Lessons for Labor from across the Tasman


Globe of the world resting on green grass, with Australia facing forwardsLast weekend the Australian Labor Party embarked on its month-long process towards a grassroots election of a leader to replace Kevin Rudd. At the same time, the New Zealand Labour Party ended its long and sometimes brutal election of a new leader, with Sunday's naming of Auckland MP David Cunliffe. The lesson from across the Tasman is that a grassroots election of a Labour leader can broaden the base of those with a say in the party's destiny, and steer it back towards a more traditional social democratic stance.

This is particularly significant in New Zealand, the former cradle of the welfare state which the OECD charts as the member country with the fastest growing level of inequality. Australia, as we're aware, is not far behind, with its widening gap between rich and poor.

His stance on social inclusion appears to be the reason Cunliffe won the support of party rank-and-file and union affiliates, who carried the numbers he needed. Like Australia's Kevin Rudd, he was widely disliked in the Labour caucus. He beat two other candidates to the post after a two-week 'primary' in which the three candidates toured the country's key Labour strongholds enthusing party faithful with presidential-style speeches worthy of the American hustings. This method has worked in bringing out the differences in what each candidate has to offer.

Cunliffe's victory is a slap in the face for the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) group, which gained traction after the 2011 general election when defeated Labour leader Phil Goff stepped down in favour of unknown political novice David Shearer, who succeeded former prime minister Helen Clark as the MP for the electorate of Mt Albert.

Historian and political commentator Chris Trotter says in his column 'From the Left' that personal motives were behind the ABC's promotion of deputy leader Grant Robertson over Cunliffe, who was regarded as a threat to their position in the caucus, and political advancement in general.

Some in the party were concerned that Robertson's sexuality could become the subject of political barbs and wondered aloud whether the country was ready for a gay PM. One wonders whether Australia's Labor campaign might take an unexpected nasty turn once ideological differences are brought to the fore.

Trotter says in his commentary that Cunliffe's supporters were keenly aware that he would require the Opposition to 'adopt a more unequivocally social-democratic ideological stance'. Yet Cunliffe opponents have labelled a return to the party's constitution which espouses a more democratic socialism as 'naïve and stupid'. 'This is because a surprisingly large number of Labour's caucus no longer believe in social democracy ... They want no part of a labour movement that sees itself as a direct and progressive challenge to the ambitions of the Right,' says Trotter.

Following the Labour caucus meeting on Tuesday 17 September, David Parker emerged as the new deputy leader ahead of Robertson, though Cunliffe's early assurances that he would offer Robertson his old job back suggest that Robertson turned it down. Senior party whip Chris Hipkins has also become a casualty in what had been an acrimonious battle to keep Cunliffe out of the leadership. Hipkins had attacked Cunliffe after Labour's divisive annual conference last year.

Cunliffe said in his first news conference that peace was 'breaking out all over the place' and the party was now in campaign mode in preparation for the 2014 general election. 'We are taking the fight to the Key government,' he said. 'They are on notice that their easy days are over.'

After 20 months of a leadership which has missed numerous opportunities to challenge Prime Minister John Key amid trade gaffes that occurred over dairy giant Fonterra's recent so-called 'dirty pipe' scandal, Cunliffe will be keen to prepare his war cabinet.

New Zealand diplomats have had to work hard to appease China, the country's biggest trading partner after Australia, following tonnes of baby milk formula, suspected of being laced with the botulism bacteria, needing to be recalled last month. Further testing revealed that the powder was not impregnated with botulism but with a much less dangerous bacteria. However, the scandal followed a greater horror last year when Fonterra company in China San Lu was found to be among 22 companies involved in whey formula being mixed with the industrial chemical, melamine, to boost protein levels. Four babies died from the poisoning and 50,000 others became ill.

Key has had an easier ride than he would have had the opposition been able to more vigorously put him on the spot. With Shearer failing to fire, it has fallen to the Greens to point up the deficiencies in Key's leadership.

If Cunliffe is to succeed in uniting the party to put Key on notice and claim the Treasury benches next year, he will need all the diplomatic and political smarts gleaned from a Harvard education to overcome party factionalism. It is worth those vying to replace Rudd here watching how Cunliffe overcomes party infighting so that they can more powerfully unify opposition to Abbott's policies.

Cecily McNeill headshotCecily McNeill has edited the newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North dioceses for the past eight years and worked as a radio journalist for 20 years.

Grassroots image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: New Zealand, Labour, Labor, Kevin Rudd, David Cunliffe, Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten, Kevin Rudd



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Existing comments

"His stance on social inclusion appears to be the reason Cunliffe won the support of party rank-and-file......" Perhaps there is also a lesson here for the Republican Movement. Most people want a say in who is to become our President, and not leave it to factional political parties to decide. The time is NOW to work out what powers a future president should have, and not leave it open to last minute confusion and doubt.
Robert Liddy | 18 September 2013

Personally I do not want any elected president to have any powers. Kerr & Phillip Game had too much power
peter gavin | 18 September 2013


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