Let's do the (politics) time warp

22:23, Mar 01 2014
Matt McCarten
Matt McCarten

It's just a jump to the Left - and a step to the Right.

Labour leader David Cunliffe's appointment of former Alliance hard man Matt McCarten caused plenty of hands on hips in the party caucus room last week - and probably a few knees pulled in tight as well, given McCarten's reputation as a ball-breaker.

Completing Parliament's (Rocky) horror week the neoclassical liberal ghost of ACT, in the form of ex- leader Richard Prebble returned to haunt the halls of power as campaign manager. Talk about doing the time warp.

What do these two ghouls of elections past have in common? Experience. Baggage. Determination. And a desire to finish a job they started, on different ends of the political spectrum, a long time ago.

Much has been made of McCarten's history with the Alliance, the Maori Party, and Mana - and the legion of political enemies he made along the way. The point has been well made that Cunliffe's choice of chief of staff is going to scare the horses in Labour, and possibly among the wider electorate as well. But that's just what the Labour leader wants.

With the party stuck in the mid- 30s in the polls and former chief Labour shin-kickers like Trevor Mallard, Annette King and Phil Goff seemingly tucked up in their rockers by the fire, Cunliffe needed to put a rocket under his caucus. McCarten is just the man to do it. Whether it is going to have a similar impact on the party's polling is less certain, but the Labour leader was probably justified in taking the risk.


ACT's decision to produce its own political retread was hardly a coincidence either. ACT is also flat- lining - although in its case the prognosis is possibly terminal. But ACT, too, needs electro-convulsive therapy.

It also needs someone to hold new leader Jamie Whyte's hand - and to explain why it's not a good idea to extend the notion of neo- classical liberalism to telling a journalist that there's nothing wrong with incest.

Yet the problem with retreads is that while they bring experience and knowledge they also bring incomplete missions they still feel the need to accomplish. Just as Prebble believes he never got the credit he deserved for dragging New Zealand into the 20th century during the 1980s (and to be fair, he didn't), McCarten too believes he has unfinished business.

They have other things in common, too. Both Prebble and McCarten oversaw parties in their zenith: the Alliance was briefly bigger than Labour in McCarten's time. Prebble was leader of ACT when the party boasted nine MPs and its catchphrase, "a party of influence" was more than a hollow boast.

The problem for both men, however, is that the tide has gone out on both the extreme Left and Right. And sitting pretty in the middle is Key, doing the pelvic thrust for all he's worth.

The Prime Minister has put Labour's stalled rise in the polls down to Cunliffe picking the wrong issues, and that may be true. But it's more than that. Key has effectively colonised the middle ground of New Zealand politics, pushing his opponents to the outer reaches of mainstream opinion in search of votes.

He's also forced Labour and the Greens in particular to go negative, which isn't working at a time when most voters believe - or hope - things are getting better.

To top it off, the revolving door on the National Party's caucus room has allowed Key to rejuvenate his lineup as election year gets into its stride at the very time that most administrations approaching the end of their second term start to look old and tired.

If National was cruising for electoral annihilation later this year this departure lounge of Government MPs would invite inevitable comparisons to rats and sinking ships.

But as Health Minister Tony Ryall became the 14th National MP to announce their departure since the last election (15 if you count the hapless Aaron Gilmore, but he was given a less-than-gentle shove) last week National's position in the polls is looking better than it has done in more than a year.

National will miss Ryall, and not just because of his eye-popping shirt and tie combinations. Like Labour's health minister Annette King before him, Ryall managed to shut down bad news in the health sector to such an extent that the opposition all but gave up trying to exploit the usually fertile portfolio.

He was also a trusted member of Key's senior management team of Cabinet ministers alongside Bill English, Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce. Ryall's departure was one of the few times that Key has said he has accepted a resignation with regret - and actually meant it.

Nonetheless the brat-packer, who's been in Parliament since 1990, leaves the door open for more fresh blood in National's ranks, along with the resignations of fellow long-servers Lockwood Smith, Eric Roy, Phil Heatley, Shane Ardern, Chris Auchinvole ...

Meanwhile Labour, whose "new" leader has been in Parliament for 15 years, has been unable to shift its aging warhorses, either by encouragement or flat-out demand. Worse, those who opposed Cunliffe becoming leader seem content to sit on their hands and watch him swim or (preferably) sink. As the Herald's John Armstrong put it last week, Labour's front bench, with the exception of Shane Jones and Jacinda Ardern, is behaving like sloths on tranquillisers. Some appear to have already given up on the 2014 election.

That's not to say it's game over yet. It isn't, by any means. Cunliffe's roll of the dice with McCarten might just work. And Prebble will help attract back Right-wing voters who abandoned ACT when it became more about personalities than policy.

But both appointments smacked of desperation. Right now, Key is very much in the box seat at this late-night double-feature picture show.

Sunday Star Times