According to one of RNZ’s Morning Report hosts this morning, David Shearer “needs to stamp his authority” on the Labour caucus over the David Cunliffe affair. Well, when people feel the need to stamp their authority on something, it usually means they don’t bring natural authority to the table, and have to over-compensate. Feeling the need to stamp your authority is usually a sign of weakness, not strength.
Not only are the attacks on Cunliffe looking disproportionate to his alleged sins, but demonising him will mean that the caucus is willing to throw overboard one of its few capable public performers and political assets. Yep, let’s keep Trevor Mallard but do our level best to end Cunliffe’s career, once and for all. That makes sense. Let’s crack down on Cunliffe but continue to let Shane Jones publicly go after our coalition allies if they dare to criticise one of his corporate donors. That’s the right thing to do.
What we have seen within Labour in the last few days looks like a witch hunt. This kind of Stalinist stuff for instance, belongs back in the mid 1930s:
There has been speculation some of Cunliffe’s supporters could also be demoted today with names suggested including shadow attorney-general Charles Chauvel, education spokeswoman Nanaia Mahuta, early childhood education spokeswoman Sue Moroney and energy spokeswoman Moana Mackey. However, there is not expected to be a wider reshuffle today and Shearer is expected to detail only Cunliffe’s fall when he holds a press conference after the leadership vote.
That’s not how many in the Labour Party seem to see this situation. They had seen Shearer installed as leader over the heads of the party rank and file who had been invited to express their preference, chose Cunliffe by a clear majority and who were then ignored by a caucus that elevated Shearer, regardless. They then saw Shearer struggle all year in asserting himself as the leader of a credible alternative government.
Come the party conference last week, and delegates voted for a more balanced and more democratic say in the outcome of the leadership vote due in February. Cunliffe indicated his support for the measure, and would not rule out standing then if it came to such a vote – as surely is his right, and the right of anyone else in caucus. At which point, Team Shearer got spooked by the media and cried treason. Apparently in the current climate of the Labour Party you can only have a democratic right to a vote related to the leadership if you declare your intention beforehand that no-one will exercise it. If David Shearer is such a delicate flower that he needs this kind of jackup in order to win a vote within his own party, what chance does he have of winning an election in 2014?
Couldn’t Shearer have said: “If David Cunliffe has an alternative vision to mine, lets hear it. We’re both Labour. My door is open anytime to anyone with good ideas, and if David or anyone else wants this job, we have a vote due in February. I’m happy with that. The party voted on the weekend to become more involved, and I welcome that, too. I’m confident I can continue to earn their trust.” (Shearer’s excellent closing conference speech would then have sealed that deal.) The only conclusion one can draw from the current course of action is that Team Shearer feared losing in February, and today’s pantomine of feudal fealty has been staged to pre-empt that possibility.
Along the way, it seems open season on Cunliffe, to judge by this shabby little hatchet job. Maybe the likes of Chris Hipkins might care to reflect on Labour’s recent history. By general agreement, the biggest mistake made by the Labour government of the 1980s was the selling off of Telecom, and its entrenchment as a private neo-monopoly that pillaged the country, blocked competition and delayed investment in new technologies for years and years. The person who finally took on Telecom and brought it out of its 19th century robber baron phase and into the 21st century was the Telecommunications Minister in the Clark government, who was one David Cunliffe.
True, the buying back of Kiwirail and the bailing out of Air New Zealand were also important – but Cunliffe’s reform of Telecom has been the main act of atonement that Labour has made for its sins of the 1980s. If Cunliffe seems arrogant at times, at least he’s earned it. The modern Labour Party owes him a debt of gratitude on the Telecom score.
In particular, Cunliffe has earned his right to be a candidate for party leader based on his policy record while in government – and not simply because he looked like a political commodity with marketable potential to the group of MPs that finally settled on Shearer. The faint hope is that Shearer will accept the unanimous endorsement he will receive this afternoon, and treat that as being enough. The genuinely strong can afford to be generous in victory, especially to their own kind.