Tuesday 29 March 2011

By Reason of Necessity

"Shhh! It's for the sake of the party!": Sometimes the active choice to endure something bad is preferable to the passive choice of allowing something worse. If the public perception grows (fairly or unfairly) that Labour is morally compromised, then its electoral fortunes are bleak.

DEPOSING A LEADER is probably the most thankless task in politics. At the very least it calls into question the collective wisdom of those who gave the leader his (or her) job in the first place. Also, it just looks bad. A political party that’s forever chopping and changing its leaders very soon attracts comparisons with a bunch of Mafioso chieftains rubbing out their rivals.

These inherent dangers of change explain why there are so many more mediocre leaders than inspiring statesmen. There’s safety in mediocrity. Inspiration equals risk.

If there’s ever a good time to remove a leader, then it's probably immediately following an election. A party looks a lot less shambolic when it's seen to be responding to the electorate’s decision not to make its leader the prime minister. Changing leaders after an election also gives the new broom plenty of time to sweep his party clean and rearrange its ideological furnishing in line with the latest electoral fashions.

The very worst time to organise a leadership spill is when a general election is just months or weeks away. It smacks of desperation and panic – neither of which speak well of a party’s readiness to govern. The only justification for such self-destructive political behaviour is the reason of necessity. Making an active choice to do something bad, rather than allowing a passive choice to permit something much, much worse to happen.

This was the choice the Labour Party made eight weeks out from the 1990 general election when the caucus allowed Helen Clark to persuade it to abandon Geoffrey Palmer in favour of Mike Moore. It wasn’t that Ms Clark believed Mr Moore could win the election, merely that the polling data suggested that Mr Palmer was likely to lose it much more comprehensively. Giving Mr Moore eight weeks to weave his working-class battler magic on Labour’s deeply disillusioned voters simply made more sense than allowing Mr Palmer to drag his party into an electoral abyss from which it might never emerge.

With great reluctance I have come to the conclusion that Labour faces a similar choice in 2011. The scandal surrounding Darren Hughes (which shows every sign of getting a lot worse before it gets any better) has, I believe, fatally infected the leadership of Phil Goff and Annette King. While they remain at the head of Labour’s parliamentary team, controversy of a particularly distasteful nature will continue to, in Helen Clark’s memorable phrase, “swirl around them”. Questions relating to the soundness of their judgement will, fairly or unfairly, give way to questions relating to the quality of their ethics. New Zealanders will forgive a great deal in their politicians, but they will not vote for a party they believe to be morally compromised.

The Labour MP for Dunedin South, Clare Curran, has written on the parliamentary party’s blog “Red Alert” that she and her colleagues are feeling “gutted” by what happened to their friend and colleague.

“Darren was a valued member of caucus, our Whip. A very talented and witty man. Popular. Dedicated to Labour.

Grieving is what we’re doing right now. So give us a bit of latitude. We’ll be back, strong and focused.”

But, with all due respect to Clare and her colleagues, the grieving will have to wait. And if they need to focus on something – focus on this.

Labour’s parliamentary wing as a team of mountaineers in the split second following the fall of one of their lead climbers. Unaccountably, the first three mountaineers have roped themselves together in such a manner that if one falls the other two fall with him. The remaining climbers have only one course of action available to them if they wish to save the expedition: they must slash the rope that binds them to the doomed trio. If they don’t do this – and do it very quickly – they will all be dragged to certain destruction.

But who should replace Phil Goff as leader of the Labour Party? In any other circumstances, I would have nominated Labour’s finance spokesman, David Cunliffe. As I wrote in this column only last year:

“Articulate, good-humoured, open to new ideas and smart enough to turn them into credible policy, Cunliffe [looks] every inch the leader Labour needs to win.”

In this current set of circumstances, however, Labour needs a leader who has already demonstrated his commitment to the high moral standards expected of politicians in the Westminster tradition. David Parker’s instant and unforced decision to step away from his Attorney-General role in the wake of 2006 allegations of commercial impropriety (later judged to be without substance) stands in stark reproof of Mr Goff’s recent prevarications.

David Parker possesses a sharp and innovative political intellect, a fresh face, and most importantly, a clean pair of hands.

The choice, not of sentiment, but of necessity.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 March 2011.


Anonymous said...

I recall on election night 1990 thinking, great, we've got rid of the Labour Government, only to realise that with such a big majority National could do whatever it wanted. It is tempting to think that the imminent loss must be minimised, and the most competent Parliamentarian, Parker, should replace Goff.

