They are the powers behind the all-powerful.
They are the sounding boards for the ideas - good, bad but
never indifferent, passed down from on high. They are often
the first and almost always the last ports of call for advice
before crucial decisions are made. They are the jesters at
the foot of the throne. They are the ones who can tell the
Emperor he has no clothes.
They are the communication channels between those who lead
and those who can only dream of leading. Their desks guard
the door to the inner sanctum. They control who enters - and
for how long. They control the phones. They control the flow
of information. They control who sees what. They are the eyes
and ears of their master or mistress.
Their job is to spot trouble before anyone else notices any
trouble to spot. And then deal with it. Quickly. They do not
court publicity even though those in the publicity business
might try to court them. They never upstage their boss, their
relationship with whom is one of absolute mutual trust. If
and when that commodity is exhausted and all trust is gone,
so are they.
''They'' are chiefs of staff who run the offices of
respective party leaders at Parliament and who are the
largely unseen, unheralded right-hand men and women upon whom
the country's senior politicians depend utterly.
It is into this all-consuming and absolutely pivotal role in
the Labour leader's office that Matt McCarten has now been
thrust. Not to do the donkey work of office administration,
but to offer strategic and tactical advice as to how David
Cunliffe embarks on the Sisyphean task of getting the better
of what Mr McCarten calls the ''phenomenon'' of John Key.
So far the narrative has been more about Mr McCarten and less
about how he might actually do something to help Labour close
at least some of that vast gap in the polls in the run-up to
the election later this year.
The appointment was an audacious move on Mr Cunliffe's part,
He has taken a big punt on would-be Labour voters swallowing
hard and accepting that the ex-Alliance cuckoo be allowed
into the Labour nest for the common good of the centre-left.
But it looks like there is going to be a price to pay.
Judging from comments posted on the Herald's website, some
voters are already reassessing whether they will give Labour
It is still early days. In this instance, Mr McCarten is also
better judged by his results, rather than his ideology.
Nevertheless, John Key's informal scare campaign, which is
designed to frighten voters off the idea of Labour-Greens
coalition government, has been given a whole new dimension.
The prime minister wasted no time in typecasting Mr McCarten
as someone from the ''hard left''. He predicted the
appointment would see a change in Labour's tone and the major
Opposition party would become much more aligned with the
That is not going to happen. But this is all about Mr Key
creating perceptions, namely that Mr McCarten's appointment
is further evidence of Labour ''lurching'' to the left.
That perception is oddly enough somewhat reinforced every
time Mr Cunliffe seeks to challenge it.
He insists he is not moving Labour leftwards. Yet those on
the party's left have cheered and applauded everything he has
said about the direction he intends taking Labour under his
That has some of his colleagues worried that the strong
rhetoric he wheels out for that audience risks alienating a
far bigger and more crucial one in the political centre.
Labour must win votes in the middle ground as well as among
low-income earners struggling to make ends meet. The concern
is that Mr Cunliffe will have to shift his focus back to the
centre at some point which would have those on the left
furiously slamming him as insincere and a phoney, while those
in the centre would simply view his sudden and belated
efforts to woo them as plain desperation.
There are deeper forces at work here which should be key
determinants of where Mr Cunliffe should position Labour. But
he appears to have taken little cognisance, instead leaving
doubt and ambiguity as to where Labour stands on the spectrum
even if Mr Cunliffe, to his credit, is much clearer about
what Labour stands for.
However, at some point, Mr Cunliffe is going to have to
confront what is for Labour an unpalatable fact of political
life in New Zealand.
It is something Helen Clark well understood and something
which underpinned her strategic thinking as leader and
prompted her to position Labour as close as possible to the
Labour's humiliation in the 1975 general election taught her
a vital lesson - never underestimate the deeply conservative
disposition of the great bulk of New Zealand voters.
It takes them a long time to get sick of National
governments. Apart from Miss Clark's administration, voters'
flirtation with Labour can be remarkably short-lived. That
has been the pattern since World War 2. There has been
nothing in this election year to alter that assessment.
Instead, there is much to reinforce it.
That conservative streak running through the electorate was
why she shut the Alliance out of the finance portfolio
completely when she won the 1999 election.
In the end, she could not stop that conservatism killing her
administration. That conservatism came in different clothing
- namely voter antipathy towards so-called political
So far, Mr Cunliffe has been able to straddle both the centre
and centre-left parts of the political spectrum to some
degree. The ''baby bonus'' policy catered to both the poor
and the reasonably well-off. The setting up of a state-owned
insurance company was not a million miles from the kind of
things the last minority Labour government did.
Where Mr Cunliffe has major problems with voters is on the
trust and sincerity front, in part because they do not know
what to make of him. Perhaps unwittingly, Mr McCarten
likewise made mention in one radio interview of his
uncertainty at one point as to whether Mr Cunliffe was for
January's 3News-Reid Research poll had Mr Cunliffe trailing
his predecessor, David Shearer, in terms of substance over
style, being down to earth and not talking down to people.
Mr McCarten has work to do on the credibility front.
And if all of that was not enough, there is a showstopper:
how the heck do you sell a capital gains tax in a country
where property is king.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political