Collision Course: Following Charles Chauvel's resignation from Parliament - allegedly after being told that, as an ally of David Cunliffe, he would have no role in a David Shearer-led Labour government - what will the Member for New Lynn do? The Labour Caucus's refusal to promote Cunliffe, its most electable member, to the party leadership offers grim evidence of its political and moral decline. (Photograph by John Chapman/Alamy)
AS LABOUR’S TRAIN rolls on towards 2014, I feel a bit like the bull in the Georgia politician’s story. Describing yet another doomed campaign waged by his liberal opponents in the Senate, the all-powerful leader of the segregationist Southern Caucus, Senator Richard B. Russell Jnr, observed that their position “reminded him of a bull who had charged a locomotive train. That was the bravest bull I ever saw, but I can’t say a lot for its judgement.”
I should have known that in championing the leadership credentials of David Cunliffe I was backing a bull over a locomotive.
After all, Mr Cunliffe could only boast a Harvard MPA, ministerial experience, a telegenic personality and the ability to string together a coherent English sentence. He was, moreover, the only member of the Labour caucus to have fully grasped the meaning of the Global Financial Crisis. The only Labour MP who understood how few of neoliberalism’s shibboleths remained politically serviceable to the Twenty-first Century Left.
There is always one who stands out in any party caucus: a man or woman who, in spite of their faults, is recognised by their colleagues as the only person who can beat the incumbent. Norman Kirk, Rob Muldoon, David Lange, Jim Bolger, Helen Clark, John Key: they may not have been liked by their colleagues; they may even have unseated a leader beloved and respected by the party’s rank-and-file; but they were the ones who could win; and they were the ones chosen.
I don’t think it is drawing too long a bow to say that the moral health (not to mention the historical success) of any political party depends upon its caucus’s ability to both recognise and engineer the promotion of the one/s most likely to succeed.
The elevation of the woefully inexperienced and chronically inarticulate David Shearer to the Labour leadership revealed a caucus no longer capable of identifying “The One”. Indeed, the very notion of a candidate possessing outstanding leadership qualities is now condemned as both disruptive and demoralising. Anyone promoted on the grounds that they possess superior talent or, God forbid! – charisma – is immediately blackballed by their less talented and charisma-bypassed colleagues.
The personality structure best suited to a Labour caucus overpopulated with MPs who owe their parliamentary seats to a high ranking on the Party List is that of the passive-aggressive courtier; the intriguer; the secretive collector of his or her colleagues’ political IOUs.
Robust egos and forthright personalities are proving easy meat for such folk.
Charles Chauvel, “Champagne Charlie”, that wilful roisterer whose liberal disposition and utterly brilliant legal mind promised a Labour Attorney General and Justice Minister of rare ability and enduring achievement, is merely the latest victim of a Labour caucus which, increasingly, is distinguished by nothing other than its dreary mediocrity.
I ask myself: “With Champagne Charlie gone, can the talented Mr Cunliffe be far behind?”
New Zealand now faces the dismal prospect of a change of government by default. It is entirely possible that, in twenty months’ time, Mr Key and his National Party, in spite of enjoying a ten percentage point advantage over their nearest political rival – will, nevertheless, lose the 2014 General Election.
Replacing him will be a man of whom it can only be said: “He was loathed less than his opponents.” Mr Shearer will enter office not like David Lange – on the updrafts of his own soaring rhetoric. Nor will he possess the menacing mandate of a Rob’s Mob, or even John Key’s “Labour-lite”. Mr Shearer will sit at the head of the Cabinet Table by virtue of simple arithmetic. Because Labour’s Party Vote, plus the Greens’ Party Vote, plus NZ First’s Party Vote, together, add-up to a Prime Minister.
The mandate of these three, ideologically distinct, political parties will be impossible for the electorate to discern. Inevitably, New Zealand’s policy direction will default to the usual bureaucratic suspects: Treasury, MFAT and the Ministry for Primary Industries. Their attached ministers are unlikely to cause any trouble. The ambition of courtiers is to climb things – not change things.
It is in the nature of bulls to defend their own. Mr Cunliffe’s supporters should, therefore, console themselves with the knowledge that while they lacked the judgement to avoid a head-on collision with Labour’s locomotive, they retained just enough courage for one final, redeeming, charge.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 February 2013.