Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Wanted: MPs to help Labour tick all the boxes

Labour leader David Cunliffe speaks in front of his new shadow cabinet line-up. Photo / Getty Images
Labour leader David Cunliffe speaks in front of his new shadow cabinet line-up. Photo / Getty Images

Democratic New York mayoral front-runner Bill de Blasio was rather busy last weekend, wrapping up the final stages of his election campaign. Otherwise, he would have been the perfect poster boy for the Labour Party's annual conference.

Of mixed German and Italian ancestry, he's happily married, with two teenage kids, to a black, one-time lesbian, activist. And he's ahead in the mayoral race by a country mile. Talk about ticking all Labour's minority selection boxes.

Despite the over-excitement of certain members of the electronic media, Labour delegates voted to fine-tune the party's candidate selection process without controversy. At next year's general election, the party will aim for at least 45 per cent of caucus members being female, rising to 50 per cent by the 2017 election.

Also passed was a new rule that tightened selection criteria, requiring that the caucus "fairly represents" tangata whenua, gender, ethnic groups, people with disabilities, sexual orientations, age and youth and, a late addition, geographic spread.

After the last election, 14, or about 41 per cent of Labour's 34-strong caucus, were female so the new target is hardly a giant leap - or a victimisation of men. And as party president Moira Coatsworth bluntly noted afterwards, "for the last 120 years, women have missed out. This is about getting women equity".

As for fairly representing the other criteria, this is a process that has been exercising selection panels since the introduction of MMP in 1996. The latest version further codifies existing practice. Party general secretary Tim Barnett points to the area of disability as an existing gap in Labour's caucus.

"If you think that MMP is representing a whole population, there's only been two MPs out of maybe 300 in Parliament in the last 20 years who've had a disability."

As for geographic spread, a potential Labour candidate from the Rotorua-Taupo area could be in luck. Since the loss of provincial and Maori seats in that area, the Labour caucus has no local representative, and Mr Barnett says the hunt is on.

Mr Barnett says, "we're not saying if you've got a disability you're in". Or live in Rotorua for that matter. But if you meet all the other criteria that Labour requires of a candidate - they're listed on the party website - you would have an edge.

The party website is quite upfront about "specific skills which the Labour caucus is seeking for the 2014 intake, representing areas requiring strengthening".

Currently in short supply, it appears, are people with "applied legal qualifications", specialist environmental knowledge, and specialist scientific knowledge. The Labour caucus also needs strengthening in the areas of "significant experience on the health sector", in creative arts/culture, the rural sector, small-business accountancy and "economic experience".

Well you can't say they're not being honest.

As for "age and youth", there was speculation after the weekend conference that older males, in particular Hutt South MP Trevor Mallard (59) and Mt Roskill MP and former leader Phil Goff (60), would be under pressure to retire. Both have rejected the idea and for Labour bosses it's just as well. The move for fairer representation would appear rather hollow if "older" males were booted out to make way for some other segment of society. History also records that removing old males from the Labour caucus can turn nasty.

In 1966, there was an awful furore when Labour head office announced 80-year old New Lynn MP Rex Mason's retirement after more than 40 years in Parliament, despite his and his electorate organisation's desire for him to continue.

The party subsequently introduced a rule banning anyone from standing for Parliament if they would "turn 70 during a term of Parliament". In 1987, Speaker Dr Gerry Wall, then 67, fought party head office efforts to force him to retire, citing this rule. Legal opinions were flashed and the row rumbled on.

The Opposition loved it, ex-leader Rob Muldoon mocking Dr Wall as "senile" and others braying, "ga-ga" in the House. Dr Wall finally buckled, though he didn't go empty-handed. Six weeks later, a consolation prize was announced - he got a knighthood. The age ban subsequently disappeared.

Of course it's not a perfect science. Even the most balanced list in the world can go awry if the electors decide to cast their votes elsewhere. But Labour is playing its part in the MMP environment, in trying to create a true House of Representatives, which is more than can be said for National.

The Government caucus has only 14 women, only 24 per cent of its 59 MPs, resulting in a Parliament, as a whole, in which only 32 per cent of MPs are women.

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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