Managing The Message: Labour supporters are invited to receive a copy of Andrew Little's conference address by e-mail. The people surrounding the party’s leader have a “message” they wish to present to the public, and they are determined that every single party member should remain resolutely and coherently “on message”. Hence the near total ban on media access to conference proceedings.
THE LABOUR PARTY’s annual conference kicks-off today in Palmerston North and the news media might as well stay at home. Apart from a handful of carefully controlled events: speeches of welcome; tributes to fallen comrades; three spectacularly misnamed “Challenge Sessions” and, of course, the Leader’s Address; the weekend’s proceedings will take place under a comprehensive media ban.
The Sector Sessions: where the party’s component groups – trade unionists, women, Maori, youth – meet to discuss issues of special interest to their members, are “closed to the media”. The Policy Workshops; where conference delegates debate policy remits on health and society, jobs and growth, skills and wages, human rights, and a host of other matters, are similarly “closed to the media”. Likewise, all discussion of the Party’s all-important ‘Policy Platform’ (to which all Labour MPs are bound) has been deemed too sensitive for the ears and eyes of the public’s proxies.
Also “closed to the media” is the session headed ‘Whakarongo me korero’ – which features “discussions and presentations on a variety of current topics”. Even the announcement of the results of the Party’s internal elections are “closed to the media”, along with a session intriguingly titled “Re-written Constitution and Rules”. The Party big-wigs have also decided that no journalists should be present at the special workshop entitled “How to be a Treasurer”.
Most worrying of all, the critical plenary session at which the members’ policy proposals, developed at all those earlier workshops, are debated, amended and voted up or down is – that’s right, you guessed it – “closed to the media”.
The extent of this year’s media ban speaks eloquently of a political party at odds with, and mortally afraid of, itself.
It is almost a reflex among those who like to think of themselves as political “professionals” to deny the public even the slightest glimpse of events they haven’t already emptied of anything remotely resembling controversy, spontaneity or authenticity. The people surrounding the party’s leader have a “message” they wish to present to the public, and they are determined that every single party member should remain resolutely and coherently “on message”.
After the tumult and turmoil of the past four years, the message Andrew Little’s staffers are determined to communicate to the voting public is that Labour is united. And by ‘Labour’ they mean the whole party. The Labour caucus, the New Zealand Council, the trade union affiliates, and even the rank-and-file, are all 100 percent united and raring to go. Nobody’s heard of Jeremy Corbyn. Nobody’s the slightest bit worried about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. From top to bottom, Andy’s electoral vessel has been caulked and sealed and plugged. Nobody’s getting in and, sure as Stalin, nothing is getting out!
Except that a political party – especially a left-wing political party – has no right to shut away its deliberations from public scrutiny. After all, the body we’re discussing is not a society of philatelists, but a quasi-constitutional institution within which the future leaders of our nation are raised and readied, and out of which its future economic and social policy directions are expected to emerge.
This quasi-constitutional quality is only enhanced when a political party’s membership arrogates to itself the right to choose the leader of its parliamentary caucus. When the choice of who should be Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition is restricted to the candidates’ caucus colleagues, the voters can at least reassure themselves that these key political figures are being chosen by people who have, themselves, been put to the democratic test. But, they can have no such reassurance when their political leaders are being decided by people whose only qualification is the payment of a membership fee.
When Labour’s members took upon themselves the duty of deciding who the next Prime Minister will be, they simultaneously forfeited the right to behave as if they were a society of stamp-collectors. The latter has every right to determine who can participate in and observe its AGM. The Labour Party, however, like all political parties, lays claim to the right to design and deliver the nation’s future. And that must mean that the nation possesses a reciprocal right to watch them do it.
By banning the news media from a huge chunk of its conference proceedings, Labour is poking out the eyes and blocking the ears of the voters. Shame on them!
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, 6 November 2015.