Chauvel urges Labour focus on critical issues

18:54, Nov 12 2012

Top-flight Labour MP Charles Chauvel says speculation over the party's leadership is distracting from important issues such as the future of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter.

The smelter, which is losing money and is attempting to renegotiate its electricity supply contract with state-owned Meridian Energy to cut its costs, has said it could close if the contract cannot be changed.

It has already cut 100 jobs, with up to 20 contractor businesses hit by further cost-cutting.

Visiting Invercargill yesterday, Mr Chauvel, now the party's justice spokesman and a former deputy chairman of Meridian, said he knew the terms of the smelter's contract. "I know what cheap electricity they get to run the smelter at a time when other New Zealanders are paying through the nose for it."

The National-led Government needed to have a contingency plan for Southland if the smelter shut, he said.

"If they go, the consequences for this region will be catastrophic."

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He said National was beginning to pay for its hands-off approach to governing with hits to its position including the Tiwai situation, contributing to a 13-year high national unemployment rate of 7.3 per cent announced last week.

However, Labour has yet to make up significant ground in the polls. Most recent polling shows the party is hovering around 33 per cent of the vote, compared with National in the high 40s.

"Polls are a lagging indicator," Mr Chauvel said. "My own view of the economic and jobs situation is that it is dire . . . people put a lot of trust and faith in John Key - that was misguided and they're beginning to realise it."

With Labour's conference this weekend, speculation has been mounting over the future of leader David Shearer.

The former UN aid worker, elevated to the leadership after a single term in Parliament, has failed to light the rockets under Labour's cause.

He has been criticised for inarticulate media performances and a failure to hit the Government hard in the past few months.

Mr Chauvel said it was a symptom of the modern political and media environment that a leader could only be given 10 months in the job before questions were asked of their abilities.

"We're six or seven points higher than the last election," he said. "The challenge is not to be distracted . . . to expose the shortcomings of the Government's approach and present our alternative platform, that's more of an issue than talking about defenestration of [throwing out] the leader."

The party should be focusing on its policies and presenting an alternative, he said.

alex.fensome@stl.co.nz

The Southland Times