Robertson best choice for Labour

VERNON SMALL
Last updated 09:45 29/08/2013

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OPINION: Beyond the runoff roadshow and the glad handing by the rival candidates, Labour has a relatively simple choice to make.

If the party believes it can win by an incremental improvement, replacing an inarticulate but decent man with a safe pair of hands who can front John Key without making any major slips, then it will choose Grant Robertson.

If it thinks it just needs to remove the negative and turn the focus back on the policy mix and the broader front bench, aiming to pick up a percentage point or five to allow it to form a Left-wing government, in harness with the Greens on 10-14 per cent, then the Wellington Central candidate is its man.

But if it thinks it needs to take risks, that whatever the policy mix a showman, an impresario is needed, then it will opt for David Cunliffe.

If it thinks a slow and steady climb is beyond it and the Labour Party needs a jolt, a risk - even one that could backfire and kill off its chance of a victory in 2014 - then the MP for New Lynn is the "peacock or feather duster" option it will choose.

Mr Cunliffe has clearly made the early running.

While Mr Robertson chose a low-key launch, including an interview in a strangely empty studio, and the third wheel Shane Jones took an even more random approach, Mr Cunliffe went for the doctor.

His launch, with cheering fans, his team of supporting MPs and a tub- thumping speech, could not have made the risks and rewards of choosing Mr Cunliffe clearer.

It made a far greater impact and will have energised his supporters, including his social media crew.

But it sailed dangerously close, if not over, the line between upbeat hoopla and a cringeworthy revival meeting lacking authenticity.

He says he is a changed man since his paddywhacks and a stint on the backbenches.

But it still smacked of that over-the- top quality - a lack of perspective and self-awareness - that worries some colleagues who have worked closely with him. It's like he can spell banana but he doesn't know when to stop.

But even if there are doubts about his ability to see himself as others do, few doubt his intellectual grunt.

And he clearly has the ability to energise the activists, especially in Auckland - something neither Mr Shearer nor Mr Robertson can claim.

Mr Robertson's strengths are elsewhere. He will never reach the rhetoric heights of a Cunliffe in full flight, but he is much less likely to crash and burn.

He is far more likely to unify the caucus, if only because he is likely to command a majority of MPs.

And despite what the noisy activists say, that does matter.

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It will be far easier for a leader with up to 66 per cent of the caucus to forge a team that will convince the public it can govern, than someone with only 33 per cent of the MPs and a majority outside Parliament.

There is not doubt Mr Robertson has the ability to govern, although he lacks Mr Cunliffe's cabinet experience.

On the other hand his sexuality may be polarising.

If age, gender, race and background can be positives - and parties use them to attract votes through a diversified list - it is equally likely the mix can turn voters off, however uncomfortable that thought might be.

His sexuality is no different.

It will be a negative with some and a positive with others.

When even some of his own colleagues privately discuss how a small section of the caucus will balk at electing a gay leader, then it is a valid issue for the media to canvass. When turning out conservative South Auckland voters is so important to the party, it has to be considered.

When others talk about his ability to cash in on the goodwill generated by a more-tolerant society, evidenced by the gay marriage law, then it is far from irrelevant

Will those who argue for the equivalent of a colour-blind approach to candidates' sexuality deny the chance to celebrate and mark as a historic moment if or when Mr Robertson is selected leader or elected as prime minister?

It also lifts him above the mundane. It makes him much less a faceless politician, and gives him some colour to counter any impression he is a grey Wellington insider.

On any cost-benefit analysis balance he is the party's best road to government in 2014.

- The Dominion Post

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