27 Aug 2015

Meet the Newsmaker: Michael Woodhouse

5:54 pm on 27 August 2015

In our Newsmaker series, we talk to the people who are dominating the news headlines. This week: the Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, Michael Woodhouse.

Michael Woodhouse, National MP.

Michael Woodhouse Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

In summing up his handling of the controversial Health and Safety Bill, Michael Woodhouse harks back to his days as a rugby referee.

"Some have said we've gone too far, others have said we've not gone far enough....I suppose when you go off the field and both sides aren't that happy with your performance, then you've probably landed in about the right place."

The bill - which sets a new regulatory framework for workplace safety - is arguably the greatest challenge Mr Woodhouse has faced since being made a minister in January 2013.

He was elected as a Dunedin based list MP in 2008, and now also holds the Immigration and Police portfolios.

Mr Woodhouse talked to our political reporter Amelia Langford about the bill and the process of ushering it through Parliament.

Let's start with the Health and Safety Reform Bill - what have the challenges been with that?

Well look, this is a really significant piece of reform and I knew it was going to be a challenge, firstly to make sure that we get the wording right and then politically, in terms of ensuring we achieve the right balance of improving the risk framework and actually not wrapping people up in red tape.

The media has latched on to certain aspects of the bill, particularly around worm farming and the likes - were you expecting that?

Yeah I was, what I was expecting and this has happened is this is that people have latched on to a belief that simply not being compelled to have a health and safety rep in a workplace, if asked, constitutes some kind of watering down or letting certain industries off the hook.

I've never accepted that, and I think that those who are saying that have either not read the bill, or are being a bit mischievous - the bar's being raised for everybody and that's really important to understand that all workers and all managers, owners and directors are going to have to lift their game so New Zealand can achieve a better health and safety record.

But look, yes, I mean we looked at these industry classifications from the view of high risk, perhaps I didn't pay enough attention to some of the anomalies that were being thrown up by the media including things like worm farms and mini-putt.

But that's politics, you know you go through those sorts of things from time to time and I'm certainly a bit better for the experience.

Is it frustrating after all the work that is put into that, that the media do just latch onto a certain aspect, that you as minister might see as beside the point?

Yeah, not frustrating, I think that's just the nature of politics but if I felt for a moment that this reform wasn't going to deliver a significant improvement in health and safety, then that would be frustrating.

That's the end goal and I've just to keep my eye on that and know that there's going to be a better health and safety environment once we get through this.

More broadly, how did you find going from being a backbencher, to a minister?

Well I had a bit of an interim step which was about 14 months as the Chief Government Whip, and that's a really interesting position to observe both the backbench but be much, much closer to senior ministers, including the Prime Minister.

So I had a bit of a transition period through that which made the step up quite a bit easier, but certainly I look back on my backbench time as a very rewarding one but one that doesn't carry with a great deal of influence.

Once you get to ministry you can really make things happen and I think that's the quite exciting part.

Did you always want to be a minister?

Yeah I think everybody that goes into politics wants to make a difference and the best way to do that is firstly be in government, and the best way to do that in government is to be part of ministry, so yeah, that was an ambition of mine.

What do you like and dislike about being a minister?

Oh look there's a lot of scrutiny, a lot of pressure on getting things in the right place. There's a lot of horse-trading about whose bills might get up before who else's and there's a hierarchy even at ministry level, but look there hasn't been a day of my political career, generally, particularly as a minister where I haven't bounced out bed looking forward to what the day brings.

And any of the frustrating elements are a very small part of an overall rewarding responsibility.

And just recently we've seen the Minister of Corrections under a lot of scrutiny, what is it like for a young minister, or a new minister to be under that kind of scrutiny?

Look, it's pretty intense, I have to say, I went through an experience shortly after becoming Minister of Immigration and what really matters is getting good people around you to give you good and frank advice but also the support of colleagues is really important so Sam and I came into Parliament together in 2008, we're part of what I think is a very talented intake for National at that time and we're very strong friends.

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