Chris Carter just does not get it. Thrown an undeserved lifeline by Labour leader Phil Goff after his extravagant sense of entitlement was laid bare by the release of details of ministerial spending, Mr Carter instead chose to defy party rules by taking an overseas trip – albeit one paid for by the Chinese Government, not the New Zealand taxpayer – without seeking permission.
OPINION: Then he chose to try to derail Mr Goff's leadership in a particularly inept way. His not very confidential letter shows that not only does he lack any sense of political reality, but also even the most rudimentary grasp of political tactics.
Mr Carter has not flourished in opposition. According to one anonymous Labour source, the problem is that, after former prime minister Helen Clark left for New York and her United Nations job, Mr Carter, who had been one of her inner circle, "had to rely on his own talents".
On the evidence, those talents are non-existent. At a time when many New Zealanders are having to tighten their belts, Mr Carter's reaction when his spending was criticised was to complain that he was being singled out because he was seen, in his words, as a "luxury-loving gay boy".
That is another measure of just how divorced from political reality he is. It was not about his sexuality. It was about his belief that it was fine for him to live it up large on the taxpayer – flowers for his partner and a colleague, kitchenware in London and massages in Buenos Aires. His reaction when the spending was revealed was to show defiance rather than contrition, until he was publicly castigated by Mr Goff and delivered an unconvincing apology.
Against that background, it is hard to see what he thought he could achieve with his letter. Any criticism of Mr Goff from him can simply be dismissed as the disloyal petulance of someone who was justifiably demoted, or, as Trevor Mallard told Radio New Zealand, the work of someone who has "been a bit – what I would say – unbalanced".
Mr Carter's career is now over. He will limp on as an independent MP, receiving his pay and allowances, the one silver lining in his otherwise very dark cloud being that at least he will be able to approve his own overseas travel.
He will not be forgiven, and the fury of the Labour Party hierarchy is understandable. However ineptly, Mr Carter's petulance has put the focus on Mr Goff's leadership – and what is revealed is not encouraging. Labour is still about 20 percentage points behind National a little over a year out from an election, with no signs of anything like a Kevin Rudd-like implosion that would give it a fighting chance of victory.
The saving grace for Mr Goff – and at the heart of Mr Carter's lack of judgment – is that there is no one at present both better than, and willing to take over from, Mr Goff. Even if there were, Mr Carter's fumbled attempt ensures no one else can try – at least for now.
- The Dominion Post