Keeping the knives out of the (shadow) cabinet

David Farrar gave it 7/10. Cameron Slater was less enamoured, although he has not quite indulged in the barrage of guffawing that one might have expected. Even left commentators who are satisfied with Andrew Little’s shadow cabinet lineup have praised it in measured tones (except at the Standard, of course). Yet at risk of indulging in the over-optimism that necessarily follows the bloodbath and lugubrious introspection brought on by an election drubbing, I think Little has played something of a blinder.

I’ve been putting the boot into Labour more or less since I started this blog, and I remain on balance pessimistic about 2017. But after a week without pratfalls and some quiet common sense, I feel duty-bound to get in behind, as it were. Let’s start with the good stuff: Silent T has been firmly relegated to 14th and a fistful of minor portfolios that will keep him occupied but out of trouble. It remains to be seen whether a man of such enormous ego talent will settle for the snub, or just take the hint and depart. Either way I feel sure that someone will be on hand to, er, console him.


I was really expecting Little to offer more of an olive branch to Parker too, what with his fiscal experience, but it’s a warning to all those who decide to pack a sad and spit the dummy: in big boy politics, Mummy just might not be prepared to clean it and pop it back in your gob. Cosgrove, Dyson, Mallard et al, effective politicians though they no doubt are, should also have got the memo from HQ that change and rejuvenation is the order of the day. Their frontbench careers should be done, although Mallard would be an outrageous awesome choice as Speaker.

Dealing with Mahuta could have been tricky – if it hadn’t been for her bloc of second preferences (or indeed Cunliffe’s post-pullout endorsement), Little would not have won. But by giving her the mana of a high list ranking (4) and the Maori portfolio where she can do little real damage, he has maintained his clever and ruthless approach. In a more positive vein, there are promotions for Hipkins and Kelvin Davis, acknowledging the latter’s only ray of sunshine in a bleak election, when he toppled the seemingly impregnable Harawira.

Which brings us to the apparent mistakes: King and Robertson. It is certainly a risk having a 30-year career politician as your Deputy, if you are trying to claim that Labour is serious about change, and a politician with no business and little fiscal policy experience at Finance, if you are serious about the economy, stupid. Then again, Little is only doing exactly what Key did in 2006 – keeping one of his party’s most talented politicians not only onside, but with almost as much power and responsibility as himself. All policy, unless it is pure social change, has a fiscal effect. And as for the supposed lack of economic nous, Michael Cullen’s CV was similarly threadbare in this respect, and he left us the Cullen Fund.

Back to the Future: you just can't keep an old girl down.
Back to the Future: you just can’t keep an old girl down.

Best of all, Robertson will be too busy to sharpen any knives, hence the appointment of King. It’s claimed that it will only be for one year, but I can see it lasting up to the next election if the relationship works. King is a wise old owl and an effective performer, yet obviously without ambition, as she is possibly in her last term. She will deputise effectively in the House for Little, without ever outshining him in a way in which Robertson might have done. Furthermore, if Labour do manage to pull it off in 2017, they will have to do so in formal coalition with the Greens. After being jilted at the altar by Clark in 2002 and 2005, the Greens simply will not settle for mere confidence and supply. And King will happily give up her deputy role to Russell Norman or Metiria Turei. Finding Robertson another role would have been a real pain, and being deputy would be wasted on him anyway, as he already done it.

So, I’ll give it a 9. Not out of any boundless optimism – I’m still some way from pouring a double Kool-Aid into my evening nightcap – but because a cabinet shuffle can only achieve so much anyway, and I honestly can’t see what else he could have done.


Little cause for optimism

Just when I thought it was safe to come out from behind the sofa, the final, long-awaited Labour leadership result had me scurrying back for cover. I didn’t want to do another post on this: it might be best if bloggers and the MSM just leave them alone for three years and hope that some credible alternative government might gestate in the meantime. But I couldn’t help myself. This is undoubtedly a deeper nadir than any yet plumbed.

And it is the fine print of the results, not the identity of the winner, that is so damaging. Andrew Little won by a single percentage point, on third preferences. He lost heavily on caucus and members’ votes, with only a monolithic union bloc getting him over the line. If just one of Parker’s second preferences had gone to Robertson instead of Little, Grant would be leader. And so a tedious, unnecessary campaign concludes in omnishambles: the one virtue which has been so lacking from Labour and which each candidate has stressed the need for – unity – looks as far away as ever.

Grant Robertson’s Facebook admission that his leadership race is run was classy and his support for Little seems genuine. Even though Robertson was my preference, I have the nagging suspicion that it’s not actually certain that he was the best candidate. He has failed in consecutive leadership battles, and despite his formidable primary vote lead this time, his lack of second preferences from Parker supporters in particular, suggests that not as many of the caucus were convinced by him as most of the commentariat thought. I doubt that being gay is the issue, as much as the fact that a ‘beltway Wellingtonian’ is just as likely to struggle to clobber Key as a ‘union stooge’.

I wish Little well – he has a Sisyphean task. He suffers from rhotacism, for a start – a fact gleefully pointed out by Cameron Slater, dubbing him the Elmer Fudd of NZ politics. And the fact that the reaction from many bloggers and journalists has been on the meh side of indifference, rather than disbelief, only underlines the massive problems Labour faces. The danger is not that he will be unpopular but irrelevant. In one sense, though, he has certain advantages over the other candidates. He has been dismissed as a union hack, but he is actually a trained lawyer who has been party president, as well as running the EPMU. He ought to be able to sort out the fundraising and organisational issues which bedevilled Labour in the election.

I scwaped in on the List, scwaped past Gwant, and now I'll scwape past Key in 2017.
I scwaped in on the List, scwaped past Gwant, and now I’ll scwape past Key in 2017.

