One sad outcome of the Dotcom affair is that a rogue who
should not have got residency has been transformed into a
A second sad outcome is that factual reporting of the affair
in serious news media abroad pictures us as what Americans
used to call hillbillies. The Crown Law Office, police,
Government Communications Security Bureau (a systemic
failure, by the way, not human error) and too-little-engaged
ministers have dirtied the country brand.
But for one lot it is a small windfall: Labour, the Greens
and New Zealand First were on top last week.
That does not equal votes. But every time the Prime Minister
does not look in control, a sliver of trust is eroded.
Over time, if he does not regroup and look in charge, that
will chip at his third-term potential.
His devolved ministerial governance left GCSB in the shadows
for an unseemly seven months. His devolved Cabinet governance
let Hekia Parata last month mismanage the Christchurch
education institutional reorganisation which could have
foreshadowed an innovative countrywide 21st century
There is another dimension: a Labour-Green-New Zealand First
opposition is now half-visible. Russel Norman has found some
limited common ground with Winston Peters, who harbours deep
memories of his 1998 sacking and John Key's scorching of him
in 2008. Dr Norman, Mr Peters and David Parker are to co-star
together on an Engineers Union platform on Friday week.
The three parties' polling numbers recently have been close
to a majority.
But that does not yet translate in voters' minds into a
government-in-waiting. Apart from the gulf between Dr Norman
and Mr Peters, Labour is not yet a lead-party-in-waiting.
One reason is that David Shearer has yet to look and sound
like a prime minister-in-waiting. In his absence last
Thursday, Grant Robertson led the urgent debate more
incisively and rumbustiously than he would have. Mr Shearer
handled an inquisitive interview panel on TV3's Nation
last weekend with assurance, but could not manage the more
traditional attack-entertainment Q&A show the
Some senior Labour people are billing the conference in
mid-November as his judgement day. If he cannot wow, or at
least woo, delegates, pressure will grow to replace him.
Most accounts say he lost to David Cunliffe (though most of
those say not by much) in the informal party meetings last
December, before the caucus vote.
Scrutiny of Mr Shearer will, in turn, focus the conference's
attention on the proposal to give the party-at-large a say in
The party council proposes a 40:40:20 split among the caucus,
the party and affiliated unions. Others have proposed
amendments to that formula and to the probably unworkable
proposal that a two-thirds no-confidence vote by the MPs'
caucus would be needed to trigger a leadership contest. No
leader could continue if half the caucus lost confidence. The
proposal also requires a three-yearly confirmation of a
leader by the caucus (the first next February), failing which
a contest would be triggered.
The conference will also consider some big reorganisation
proposals, among them "registration" of supporters, including
issue activists, who do not get off on draughty hall
The council proposes the conference decide a "high-level"
policy platform MPs would have to abide by. Policy is to be
generally a greater focus of party activity. Some initial
papers are due soon from the policy council.
That may begin to address a second reason Labour does not yet
look like a lead-party-in-waiting: it has yet to get across
clear policy positions.
Actually, in a speech last month, Mr Parker detailed
proposals for Reserve Bank reform, focused on the longer
term. And Mr Cunliffe has been working up matching
micro-economic policy which proposes the government work
actively with sectors to build capital, technology and skills
in high-value and so high-wage enterprises.
This is not a return to picking winners. It is geared to
longer-term results than oil extraction offers. And it rates
the environment highly, as infrastructure meriting protection
and investment and as "intrinsic" to the country and
therefore the economy, so warranting accounting for
Clean-tech, Mr Cunliffe argues, expresses the country
"brand". His version includes "sustainable agriculture".
The key word is "active", alongside businesses, using
government procurement as a lever and building, like Finland,
Israel and Denmark, all successful small countries, an
Mr Cunliffe claims rising business interest. He may be right,
not just because businesses would not say no to handouts, but
because the parameters of policy debate are changing.
That puts Mr Cunliffe at the core of the party's aims for
revival, not so much "left", as some mistakenly read it, as
trying to be future-oriented.
Mr Key's political management letdowns have opened a door.
Next, can Mr Shearer turn himself into a salesman before the
conference marks him?
• Colin James is a leading social and political