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Gordon Campbell on the Labour leadership change

Gordon Campbell on the Labour leadership change

So it is to be David Shearer as leader, and Grant Robertson as deputy. With David Cunliffe, there were always two concerns. One, whether the wider public would warm to Cunliffe’s combatively intellectual style, and secondly whether his caucus would support him loyally in the battle against the Key government. With David Shearer, the concern is whether he can carry the fight in Parliament and beyond, with sufficient confidence and authority.

Labour may live to regret this choice. Undoubtedly, Cunliffe is the more polished performer with the more proven record of political achievement. The claim of disloyalty – that he was really to blame for Phil Goff’s inability on the campaign trail to defend Labour’s election costings – always seemed bizarre. It was a charge born of Labour’s internal tribal resentments given that, as leader, Goff had only himself to blame if he couldn’t defend his election costings credibly.

More to the point, while in government, Cunliffe had taken on Telecom and virtually ended the harmful market dominance that the telecommunications giant had been allowed to get away with for the previous 15 years. (The Key government BTW, is now in the process of restoring Telecom’s dominance, this time in broadband )

Regardless, the Labour caucus has now chosen Shearer. He is Labour’s aspirational choice. The hope being that Shearer’s very inexperience and lack of polish will work for Labour, as a foil to John Key’s perceived likeability. As a consequence, both New Zealand’s main political parties are now being lead by politicians who are running, essentially, as anti-politicians. Both project themselves as ordinary bloke outsiders to what Parliament has come to represent.

In Key’s case, this has involved considerable work and day to day management, in order to distance himself from his government’s less popular policies, and to shield him from sustained media scrutiny.

The media are likely to be less kind to Shearer. Opposition parties are fair game for mainstream journalism, given that less is at stake with them in being a tiger at the keyboard.

Since Parliament is due to sit before Christmas, Shearer will have no time for a breather before he is thrown into a media-driven cycle of hand to hand combat with Key and his front bench. In reality, an Opposition can rarely expect to prevail in such encounters. If Shearer can avoid being trounced in these early skirmishes, that will almost count as a victory.

Similarly, for the next couple of years there has to be a reasonable level of expectation as to what an Opposition can achieve. The Key government will be the agent of its own demise during its second term, rather than any masterstroke by Labour.

The reality is that neither of the major items on the government’s second term agenda – asset sales and welfare reform – will address the chronic weakness in the New Zealand economy, and the related lack of well paying jobs. The Opposition cannot stop the current erosion of the standard of living. All it can do is to try and look like a credible alternative, and position itself as the decent, consistent advocate of middle income and poorer New Zealanders.

The economy has to remain Labour’s focus (and it cannot afford to waste Cunliffe’s talents in that respect). Labour has to avoid being drawn into every sideshow – including industrial unrest – that the government will be conjuring up over the next three years to distract the public from its failure to lift the standard of living for all but a fortunate few.

Years ago, Mike Moore used to hammer on about how Labour was a broad church. Yet ideologically, neither Shearer or Cunliffe mark much of a break from Phil Goff’s worldview. The unknown factor is how Shearer will perform under fire. As yet, not even the colleagues who voted for him today know the answer to that one.

Joyce as heir apparent. While Hekia Parata made the big leap in the Cabinet rankings to become Education Minister, the more significant move was that of Steven Joyce to Minister of Economic Development, while retaining his associate finance and tertiary education roles.

Joyce, as the new jobs czar with his hands on all the economic, scientific and educational levers necessary to lift the New Zealand economy – including the management of oil, gas and mining exploration – will be the man held primarily responsible for the success (or failure) of National’s second term in office. What this ascension will put at risk is MED’s capacity to be a more balanced, less ideologically driven voice on the economic policy than the extremists at Treasury.

Hitherto, Joyce has been something of a backroom operator behind the scenes – a grey Bill Birch fixer, whose political appeal is irrelevant – but his current load of responsibilities will inevitably propel Joyce into the public spotlight, as the heir apparent to John Key. If it ever comes to that, the task of making Joyce into an attractive political figure will pose a few headaches for the image merchants. But clearly, that’s a problem for another day.


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