Defeating Key, a political leviathan, in 2017 is the real challenge, but Little’s margin of victory and ‘mandate’ is so unconvincing. Most successful opposition leaders are either unanimous choices or end up clear winners in any contest. For this reason, National have tended to have coups rather than contests, which are less democratic but altogether cleaner and more efficient. The spotlight will once again come on Labour’s barmy system. Yet there can be clear winners in electoral college-style systems. Tony Blair, though on the right of his party, was a comfortable winner in each of the caucus, party members’ and unions’ votes in 1994. David Cameron was a rank outsider in the Tory stoush of 2005, but produced an energising and polished performance in the leaders’ hustings to win strongly (something none of Labour’s four candidates managed this time, hence the close race).

In contrast, centrist Denis Healey beat leftie Tony Benn for the UK Deputy Labour leadership in 1981 by such a microscopic margin, that the open divisions between the party’s wings had no chance of being healed. In 2001, the two British Tory heavyweights of Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo lost out to charisma-free nobody Iain Duncan Smith, because the former was unpalatable to the rank-and-file, and the latter was disliked by his caucus. Sound familiar?

After racking my brains, I can think of only one precedent where a wafer-thin leadership win paved the way for election victory. Tony Abbott won the 2009 Liberal Party leadership spill – the party’s third such contest in two years (!) – by a single caucus vote from the two front-runners. He is now Australian PM. Then again, he’s mad.

Cheer up Labourites: we could have this budgie-smuggler in charge.
Cheer up Labourites: we could have this budgie-smuggler in charge.

Remember remember, the 5th of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot? Perhaps not. As ISIS looks to ramp up its mediaeval credo with more beheadings in the Levant, you could be forgiven for feeling a tad queasy at our own ‘celebration’ of a time of barbaric religious intolerance and violence. And the ‘our’ is a tenuous adjective to apply here in NZ: just another British tradition thoughtlessly adopted. Since I seem to be channelling my po-faced Grinch persona, I might as well chuck in my annual wish that the lunacy of selling explosives to random punters be brought to an end too.

Some gung-ho right-wing bloggers, on the other hand, have cheerfully opined that it couldn’t be more appropriate, considering the hapless Guy Fawkes was deservedly executed for attempting (unsuccessfully) the world’s first terrorist atrocity. It’s the sort of 9/11 that Edmund Blackadder might concoct, I suppose. Still, if you didn’t care about the origins, while your pets were whimpering in the bedroom as another firecracker fizzed on the deck, consider that there is a much more suitable occasion to be remembered on this date.

November 5th, 1881: a band of volunteer militia enter a Maori settlement to forcibly remove its inhabitants who are protesting the seizure of their land: Parihaka. What could have been another ugly chapter in the colonial acquisition of Maori land in the 19th century, instead became a remarkable (and long forgotten) tale of non-violent resistance. Every lie that could be told about the Parihaka settlement found its way into the settler press of the time. It was a ‘deplorable slum’ (it was actually one of the first settlements in New Zealand to acquire electric lighting when it was later rebuilt). Its leaders, Te Whiti and Tohu, were characterised as svengali types, twisting young Maori to their own cult-like ideology. In reality, Te Whiti’s nonviolent stance was an inspiration for Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Indeed, members of the Gandhi and King families have visited celebrations at Parihaka in recent years.

Te Whiti: the original Great Soul
Te Whiti: the original Great Soul

One of the Pakeha militamen later recalled his mounting unease at the peaceful scene he was confronted with.

Their attitude of passive resistance and patient obedience to Te Whiti’s orders was extraordinary. There was a line of children across the entrance to the big village, a kind of singing class directed by an old man with a stick. The children sat there unmoving, droning away, and even when a mounted officer galloped up and pulled his horse up so short that the dirt from its forefeet spattered the children they still went on chanting, perfectly oblivious, apparently, to the pakeha, and the old man calmly continued his monotonous drone.

And lest it be suggested that we would be replacing one controversial day in history with another, the shame of Parihaka and land appropriation is balanced with the mantra of non-violence and peace. There was no bloodthirsty finale, and just 100 years later, much had been done to redress the injustices of the Maori Land Wars. Toleration of Catholics and the removal of official prejudice took far longer in Britain.

I wrote a poem about Parihaka as a submission for an anthology on silenced voices from history. It is from the perspective of one of the innocent Maori women who the militiamen first encountered chanting calmly as they began their invasion. I also tried to capture the uncomfortable feelings of the men. The style is an ironic powhiri formally welcoming the invading thugs. The Maori proverb is a saying of Te Whiti, which is translated in the italicised lines at the end. The clay refers to Maori, and the iron to Pakeha.

Parihaka Powhiri

e kore e piri te uku ki te rino,

ka whitia e te ra, ka ngahoro

come and hear

our karanga, welcoming cloud

of defiant submission,

mute waiata, echoing loud,

as you pause stare doubt

come and see

our obstinate smiles of peace,

women and children first,

dancing on your unease

to a prophet’s tune

come and walk

wide streets of this spotless slum

and trample furrows ploughed

by warriors with spears of gum

and paper cudgels

come and take

us, huddled eggs in the marae’s womb,

defilable, invincible,

and the raukura, triple white plume,

no coward’s wreath

come and bind

Te Whiti and Tohu, Venerable Souls,

and prise away boys to far prisons,

in locked lightless holes,

unresisting sons

come and burn

and break every fence and frame,

until no single brick of this haven stands

as witness to your shame

it will be rebuilt

come and dig,

uproot, but do not stay

            for our clay will not stick to your iron

            when it has dried in the sun


            it falls away