OPINION: The National Government must be rubbing their hands with glee at the internal dissension within the Labour Party.
This is a time when the Government should be reeling from concerted attacks from the main opposition party over a combination of bad economic data and gaffes by Prime Minister John Key.
Instead, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and Greens co-leader Russel Norman have been the main beneficiaries, with both leaders profiting from attacking government policies.
Meanwhile, under-siege Labour leader David Shearer has, through necessity, been increasingly introverted as he is distracted by the ongoing leadership threat from colleague David Cunliffe and the party's constitutional changes.
Labour's national conference during the weekend was supposed to be focusing on the much-anticipated keynote speech by Shearer, designed to kick-start the renaissance of the party's fortunes with a visionary policy.
That was sadly relegated to secondary significance as the leadership challenge, potentially boosted by a change in process, became the focus.
It was understandable that Labour delegates were keen to have a say in the leadership selection and to pass amendments to enable that to happen.
With the unions' block voting in support, the change was inevitable. Perhaps inadvertently, however, by lowering the threshold to 40 per cent of caucus needed to trigger a possible change, speculation about a challenge from Cunliffe inevitably increased.
Shearer could hardly have been blamed for wondering about the competency of the party hierarchy during the conference. Just where was the political management of president Moira Coatsworth and secretary Tim Barnett, who could surely have foreseen this development?
Their job was to manage the conference to ensure it was showcased in a manner that would enhance the party's policies and leadership. Neither happened.
Shearer is desperate to sell the country his $1.5 billion policy to build 100,000 basic homes for first-home buyers, but much to his chagrin, the media is inevitably drawn to the far juicier subject of the leadership wrangle.
For an opposition party to do more than aspire to become the government it has to be able to give voters a reason to change their allegiance, and the first-home policy was clearly going to be one of the platforms.
With the new policy starved for political oxygen because of the leadership wrangle overshadowing it, the only way to solve that is for the Labour caucus to give its leader a clear vote of confidence - and quickly.
Perhaps sensing that is inevitable, Cunliffe has shrewdly signalled he will delay any challenge until February. Quite frankly, from his party's perspective, that is the worst thing he could do, as the political waters will remain muddied at least until then. That will render Labour all but impotent as an effective opposition.
The Government should be under the blowtorch for its policy on Chinese immigrants being given preferential treatment on a particular airline, the unemployment rates and the Kim Dotcom saga.
The conference was an opportunity lost to do just that and unity must now become Labour's urgent priority.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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