But ultimately policy change is what matters. It is 20 years since the 1990 large defeat, and a new guard should have come in to guide Labour to something new. But instead the old guard has been in leadership positions for the last 20 years. If Paker is the best of the new breed, well alright, but he's not the most inspiring for anyone from a left perspective.

Chris mentions Clare Curran, who was a former public relations person. I have seen her speak in the House, and she still struggles to put an improvised speech together. Labour's performance is badly affected by their selection, especially in safe seats. Which reminds me, all the leaders of parties usually have safe seats, and as I recall it, David Parker was not able to retain his Otago seat. So until Andrew Little is secure in Parliament, I think they should stick to the status quo.

Anonymous said...

As a former climate and energy minister, Parker could rip into Bill English for Solid Energy privatisation and lignite mining plans in Southland, Bill's electorate. Bill is also a stakeholder minister for Solid Energy.

David Parker has the skills to lead labour, and create solid policy, that will make New Zealand a country to be proud of again, and a leader in the pacific. Goff is unable to tackle complex issues climate climate and how emissions relate to the economy.

Parker has the skills, and needs a strong team. The sooner the changeover happens the better.

Anonymous said...

Well, now we have a pretty good idea what might happen to us if we were out there mountaineering with Chris and got in the shit.

Loz said...

The last time I saw Phil Goff he was surrounded by thousands of students during his introduction of user pays into tertiary education. I have no love lost for Phil and Annette, yet, no matter how much I'd love to see the knives protruding from his back, I don't believe his ineffective leadership is the biggest crisis for the opposition.

The bigger problem is that Labour doesn’t know how to handle the imploding New Zealand economy any differently than National and a meaningful departure from a market led or "open economy" model that will see the Labour party implode on itself. Without different answers Labour can only sit on the sidelines & yell the odd quip about how it would be better.

I can't honestly see any leadership contenders who haven't faithfully supported and been deeply complicit with free market ideologies emerging from within the ranks. David Parker's website proclaims his commitment to the "open trading economy" (i.e. free market). I also remember the stench surrounding David Cunliffe's intervention in sacking the elected Hawkes Bay DHB as the minister manoeuvred to circumvent democracy with a sordid saga involving forced asset sales, hospital closures, questionable conflict of interest & the Health Minister's husband (arriving on a motorbike no less).

Parliamentary leadership changes aren't accredited with any lasting electoral success without a corresponding change in direction. Sadly, none of the possible leadership contenders represent a credible change in direction for Labour at all.

Anonymous said...

Boring boring boring the lot of you.

Here's a fresh idea - Ricky Ponting.


He's going to need a new job very soon. He has no ties with the 4th Labour government and is not tied to Helen's apron strings. He's still pretty fit and is not yet 40. He's aggressive enough to have a go at the opposition 24/ 7 whether they're right or wrong and he doesn't have an awkward painted on smile like the one Phil wore for so long for so little.

Robert Winter said...

He's my choice if push comes to (big) shove.

Anonymous said...

David Parker possesses a sharp and innovative political intellect, a fresh face...

Abso-tootily-lootily and politically, correct.

However, the conversation among those who determine our future would probably go something like this:

"David who?"


"Jesus. They are scratching the bloody barrel."

"So old Goffy's a goneburger eh. They got Goff and he's gotta fuck off!"

"Har har har!"

"Yeah but nah, that other poofter's done nothing neither. We're fucked."

"Winston it is then?"

"Oath. At least we'll be able to go to the tide."

"See what Trotter said in the paper?"



Don Franks said...

The Ballad of Darren Hughes

( tune – Jesse James)

It was late on March 2
When Darren got in the pooh
After having a few beers and a debate
Over in Haitaitai
It all got a bit too high
And sealed poor Darren Hughes’s fate

Darren Hughes was a man
Down in New Zealand
Who was staunch for the party through and through
But that silly old Phil Goff
Finally saw him off
As only a Labour hack could do

Some saw a naked man
With his penis in his hand
Running from Darren’s place
did he choose to put his hand
Around that particular gland
to try and save his face?

Darren Hughes was a man
Down in New Zealand
Who was staunch for the party through and through
But that silly old Phil Goff
Finally saw him off
As only a Labour hack could do

Did Darren go too far
after they'd all left the bar
was he too tough on the other bloke
he may as well be inside
he's already judged and tried
kiwi justice is just a fucking joke

Darren Hughes was a man
Down in New Zealand
Who was staunch for the party through and through
But that silly old Phil Goff
Finally saw him off
As only a Labour hack could do

Now if I was Darren Hughs
I might well have the blues
Being lynched by the media and such
But if I was Phil Goff
I wouldn’t know when to get off
After kicking Labour chances in the crutch

Darren Hughes was a man
Down in New Zealand
Who was staunch for the party through and through
But that silly old Phil Goff
Finally saw him off
As only a Labour hack could do

Anonymous said...

