OPINION: They promised it would be a clean fight, but the gloves came off in the fight to be Labour leader yesterday.
Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson, New Lynn MP David Cunliffe and list MP Shane Jones are vying for the top job. They kicked off a series of countrywide hustings in the Otaki electorate yesterday with 10-minute speeches and a question and answer session.
New party rules mean members, unions and MPs all now get a say in who is elected leader. The battle was triggered by the resignation of David Shearer last month. He no longer enjoyed the confidence of his caucus after failing to lift the party from the poll doldrums.
Jones was first to address the 300 party faithful, at the Levin showgrounds. Speaking off the cuff, he shaped his message for the small town audience, stressing a need to boost employment and industry in the regions.
But he could not resist a swipe at the current leadership team. Labour should not be content for poll results to remain in the 30s, he said. He was the "best messenger who can get people to cross the aisle" and the party scoring upwards of 40 per cent.
Cunliffe spoke of struggling Kiwi families, child poverty and a "deficit generation". Robertson made a big splash with a number of policy pledges, although none strayed outside of core Labour values.
He would implement a living wage ($18.40) to government workers and contractors and repeal National's employment law changes.
The acting leader also promised that his future caucus would be 50 per cent women. Shearer's dumping of the controversial proposed man ban derailed his already shaky leadership. Robertson's pledge was met with cheers, applause and foot-stomping.
His emphasis on policy appeared to put rival Cunliffe on the back foot. He later called an impromptu huddle of reporters to stress that he too would repeal the Employment Relations Amendment Act, extend clause 6A protections to all workers and match the living wage promise.
"It's going to be a very strong package that will put the unions back in the fight for equality," he said. He denied this was a cynical attempt to court the unions.
After the meeting, Jones denied he wasn't playing "nice" with his rivals. "All I've said is we've each got strengths and weaknesses. But I've sent a message to their supporters, anyone thinking they are going to humiliate me then venomous will be the return."
Most attendees were impressed with the calibre of the candidates - and many were unwilling to commit to a final choice.
Mark Hutchison believed Robertson was yesterday's best performer. "I think by a nose Grant Robertson came across as the most connected and authentic speaker. He spoke in a really passionate way . . . I think he was very persuasive today."
Grant Burnett, from Levin, will talk it over with his wife. "It was going to be David Cunliffe but now I'm switching. Shane. I like his humour, his guts and I think he'd be something different for New Zealand."
Rob Johnson said there were inspirational ideas from each candidate and will make a final choice at a meeting in Napier on Tuesday.
"I was surprised how impressed I was with each candidate . . . I thought David did a fantastic job as coming across as quite statesman-like . . . I just think he is very, very credible. Same with Grant . . . very good at nailing down what this current government are doing wrong and what we need to do to sort it out."
Will Jenkins had a "leaning" before the meeting, but after hearing the speeches may change his mind. Cunliffe was "driven by a solid mind. An amazing man that was able to take quite complex policy and put it into language which everybody people can respond to".
Robertson has "walked the talk", he said. "He's a very strong candidate." Jones connected with people "at an everyday level".
- © Fairfax NZ News
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