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Q+A Panel: Response to Moira Coatsworth, Chris Hipkins


PANEL DISCUSSIONS

HOSTED BY SUSAN WOOD

In response to MOIRA COATSWORTH and CHRIS HIPKINS interviews

SUSAN WOOD
Welcome to the panel. Jennifer Curtin from Auckland University; former ACT MP Stephen Franks; and Mike Williams, former president of the Labour Party. Good morning to you all. Mike, I’ll start with you at the end there. The polls are fascinating. We’re seeing a bit of a bolter there with Jacinda Ardern, and Grant Robertson - no traction very much, and not in Wellington.

MIKE WILLIAMS - Former Labour Party President
Yeah, that’s rather strange, but I think there’s a whole lot of things going on there. One is name recognition. I, for example, have known David Cunliffe for about 15 years. I think I’ve met Grant Robertson maybe twice. And Cunliffe was quite a successful minister. He untangled the Telecom thing. So there is a bit of name recognition going on there. Jacinda Ardern - the power of Breakfast television, as you suggested in the break, I think there. Also very articulate. But I’d be encouraged by all of those people.

SUSAN How are you seeing it, Stephen?

STEPHEN FRANKS - Former ACT MP
I was surprised at the strength of support for David in Wellington, and I think it probably does speak to his prominence as a minister.

SUSAN Twice the support that Grant Robertson has in Wellington.

STEPHEN Yes, yeah.

SUSAN Where you’d expect Grant to have the support and perhaps the name recognition.

STEPHEN Yes, exactly. That really is curious. I think the main thing, though, is this is an insider’s… What’s the right word? There aren’t going to be many people interested in this until it becomes a real horse race.

SUSAN Until we actually know who’s in the running.

STEPHEN Yeah, and if it’s very clear very early, then the Labour Party won’t get out of it what you try and get from a primary, which is recognition, attention, the lift in familiarity. Yeah.

SUSAN I mean, Jennifer, we’re realistically looking at a two-horse race at least, aren’t we? We’re talking about Cunliffe, we’re talking about Roberston, and some speculation around this morning Shane Jones is still mulling it over, so it could be a three-horse race.

JENNIFER CURTIN - Political Scientist
Yes, it will probably come down to a two-horse race, I think. But I think the Jacinda Ardern poll is really interesting, particularly for young members of the party, and she’s obviously got some traction with that under-34 group. And the difference is that Cunliffe really resonates with the older group, when you look at those breakdowns, and I think that really does talk to his experience of having been in Cabinet during government, which Robertson, for all his presence as a political operator and so on, really doesn’t have that governmental experience yet, and people like to know that.

SUSAN Mike, the unions, we know, having 20 per cent of the vote in this. They’ve made it really clear. ‘We want someone who can take John Key out and win the next election.’ Looking at that poll at this point, and they will be looking at the poll, won’t they, going, ‘Hey, dream team. Cunliffe, Ardern.’

MIKE Yeah, that poll will impact on the union vote. And can I just say I thought Moira Coatsworth did very well, and I’ve read the rules that they’ve put out, and there’s a lot of good thought gone into this. It specifically precludes a block vote by a union. Let me make that point. So I think that poll will impact on the unions. But let’s also look at a technicality here. If there are three in the race, then the race becomes preferential. If it’s two, then it’s a First Past the Post. So if Shane Jones did put his name in, and I hope he does, because it will certainly enliven the process.

SUSAN Indeed.

MIKE He’s got twice the sense of humour of both of the other contenders. Then it becomes preferential, and his block of votes, where does that go when he comes third, if he comes third? So there’s a lot of water to go under this very interesting bridge.

SUSAN Stephen, I think you and ACT ran a similar sort of process. How do you make it go, and I know there’s a code of conduct, but in the US, the presidential races, they knock each other out.

STEPHEN Well, I think that’s how democracy should work. I mean, otherwise it’s a beauty parade. And I found the ACT one just horrible, because you’re out there, each saying things that you know- By then, you’ve become a performer. You know how to appeal to your audience. But the important thing in an election isn’t all the nice things that we would all agree we would like. The important thing is you want the skeletons out, and a really sound election process focuses on what is we should be scared about. For example, in this one, is David Cunliffe Labour’s Rudd? You know, is there a man who can appeal to the people but is actually toxic inside because they don’t have loyalty? We won’t get that. In a beauty parade, we won’t get that, because they can’t afford to, as Chris Hipkins said - and he should be in this list because he did so well - he wants at the end everyone to be united. Well, that’s not going to allow anything more than a beauty parade.

SUSAN Jennifer, Moira pretty much made the point, or tried to, in that interview with Corin about more democracy, better democracy. I mean, does this sort of race provide that?

JENNIFER Um, to some degree it does because of the party membership being able to participate, and I think this is really where Labour’s wanting to go. It’s wanting party renewal, and this always happens in opposition. That’s the time when you change the rules to enable more participation, and, really, what we saw at the last election is not just that Labour’s vote dropped to 27 per cent but also turnout was really low, especially among the young voters who they hoped would turn out and vote for them. Now party participation by members will have a flow-on effect, they’re hoping, to turnout. And so running a no contest is a bit of risk, really, if their intentions are to sort of galvanise the membership, particularly out in the regions, outside Wellington, where they want people to start being active at grassroots level and getting other people out to vote.

SUSAN Mike, unity. It was one word that certainly came out of both of those interviews. But you’re running a divisive - potentially - race. How do you come out and then all hold hands and sing Kumbaya at the end together?

