Editorial: Labour's new faces

Last updated 05:00 26/02/2013

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OPINION: Labour's revamped list of spokespeople will not be much noticed at the moment by New Zealanders, who generally have little interest in the detail of party politics. But the new lineup could make a difference as to who wins the general election next year.

As the months wind by, the people fronting a political party become known to voters and that helps decide how a party is perceived. A strong performance by an MP in combating the opposing party makes the headlines and sends the message that the contest is not just between a prime minister and a leader of the opposition.

The modern liking among political scientists for the theory that New Zealand's political system is becoming more presidential is often overstated. Policies and talent within a party substantially impact on the nationwide electorate that is informed and engaged. Most voters are not content to cast their ballot on the basis of charisma.

If David Shearer is to maximise that potential - as he must if he is to transcend John Key's personal popularity - Labour's team will have to perform strongly. Voters will have to be convinced that the party has talent in depth and policies fitted to the nation's needs. They will have to be convinced that Labour has the ability to form a government.

Success in doing that will partly depend on the party showing it is united, and that is not demonstrated in the new lineup. David Cunliffe is excluded - a signal that he is still regarded as capable of mounting a challenge for the leadership. But his is a talent, in terms of brains and presentation, that Labour cannot let linger on the back benches. It would have been better had Shearer brought his rival onto the front bench and busied him with a challenging role.

The politics of leadership also seem to have pushed Lianne Dalziel out of the top 20. She is understood to be a strong Cunliffe loyalist and her effective performance as Labour's earthquake spokesperson and her tireless work for those in the east of Christchurch warranted a top spot.

The demotion is bound to concentrate Dalziel's mind on whether she should run for the Christchurch mayoralty. As things stand, a place for her in a Labour cabinet as minister for the earthquake recovery looks unlikely, but she would be a strong candidate for mayor.

Dalziel might also have fallen victim to the need to put fresh faces in front of the public to signal renewal and a stance that has changed since the days of Helen Clark. Her Labour Party paid a penalty for not bringing forward new talent and not demoting tired and, in some cases, tarnished ministers. Phil Goff let himself be saddled with the same tired crew and it did him no good in the tussle with National.

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Not that Shearer has wielded the broom with indiscriminate vigour; Annette King returns from the back benches to the health spot. Her resurrection is an example of consistent talent rewarded, in that she is still a vigorous performer and can now reverse Labour's failure to embarrass the Government in the administration of health.

Labour will have to do that in all portfolios if it is to gain majority support among the electorate, not just to fulfil its constitutional obligation to hold the Government to account but also to give New Zealanders a real choice in who governs them.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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