"New Zealanders will forgive a great deal in their politicians, but they will not vote for a party they believe to be morally compromised." Hear hear. I'm a fair-weather voter, not stuck on any party. But at the moment Labour's inertia on Darren Hughes (surely its clear what should have been done) and the justifications being thrown around by some of the Labour supporters for the truly morally reprehensible act of taking advantage of a kid my son's age disgusts me.

Lew said...

Don, you're a national treasure. Kia ora.


Anonymous said...

If ridding themselves of Goff makes it look like they're desparate to win, keeping Goff makes it look like they've given up on winning. Changing leaders might be electorial suicide, but keeping Goff as leader is. Goff is so unpopular that more core Labour voters would want John Key leading a Labour government than him.

David Parker may have skills but he is permanently compromised by that scandal back in 2006.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@5:25

David Parker was unequivocally cleared of any wrong-doing in 2006. His decision to resign his portfolio voluntarily and at the earliest opportunity, far from hurting his reputation, actually served to enhance it.

He was widely praised by the news media for doing the right thing at the right time - without prompting.

Unlike some other Labour MPs I could mention.

Victor said...

Here's the problem, Chris.

Us ordinary folk outside of the beltway or the perfumed groves of Medialand don't remember the details of what happened to a minor sprig of Labour's tree half a decade ago.

We merely distantly recall his involvement in what seemed at the time to be an embarrassing scam.

Anonymous@5.25 is probably overstating it when he describes David Parker as 'permanently compromised'.

But he will be compromised until such time as positive publicity concerning him starts to outweigh the negative.

Yes, this is grossly unfair. But, then, so is the constant pillorying of Phil Goff.

Labour's opponents are good at just one thing, namely exploitation of the black arts of media management and the manufacturing of consent.

A candidate who is not instantaneously perceived by us Joe Blows as squeaky clean is a gift on a silver platter to them.

Chris Trotter said...

By your own reasoning then, Victor, Phil has to go.

Victor said...

As far as I can make out, Phil is merely thought of as a bit of a plonker who has misjudged things.

I doubt whether many people think 'Scam!' as soon as his name is mentioned, as they most certainly will (however unjustly) for David Parker and as they also, for example, think with respect to Winston Peters.

Even so, I'd be all for Labour replacing Phil if I thought there was someone who was both electorally more promising and would make a better PM.

David Cunliffe fits the second criterion but not, to my mind, the first. He's too intellectual, just like Rudd and Obama. That's a criticism of us the voters rather than of him.

But them's the breaks.

Victor said...

And, yes Chris, before you tell me , I'm aware that Rudd is ahead of Gillard in some of the polls. But that's a comment on her rather than on him.

Chris Trotter said...

Go out and buy the latest edition of "Truth", Victor.

This story is only going to get worse.

By the time all the facts are made public (and at the moment the news media and the Right seem to know ten times more about what took place than anybody in the Labour Party) I consider it highly likely that Phil and Annette will have become the objects of such universal scorn that Labour, under their leadership, couldn't get itself elected to a secondary school board of trustees. (Some might say especially a secondary school board of trustees!)

You are quite simply wrong about Parker - and I can only surmise that your incorrect assumptions about the man's reputation are all of a piece with the collective display of wilful denial in which the entire Labour Party appears to be presently engaged.

Oh, and BTW, Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama were both elected to office with very healthy majorities by the very people you assert are too hostile to intellectuals to ever do such a thing.

Victor said...

OK, Chris, you have knowledge that I lack. If your forecast proves correct, then Phil would obviously have to go ASAP. And if it's already likely to prove correct, he should go now.

On the subject of David Parker, I'm not making any accusations against him. Indeed, when I read more about him, he seems to have acted with outstanding integrity in a difficult situation. But the shadow sometimes becomes the substance, as an old hand such as yourself knows well. Mud, as they say, sticks.

I've already partially answered your point about Rudd. As to Obama , he had the advantage of being the outsider in a time of global recession. And, once he was elected, he became the insider and the guy who had to carry the can.

He was marketed skilfully as the candidate of "Change", in an updated production of "Mr Smith goes to Washington" and he dug deep into an inspiring but vague mix of quintessentially American idealism.