MIKE Well, let me make one observation. It’s a hell of a lot easier to generate party unity in an election year when you’ve got that hurdle quite close, and we’re very nearly into an election year. Other parties around the world, social democratic parties, have this process and then do swing in behind a leader, and I think that can happen here. What impressed me with both Moira and Chris Hipkins is a relatively mature view. ‘Let’s have a scrap, get it over with and, you know, sit down and have a cup of tea and onwards and upwards.’ But I think Jennifer made a useful point there. The Labour Party has been renewing itself. I went to the conference last year. I normally don’t take much part in party affairs. When you’ve done something, it’s over and done with. I took Helen’s lead on that. But I noticed a lot of new faces there and quite young people. Now, this will invigorate and revitalise the party. And you’ve got to recall the fact that the Labour Party was actually 10,000 votes away from leading the government last time. Now, it’s that last one per cent that your organisation on the ground can go out and get. And Jennifer’s dead right. The Labour Party’s problem was turnout. Three quarters of a million people in the last election got on the roll and didn’t bother to vote. Now, partly that was a result of it looked like a foregone conclusion, but partly they were not invigorated in the way that this process can achieve.

SUSAN Fair enough, yeah.

STEPHEN But the problem for all the parties now is that the kind of people who are involved in parties are actually not your swing voters. They’re actually quite unpleasant, in many respects. (MIKE AND SUSAN LAUGH)

SUSAN Who are you calling unpleasant?

MIKE He’s talking about the ACT Party. They’re all very unpleasant.

STEPHEN Not at all. In fact, I’ve spent more time in the Labour Party than I ever did in the ACT Party. But they are politically driven, power-hungry people, and Shane Jones is the only one on that list who represents the kind of voters that used to be the backbone of Labour. And there is a risk that you activate your party, and they select a candidate who is actually unelectable in the sense that he reflects the preoccupations of those who like the power game.

SUSAN Mike, you mentioned the Helen word. Was Helen involved in rolling David Shearer, to your knowledge?

MIKE Not to my knowledge. I maintain a regular email relationship with Helen. I talked to her when she was on Q+A, was it a week ago?

SUSAN A couple of weeks ago, she was here.

MIKE She does not take part. She obviously has an opinion. I think she would be backing David Cunliffe. Let’s have that out in the open. But she doesn’t try and manipulate matters from New York in the way John Key thinks she does.

SUSAN Ok, let’s run through the candidates quickly. Cunliffe - and I will bring it back to you again, Mike. This perception that he’s disliked. People roll their eyes within the caucus. They don’t want to work with him. What is the problem there? Is he the Rudd, as Stephen said?

MIKE That’s possible. That’s an interesting observation from Stephen. I know the guy, I like the guy, but he has the ability to polarise people. You either love him or you hate him. Now, he has actually addressed that. He’s not stupid. And a lot of people have softened towards David Cunliffe in the last year. He’s actually done- He took the demotion like a man and went to the backbench, shut up. When he got given a portfolio, which was Fisheries, normally a dead portfolio, he actually made something of it. And it’s him who’s brought this snapper problem to the fore. So I think he has mended fences, and what I note is that within the caucus, and I’ve talked to a lot of them over the last three days, there are some very good brains who are yet to make up their mind. And that is quite something I did not expect.

SUSAN With Grant Robertson, Stephen, he’s gay. Will it matter to the electorate?

STEPHEN I don’t think it will matter in any polls, because people aren’t frank unless they’re-

SUSAN Well, are we ready for a gay prime minister, if that-?

STEPHEN I think New Zealanders are sort of assumed to be more bigoted than they are. We had Marilyn Waring as a National MP many years ago come out, and there was an assumption that the house would fall down, and it was indifference. No, I don’t think that’ll be the issue. It will be much more whether the experience inside the party is going to resound. Grant has been attributed with credit for the student loans scheme within the previous administration. I would expect that that won’t be discussed. They talked about discussing the issues in this campaign. Those sorts of things won’t be discussed. It’ll be an opportunity, just like party conferences are today, for a TV extravaganza.

SUSAN So, Jennifer, really what we’re hearing here is it’s going to be sort of personality contest, and yet with David Shearer, part of his problem was he didn’t win the personality contest on TV, but a lack of new ideas. Are we going to hear some new ideas from whoever’s in this race?

JENNIFER Well, I think Labour has come up with new policy ideas. I think Shearer’s problem was communicating them in a really clear way that didn’t sort of stumble too much through the media. Cunliffe has some work to do still perhaps with the media and how he’s received through television, because people who meet him face to face find him a really good guy, you know, as well. So I think, obviously, the communication skills and how they’re doing that work through to voters will really matter.

SUSAN Cunliffe, Robertson, Jones. Mike, I know you’ve got a vote in this. Who’s the one who can take John Key on, because at the end of the day, they’ve got to be able to do that.

MIKE Any one of them could, and I do have a vote, and I’m actually a floating voter at the moment. What I always said when I was doing selections as president of the Labour Party is that I will wait to hear the speeches. And on a number of occasions, I was actually swayed by the speeches. So I want to see that. Any one of them could take on John Key. Robertson seems to have the edge over Cunliffe in the house but not by much. And I think Shane Jones, that could be a lot of fun. (SUSAN LAUGHS) I don’t know that John Key could handle Shane Jones at all.

SUSAN Who are you liking the look of, briefly, Stephen?

STEPHEN I suspect it will be David Cunliffe, because, in the end, the union do hold the swing vote.

SUSAN Thank you, panel.


ENDS

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