the chopping and changing from one framework to another.”

Collaborative and collegial:  they are words he also uses when talking about his priorties in the immigration portfolio.

In his first major immigration-related speech he told the New Zealand Asssociation of Immigration Professionals those words described how he liked to operate.

That includes migrants workers too, who he calls “integral to our culture, our economy and wellbeing as society”.

It’s a family sentiment. His father volunteered to help Palmerston North’s Bhutanese community navigate their unfamiliarity with the voting system and the polling booth on election day.

“Dad found that really rewarding going around meeting a community he hadn’t had a lot to do with and supporting them in participating in the democratic process. He got a real kick out of that.”

Lees-Galloway’s parents are immigrants themselves from the United Kingdom and their son was raised on a small beef farm near Waiuku.  He still retains a strong affection for Scotland – his ancestral homeland – and sports a tartan tie on the day of the interview. He appreciates the value of migrants to the country and is mindful of the effect changes in economic policy can have on different community sectors.

One change he is determined to make is reducing worker exploitation. He has pledged to double the number of labour inspectors from 55 to 110 in the Government’s first term and locate them in areas with high levels of migrant workers.

“I am working alongside industry groups who I know are encouraging their members to do some due diligence on their labour providers to make sure they do have good, strong track record and that they are people who are treating their workers well.”

But the urge to cooperate tapers off when he talks about working with the National Party opposition.

His role as Deputy Leader of the House, in which he supports the Leader of the House Chris Hipkins in the functioning of parliament and the organisation of the Government’s legislative agenda, came under critical scrutiny the very first day the Government took the Treasury benches.

Shell-shocked National Party members, still getting their heads around being on the opposition side of the House, still had the wits to nearly scupper the election of Trevor Mallard as Speaker.

With some Labour MPs still to be formally sworn in, they did not have the numbers, the responsibility of Hipkins and his deputy Lees-Galloway, to ensure his election.

Only some fast talking and government concessions saw the opposition,  spearheaded by their then shadow Leader of the House and now National Party leader Simon Bridges, support Mallard’s nomination.

Once the dust had settled fingers were pointed at Labour that they should have had the count sorted earlier. Some months on the charge still rankles, as does the suggestion that the messy episode only served to help elevate Bridges’ profile as a potential leader.

“Maybe,” Lees-Galloway says.

“But the pity about that is that we had agreed at business committee that the opposition would not put up a nomination for Speaker, so Simon reneged on that in the House,” he says. Mr Bridges’ office disputes this.

As a cabinet minister with multiple portfolios, Lees-Galloway will have less time to indulge in the kind of travel, creative non-fiction and life writing he studied for his BA majoring in English. He remains, however, a staunch supporter of the arts and the Government’s commitment to give it priority alongside STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

“It’s about STEAM now – STEM plus [A for] Arts,” he says. “Communication and the ability to intelligently analyse and make sense of complex information are vital if you want to be an effective politician.”

Outside of the Beehive Lees-Galloway is a father of three, and is still adjusting to the changed circumstances he and his party are enjoying.

“Life changed almost the moment I graduated. You do have moments where you pinch youself and think ‘what was life like 12 months ago?”