Dotcom mess could give impetus to Labour

One sad outcome of the Dotcom affair is that a rogue who should not have got residency has been transformed into a national celebrity.

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 organisational system.

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 weekend before.

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 leadership contests.

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 meetings.

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 externalities.

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 "innovation ecosystem".

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 commentator.