Labour's wannabe leaders front up

STACEY KIRK
Last updated 16:02 31/08/2013
Fairfax NZ

Labour's hopeful leaders: One wants half a Caucus of women, another wants to stop a nightmare and the third will tackle NZ's "gorilla" PM

Labour leadership conference
MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ Zoom
David Cunliffe, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones share a friendly moment before taking the gloves off in the leadership conference.

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On any normal day they are members of the same team, but in the lead up to the vote for the new Labour Party leader, candidates Grant Robertson, David Cunliffe and Shane Jones are fierce  competitors.

The three wasted no time in asserting their claim in front of a packed room of about 300 Labour-faithful at the first meeting in Levin today.

It comes after last week's resignation of leader David Shearer, who said he stepped down due to a lack of support in his Caucus.

The meeting is the first in a series to be held across the country over the next three weeks, as the MPs seek to garner votes through public campaigns similar to the US-style presidential primaries.

The language was emphatic, the applause in the scripted pauses uproarious, and the appearances tightly managed.

Media were only allowed to cover the first 30 minutes of the speeches before a closed Q&A session was held.

Tweets and recordings of the Q&A session were forbidden.

Taking to the floor first, Shane Jones said he was standing to make the campaign "really a contest" to take out the "$50 million gorilla" John Key.

"When I go to the regions of New Zealand, I struggle to find... loud voices saying 'Jonesy our first waka for political choice is Labour'.

"We should be the people's party, able to get the 43-45 per cent of people ... and the reason we don't is because we look in, not out.

"I can enable us to be the party of new New Zealand."

He said the Government should be working to restore self belief to the regions, and he was the best to do that.

Jones he was best at getting a team around him and getting the best person to do the job.

"Lead from the front, but go out there and get the best from the team."

In his opening speech, Cunliffe said the Kiwi dream had become a nightmare in many communities

Tackling child poverty, he said New Zealand was on track to become a "deficit generation".

"Worst in housing, worst in skills, and most of all worst in having a hope of building a life in New Zealand.

"We mind the fact the number of unemployed in Palmerston North had risen 19 per cent in the last year."

Calling for a rise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Cunliffe said Labour had "great track record" for managing the economy.

He added he would stop the sale of state-owned assets.

"A Labour Party I lead reserves the right to preserve those assets and rule out no options to protect the national interest.

"The red tide is rising and we are gonna take out that Beehive and take New Zealand forward."

Robertson began his opening remarks by quoting a reality TV staple - telling Key: "You are the weakest link."

"Full employment is our goal. Every New Zealander deserves the dignity of having a secure and paying job. And that job must pay a living wage.

"We are a better country than one where the cleaner in John Key's office barely gets paid better than the $13.50-an-hour current minimum wage."

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He said those laws would be the first he would repeal if he lead the Labour Party to victory next year.

"It's time to leave behind the dog-eat-dog free-market ideology."

He said there would be no "neoliberal or third-way" agenda under a government led by him.

He also said he would lead a government that "actually respects democracy".

"The time for talking about ourselves is over. We have one task - and that is to knock over this out-of-touch, crony-capitalist, rag tag party that is the National Party."

He also backed earlier moves to introduce a man-ban in certain electorates saying, "the party I lead will be 50 per cent men, and 50 per cent women".

Talking to media outside the meeting, Robertson clarified his stance on the controversial man ban, saying he was sure the labour caucus would be 50 per cent women by 2014, but that would not necessarily be because the man ban would be back on the table.

All three agreed a caucus made up of 50 per cent women would be only strengthen the party.

And despite the presidential-style campaign, all three contenders said they would be fighting fairly for the leadership.

"It's a contest, I think it's right not to personally denigrate each other, but all I've really said is we've all got strengths and weaknesses," Jones said.

Cunliffe said it was in Labour's best interests for a fair fight.

Each attendant at today's meeting was either a financial backer of the Labour Party or members of the affiliated unions.

Labour's newest MP for Ikaroa-Rawhiti Meka Whaitiri moderated the meeting.

The style of forum was received well be Labour Party supporters, with many pleased at the opportunity to field their own questions directly to the candidates.

Members were able to vote for their choice of leader by ballot at the meeting, or later by post.

It is the first time the contenders for the leadership of a major party are running public campaigns, seeking donations and using avenues including their own websites, Twitter and traditional advertising to pick up votes.

It is a far cry from the way leaders have traditionally been chosen, behind closed doors by elected MPs and usually after a putsch that comes with little warning.

- Fairfax Media

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