Labour's gender-balanced caucus target is listing distinctly out of kilter

Labour leader Andrew Little has defended his support for Willie Jackson.
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Labour leader Andrew Little has defended his support for Willie Jackson.

OPINION: It may come as a surprise to some that Labour is still committed to its aim of achieving a a gender-balanced caucus after the next election.

Because in light of recent events – not least leader Andrew Little's shoulder-tapping of Willie Jackson, the recruitment of former police union boss Greg O'Connor and Paul  Eagle's unopposed selection in Rongotai – you might be forgiven for thinking it is being honoured and breached at the same time.

In fact, it is also being not-so-subtly redefined. The aim when the policy was announced in 2013 was to target balance at certain key polling points, since anything more nuanced would be impossible without knowing a vast number of variables in advance –who won what seats, for instance. 

Christchurch East MP Poto Williams is not alone in caucus in objecting to Willie Jackson's candidacy.
Daniel Tobin/Fairfax NZ

Christchurch East MP Poto Williams is not alone in caucus in objecting to Willie Jackson's candidacy.

But there is an acknowledgment now that it simply cannot be achieved at 25 per cent (without sacking a whole lot of male MPs), is near impossible at 30 per cent and could be in view at 35 per cent, though by no means assured even then.

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So now, if you ask the party leadership, the stress has gone on to it being do-able at that 35 per cent level – equivalent to about 42 seats.

Andrew Little and Willie Jackson, left, who is standing for Labour as a list MP at the election this year.
JASON DORDAY/FAIRFAX NZ

Andrew Little and Willie Jackson, left, who is standing for Labour as a list MP at the election this year.

After all, they say, at 30 per cent support or below the party will not be in government anyway.

That clearly flies in the face of the original aim – to achieve a balanced caucus, in or out of government – but it has the advantages of being both feasible and not getting up the noses of a lot of sitting MPs.

The list is the best route to correcting the imbalance, which sees 14 men in the current caucus chasing winnable seats, to only nine women. Five male MP are reliant on the list, but only two women will be:  Annette King and Sue Moroney.

Which is why Little's recruitment of Jackson with a promise of a winnable slot, and the assumption O'Connor has been promised a winnable place too (in case he cannot topple the veteran sitting MP Peter Dunne in Ohariu), has created an unpleasant undercurrent inside the party that goes beyond any personal issues some MPs have with Jackson.

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President Nigel Haworth's guidelines are to choose the best candidate and then, if there is nothing to choose between the frontrunners, to choose a woman.

But with five sitting male MPs reliant on the list – including policy wonk David Parker and Speaker nominee Trevor Mallard – two on a promise and only two sitting female MPs virtually all future selections, electorate and list, will need to be women.

In light of that, Saturday's selection meeting to pick a replacement for David Cunliffe in New Lynn should be a battle royal.

Tax academic Deborah Russell is seen as the favourite of party central while lawyer Greg Presland,  an ally of Cunliffe, has strong local support.

Similarly in Auckland Central, which is an outside chance for Labour if its fortunes improve nationwide, the party will be hoping lawyer Helen White can edge educationalist Shanan Halbert.

Which underscores why Little's open and strong advocacy for Jackson has gone down like a lead balloon among some in the party – not least because it gazumps the party's constitutional role in selecting candidates. After all he must first become a member, win a waiver of the 12-month membership rule and then get selected and ranked.

Yet now Little has said it, it cannot be unsaid.

The party has no option but to endorse him now.

To do otherwise would set off a storm of "splits and divisions" or "party gives the finger to leader" headlines that Labour cannot risk.

Make no mistake, Jackson is a great recruit for Labour.

He is the equivalent of the proverbial 14 point intercept try; he will attract the votes of young urban Maori and "Shane Jones Maori" to the party while denying the Maori Party one of its flagship hopes.

But Little would have been well advised to have left the announcement to the party – with a positive statement of welcome in response – rather than nailing his colours to Jackson's selection.

And as is obvious now, Jackson comes with baggage as Poto Williams' well-aimed shot at him exposed. And she is by no means alone in the caucus in holding serious reservations.

Nor was it well advised to approach Peeni Henare last year about standing aside in favour of Jackson in his Tamaki Makaurau seat.

As an MP strongly linked to his iwi, being asked to stand aside for Jackson, whose power base is in the urban authorities, would have been doubly insulting (setting aside Henare's illustrious whakapapa).

Labour may be in a stronger position, come the general election, with Jackson on board.

But Little has risked reaping a harvest of resentment from several quarters – among Maori, women, sitting list MPs and the party itself – to achieve it.

 - Stuff

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