But, once in office, he became the Harvard law professor, delicately weighing information and options. His deliberative, cerebral style has not, I think, helped him and his chances of reelection now depend entirely on whether the GOP selects a raving loony, which it is quite capable of doing.

Maybe it's worth comparing Obama with his fellow centrist Democrat, Bill Clinton, who was also no mean intellectual but never let it get in the way of his visceral charm.

So where is NZ Labour going to get its visceral charm from?

Anonymous said...

hang on,

this started as a call for a coup to replace an umpopular leader who was making poor judgement calls in the run up to an election.

now its a case of a leader (and deputy leader) covering up serious wrong doing?

if its just the former, its too late to dump him, and calling for it won't help solve the poor polling - it never does.

but if its the latter, and there are sound reasons for a resignation being forced - which is absolutely not the same thing as a coup - then that is a completely different kettle of fish.

so which is it?

Chris Trotter said...

Labour's dilemma, Anonymous@1:10am, is that if they decline to make a decision based on what might emerge over the coming weeks, as opposed to what they know for certain right now, then they run the risk of being forced to act - and of being seen to be forced to act - at some point in the future.

The public, in these circumstances, would quite rightly say: "So, you've decided to act now, but only because the facts have forced you to. Explain to us how this is in any way different from what Phil Goff did in the first instance? He, like you, hoped for the best, and then was forced to act when the best failed to eventuate."

In this way the effects of the Darren Hughes Affair will be permitted to spread from the original trio at the top of the party to the entire caucus.

That's the risk Labour has opted to run by refusing to call Phil on his original poor political judgement when it had the chance.

Olwyn said...

Let us suppose that the risk you speak of will pay off on the Darren Hughes front: that it has served as a flash point for bringing certain elements of unease to a head.

It still remains that if Labour is to make a decent showing in the upcoming election there are problems beyond Hughes that need to be faced, whoever leads the party, and they all come down to trust.

Firstly, there is the problem of connecting with the public, and giving people a clear idea of what Labour now stands for. This is not helped by the fact that Goff himself was once closely associated with rogernomics, and does not seem to have decisively broken ranks with that period of his thinking so much as "moved on." This adds to the already present uncertainty among people now in their thirties and forties who recall crying "Phil Goff f---k off" in the quad when student loans were introduced. Nor does he seem to be all that liberal, since he extended the punitive measures in prisons under the last government. If he has moved closer to the left either socially or economically then he should let us know, or at least let us know what he and his caucus now think. The two new policies that I am aware of; the removal of GST from fruit and vegetables, and the $5000 tax-free zone, have the ring of telling the middle class that something is being done for the poor but not too much, which is not enough to allay the above mentioned fears.

Don't get me wrong. I really am a member of the Labour Party and I really do want Labour to win the election. Nor am I dead set against Phil Goff. But I do see the above-mentioned issues as needing to be addressed if Labour is to lift its poll rating. Maybe someone should try and persuade Conor to go to Wellington, since he did such a good job in helping Len Brown win the Auckland mayoralty.

Anonymous said...

Amen, brothers Olwyn and Victor. Amen.

Chris - Grant Robertson or Trevor Mallard are the only current Labour MPs with the charisma and leftish credentials to lead Labour to a win. But Trevor is broken (and a capitalist), so that rules him out.

Grant could do it, though he would lack capable caucus support, but it would take a change of direction. At the very least:
- clear rejection of asset sales, and PPPs
- real action on pollution and climate change, and pre-election partnership with the Greens (shared stages, etc)
- rejection of further social engineering
- policy to really fix income gap
- policy to fix massive housing costs
- underpinning it all - rejection of free-market capitalism, which undermines manufacturing jobs

But there is not a shred of evidence that the Labour caucus would back such a direction change. Which is why Labour deserve to be decimated.

Mad Marxist.
P.S. Lack of experience for Grant? No. He ran a nationwide student body, including budget. Far more experience than the self-confessed economic illiterate Lange.

Anonymous said...

Cunliffe. An arogant Kevin Rudd +. But Cunliffe's press releases and sound bites, cut thru. He would have a good chance.
David Parker. Don't make me laugh. Like racing car drivers and sportsmen, in politicians real and genuine talent is usually obvious from the first reported speech and utterance. RFK and Churchill might have looked amatuer for a long time, but they were the l% exception with their own exceptional wealth and class. I do not believe Parker is anything. A John Major minus at best. Labour will need good looks,power and rhetoric and ability to cut thr in debate. Lange and Muldoon had most of that. Goff and Parker have none of it.