New Zealand: Someone has to lead the Opposition

Pick someone who can enthuse the million New Zealanders who didn't vote.

Phil Goff has resigned as Leader of the Labour Party following an historic defeat. Even many of their staunchest supporters appear to have deserted Labour, which garnered less votes than at any time for 85 years. 

The national turnout percentage dived to a 120 year low as a million failed to vote.

Numerous disengaged Chinese, Korean and other migrants failed to fully comprehend the complex and confusing voting system, appreciate the merits or otherwise of a poorly promoted array of candidates and seemingly felt so disenchanted that many simply stayed at home. 

Equally importantly, atypically Labour-supporting and socially-conscious inner-city residents seem to be either opting for the Greens, National, a minor party or abstaining.  And the youth, often a good source of support for Labour, appears bored by the process with a large percentage failing even to register.

And in deepest, brownest areas enthusiasm for Labour had plummeted. Perhaps the socially-embracing message failed to get through. Perhaps voters foresaw a National landslide and decided the result was a foregone conclusion. Whatever the reason, Goff and colleagues made little impact, despite a vigorous and well-argued campaign.

The combination of these, and other factors meant that Labour's showing was possibly its worst yet. There's a very steep incline to climb indeed.

Now the Leader has tendered in his resignation. Annette King, Goff's deputy, also announced her intention to stand down. Various hopefuls have thrown hats into the ring:
  • David Parker, a 51-year old List MP, and former Attorney General
  • David Cunliffe, the 48-year old MP for the Auckland electorate of New Lynn, and former Minister of Communications and IT (and previously Health Minister)
  • David Shearer, the 54-year old MP for the Auckland electorate of Mt. Albert
  • Grant Robertson, the 40-year old MP for Wellington Central
  • Nanaia Mahuta, the 41-year old MP for the Māori electorate of Te Tai Hauāuru.
Cunliffe and Mahuta are a ticket, the former presented as leader with the latter as his deputy. They claim to represent a broad front with appeal to both pakeha (white) and Māori voters. As Polynesians and Asians form a sizeable chunk of the electorate, for Cunliffe to refer to NZ society as being bi-cultural is inaccurate. However, he's an articulate, confident and acutely bright former management consultant with a long political pedigree. I guess he'd make a formidable opponent to PM John Key.

Robertson stated that he's not too fussed which top job he gets, a somewhat confusing stance and one which might rule him out for the leadership on fuzziness grounds.

Shearer has so far gained only two years' parliamentary exposure since being parachuted into former prime minister Helen Clark's Mt. Albert seat. Voted 1992 New Zealander of the Year in a New Zealand Herald poll, Shearer's previous stellar UN career, international connections and Iraq reconstruction and humanitarian experience might make him a viable contender if it weren't for being a relative novice in the mechanics of Wellington politics. But, he'd be a fresh face, untainted by association with the last Labour government's record. However, what influence could Clark have over a Shearer leadership? The fact that she now holds a senior UN role might be viewed by pundits or some voters with suspicion. Rumours circulate that Goff and King back his candidature. Whether that's antipathy to the prospect of a Cunliffe leadership, genuine liking for Shearer or hope they'll be able to back-seat-drive a Shearer-led party, who knows? But Shearer is a personable individual in need of experience yet with the desire to review policy from first principles and promote a greener, techier future. He envisages a party reaching out beyond its traditional support base, a novel and sensible proposition.

Parker is an ex-lawyer. Smooth-tongued legal types can often argue their route to power, but few have sound business acumen. Internationally, Tony Blair, Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy all came up via that route. Would their leaderships be viewed as successful?  

Other contenders have yet to declare.

Whether any of these characters has he drive, foresight and management ability to return the Labour Party to fighting-fit shape remains to be seen. Let's hope the battle is brutal and exposes any obvious weaknesses early on. And that a genuinely gifted individual takes charge to reform a debilitated and demoralised party and return it to office. 

A million Kiwis failed to vote. Could it be that they were bored.  Elections every three years. A dull campaign, teams struggling to focus on real issues, poorly reported, and the two main parties led by unimaginative and uncharismatic men. Asset sales became the big point of difference, yet those assets amounted to a mere 3% of the government's holdings. 

The one bright spark in the campaign was the attention devoted to Winston Peters. He's a guy all but written off at the last election yet managed to burst back with two-thirds the seats of the Greens who had taken 21 years to reach a 13 seat caucus. The environmentalists must be green with envy.

No wonder people were turned off. The gritty stuff was ignored: mining coal to increase the carbon footprint as climate change takes hold, while already tested sustainable energy production methods were ignored which could be marketed or franchised to huge global impact. BEV, the Waikato university developed electric car could be a prototype for a modern government-funded production facility, for example. Numerous other Kiwi inventors scour the world for capital, while too little is available in New Zealand.

And still, after all these years, dairy production reigns. But for how long will the world regard this product suite as healthy? Global research increasingly indicates there could be a possible link between modern production methods and breast, prostate and colon cancers. There has been no debate about this. Or about which industries might be developed to wean the country off an excess dependence on agricultural exports.

Recent migration has changed demographics forever, yet there was zero discussion as to how best to benefit from new arrivals. And how to retain them. The influx of Asians is a game changer. 

Ambitious Kiwis still seek opportunities abroad yet the country could offer so much. No ambitious plan was articulated on how to entice fresh capital, retain inventive elements onshore, create world-class education establishments or build a vibrant venture capital industry to stimulate start-ups. 

Labour focussed on expenditure to off-set the squeeze on the poor, yet didn't describe an exciting vision for the nation's future. Nor did it take National to task for failing to do likewise.

So, the people were left bereft of a meaningful or colourful debate. The result was abstention. And Labour suffered a drift from its support base which cost it this election. 

Unless these issues are addressed they'll find that changing a leader alters nothing. They'll be in the same place as the Labour Party in Britain after Thatcher took power, or the Tories were after Blair took office: several changes of leadership before one happy soul engages the country with a fresh philosophy - capturing the imagination of the people, and sweeping the opposition back into office. But that can happen only when a stale government stumbles. 

That can take a decade. Goff is well out of it. And Labour has its work cut out to find from within reduced ranks a man or woman who can move the party forward to re-engage voters. 

Healthy democracy in New Zealand deserves no less.

Update 1 December 2011:  After one of the briefest campaigns in history, Parker dropped out and endorsed Shearer. 

Update 2 December: 2011:  We now learn that Parker's withdrawal was prompted by "running mate" Robertson's decision to back Shearer, according to the New Zealand Herald.  So Robertson is out of the running for the top post, after all. This is now a two-horse race between the two remaining Davids.

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