August 20 2014, updated 9:42pm

Carter's Goff gaffe exposes Labour leadership vacuum

BY MICHAEL LAWS
Last updated 05:00 01/08/2010

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SOMEWHERE IN John Key's prime ministerial penthouse, there is an ouija board. And he has been channelling the ghost of the late Sir Robert Muldoon.

How else to explain the weirdness of this past political week – and the resurrection of Muldoon's favourite tactic of letting the Labour Party bail the Nats out of the crap, if the crap ever looked imminent. Muldoon's favourite fetish decoy was always Labour leader Bill Rowling, who would ride to the rescue if it ever looked like the media had the prime minister in trouble.

Rowling – although more likely his unstable Labour caucus – would then self-immolate or engage in some internecine conflagration and the moment would pass. Saved by the distraction. So too it has proven this week.

National is still riding high in the polls. But this is the mid-term, and some of the country's intractable problems – comparing badly with Australia, rising interest rates, stubborn welfare numbers, land sales to foreigners and ministerial credit cards – are starting to have their effect.

At which stage hey presto! Chris Carter goes mad. In an extraordinary display of flouncy petulance the former darling of the liberal left commits the most bizarre of political suicides, accompanied by the psycho-babble of wanting to be found out like some self-harming teen yearning for the attention.

Still smarting, it would seem, from his naming and shaming for past ministerial excesses, Carter exposed the underbelly that is Labour loathing. The loathing of each other and the myriad of conflicting imperatives that keep the party in a constant state of internal broil.

Unlike National, Labour has always been an unstable mix of red left and blue-collar social conservative. Particularly the academic left with their politically correct agendas that gradually gained sway and control. The workers finally accepted this intrusion because their interests had not been abandoned – and because the Nats kept trying to remove their hard-won employment gains.

So it is then that porno-loving MPs like Shane Jones coexist with lesbian matriarchs like Maryan Street. That the bete noir of boy racers, Clayton Cosgrove, settles with softies like Charles Chauvel. And that the very strong and influential gay wing has made its peace with the Cossie Club types, who make up the majority of Labour's membership.

Although most of the reason for these rapprochements is due to realpolitik. Labour knows that disunity, particularly public and overt disunity, is fatal. And given that politics is the pursuit and retention of power, personal agendas must always be subservient to such dictate.

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Yeah, but what happens when you keep trailing a popular administration led by a popular prime minister? The more unstable of your units start to fracture. Cue Chris Carter.

This will be the lasting legacy of the Carter concoction. Because this drama – and this drama queen – ain't over yet. Labour is now required to formally sack the errant MP, to formally select another candidate for Te Atatu, to formally move Carter to another part of the parliamentary debating chamber, and to suffer the ridicule of government backbenchers every time their leader rises to speak. This is the gift that keeps giving: to National.

And we all know that what Carter says is true. Labour is unelectable with Goff at the helm.

He is very much in the same position as National's Bill English entering the 2002 general election. His job is to limit the damage against an opposition prime minister at the top of their game. And then to suffer the inevitable caucus coup, after losing the 2011 election.

Is it Goff's fault that he is unelectable? Not at all. He has ascended to the wrong job at exactly the wrong time. Mind you, he never was Mr Personality. But then who is, in the current Labour Party? There is not one telegenic frontbencher, not one inspirational captain, nor even one affable alternative. The cupboard is bare.

Indeed in the absence of Helen Clark and her former deputy Michael Cullen, and genuine movers and shakers like Heather Simpson, the Labour Party is a headless chook. Reduced to singing "Kumbaya" on the bus.

Meanwhile, Key is pursuing, for the most part, a populist agenda. And in the areas where it could embarrass or outflank this National government, Labour's inherent political correctness prevents it from doing so.

Carter's solution – which appears to include his immediate reinstatement to the good life – is no smarter. He floats the idea of Labour's finance spokesman, David Cunliffe, taking over.

Now I know, and like, David. We were at Otago University together and in the same clannish debating club. He did an outstanding job as a young diplomat in Washington DC and is, on a personal level, engaging and clever company. But David has one fatal political flaw: he comes across as an old fogey. A sort of grown-up Young Nat.

Labour do need a new leader – that's true. But they need someone who isn't in their caucus yet. And that means sitting out the 2011 election, getting rid of deadwood MPs like Hawkins and scouting for talent that isn't always gay and/or PC.

Until then we should simply view the Opposition as entertainment. Because Carter has proven bloody good spectator, if blood sport. Next, please.

mlaws@radiolive.co.nz

- Sunday Star Times

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