Opinion: Labour now the dog that barks at every passing car

What were they thinking?

Why did four of Labour's most politically astute MPs - Phil Goff, Annette King, Clayton Cosgrove and Kris Faafoi - not foresee how awful it would look for senior party figures to be seen hobnobbing with SkyCity executives at Eden Park last Saturday night?Those MPs have since tried to rationalise their acceptance of SkyCity's hospitality by saying they had used the invitation to remind their hosts of Labour's trenchant opposition to last month's deal between the gaming company and John Key's Government.

In debating the merits or otherwise of the construction of a world-class convention centre in Auckland in return for SkyCity getting more pokies and a lengthy extension of its casino licence, the MPs may have persuaded themselves they were simply mixing business with pleasure. No-one else is going to buy that line, however.

The consequent perception is that Labour says one thing and does another. And perception is everything in politics.

To add further insult to injury, the MPs were fooling no-one in lambasting the $400 million-plus project.

At some point, Labour is going to have to shift its position on the convention centre deal away from outright opposition to something more accommodating of the aspirations of the thousands without work in Labour strongholds such as South Auckland, who view SkyCity's latest venture as offering the possibility of a secure job. Labour's stance on the convention centre runs counter to one of the three fundamental policy themes the party intends to hammer going into election year - helping to create jobs. The others are housing affordability and lower electricity prices.

The corporate box episode is symptomatic of a wider strategic malaise afflicting Labour.

The gains the party made in the polls earlier this year have been replaced by a discernible sense of drift. David Shearer is again struggling to gain profile. Sources describe working relationships in the leader's parliamentary office as ''dysfunctional''. Some MPs are at cross-purposes over policy. Others - notably Trevor Mallard - are consumed with making mountains out of mole-hills. How many times can you stage a walkout from the parliamentary chamber without losing effect?In contrast, National has enjoyed a post-Budget rebound in the polls despite a now-familiar pattern of one political crisis following another.

The message National takes from this is that as long as it gets the fundamentals right in terms of how the ''Government'' affects people's everyday lives, then a bit of political static and dissonance is tolerable.

Peter Dunne's mid-life crisis might be interesting, but it is not relevant to how ordinary people run their lives. So what does Labour do? It spends two weeks in tandem with Winston Peters thrashing the Dunne saga to death.

Little wonder Labour is not connecting with voters.

Moreover, the real target is not Mr Dunne but John Key. Labour's refrain is that the minority National Government is now propped up by two disgraced MPs - Mr Dunne and John Banks - and is thus both inherently unstable and hopelessly discredited.

This attempt to cast Mr Key's administration in the same light as the rag-tag Shipley government of the late 1990s fails at the first hurdle, however.

Mrs Shipley did not have an electoral mandate to run a change agenda. Mr Key does. His Government is also a whole lot more popular than Mrs Shipley's. The blunt truth is that in terms of activity, innovative ideas, outright attack and all-round impact, the Greens are making Opposition look easy. They are running rings around Labour. They also wisely maintained a degree of perspective regarding Mr Dunne and Russel Norman this week questioned the value of a privileges committee hearing which is being sought by Labour.

Should the Speaker agree there is a matter of privilege, it is difficult to see what Labour hopes to achieve beyond further humiliation of Mr Dunne - something which might end up backfiring on Labour if the public perceives the hearing to be nothing more than a show trial.

Much depends on what Winston Peters has up his sleeve. He has hinted he has something damaging on Mr Key. If he has, Mr Peters will get the credit. Labour will be the real beneficiary.

Much of Labour's frustration flows from the intense and competitive nature of Opposition politics.

Dr Norman and Mr Peters can promise the earth. Labour has to be responsible.

The Labour caucus is also said to be intensely frustrated with National's cynical blunting of weapons available to the Opposition - such as delaying replies to Official Information Act requests and written parliamentary questions way beyond the legal limit.

That is not an excuse for the caucus underperforming, however.

Mr Shearer has told colleagues to focus more on the ''big picture'' stuff. But that does not create headlines. In its desperate attempt to gain attention, Labour has become the dog that barks at every passing car.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking ever faster on Mr Shearer.

- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent

Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter