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TALKING POLITICS BY GORDON CAMPBELL
Last updated 10:13 16/09/2013

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OPINION: Because of the timing of the leadership change, David Cunliffe will have several opportunities to present himself as an alternative Prime Minister - from the moment he is elected, at the Labour Party annual conference in November, and when Parliament reconvenes in February.

Obviously, Labour will be planning the effects to be cumulative and not as providing any "one more chance" opportunities to correct any misfires on the launch pad.

Along the way, Labour strategists should probably refrain from talking themselves into believing any danger exists in over-exposure or in peaking too soon, or similar marketing nonsense.

A leader needs to lead, and followers need to follow. That may sound obvious.

However, some of the media commentary has already tried to place an onus on the new leader to accept the current power balance within caucus, rather than expect the caucus to get in behind the new direction that Cunliffe will be wanting to chart.

Unfortunately for Labour, there still appears to be a "born to rule" mentality among the caucus old guard.

These would be the same political geniuses who selected Phil Goff as leader after the 2008 defeat, and then imposed David Shearer on Labour in early 2012 after the party membership had clearly expressed a preference for Cunliffe.

To depict the mythical cause of Labour unity as being somehow still beholden to the preferences of Goff, Annette King, David Parker and Trevor Mallard would seem utterly perverse.

Grant Robertson as deputy is the only gesture towards unity that Cunliffe might have to accept.

Beyond that, the leadership contest - which Cunliffe won by 51 per cent to 33 per cent over Robertson, with media favourite Shane Jones a distant third - means that Cunliffe is under utterly no obligation to satisfy the will and whims of the caucus mandarins.

The party membership and its affiliated unions voted strongly for Cunliffe and even in caucus the final vote was fairly evenly split, at a narrow 53 per cent to 47 per cent preference for Robertson.

In the light of these results, should Rimutaka MP Chris Hipkins be retained as senior whip?

Barely 10 months ago, Hipkins publicly accused Cunliffe of being "dishonest" and of undermining the leadership of not only David Shearer, but of Phil Goff before him.

Yet in a weird twist of Beltway logic, Hipkins' retention is being treated by some observers as being a litmus test of Cunliffe's commitment to caucus unity!

Conveniently for the commentariat, it is a narrative where Cunliffe can be portrayed as weak if Hipkins is retained, and vindictive if he isn't.

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Thankfully, most voters have more important things on their minds than the political fortunes of an obscure MP.

Namely, can Cunliffe devise and promote policies that will be better able to lift their incomes, and the nation's economic fortunes?

Arguably, Cunliffe could hardly do worse than how New Zealand is faring under current management.

The Government's rationale for its asset sales programme - which has made little economic sense from the outset - is a case in point.

The recent $30 million gift to the owners of the Tiwai Point smelter, against Treasury advice, is the latest in a litany of disasters.

Currently, the Government seems vulnerable. If Labour muffs this chance to offer a better alternative, it may never get a better opportunity.

- The Wellingtonian

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