"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.