Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Opposition taking too long to sharpen its claws

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Which shadow cabinet portfolios do Nanaia Mahuta (pictured) and Jacinda Ardern hold for Labour? Photo / APN
Which shadow cabinet portfolios do Nanaia Mahuta (pictured) and Jacinda Ardern hold for Labour? Photo / APN

Spin over last week's political polling is that David Shearer must lift his game if Labour is to be competitive. That's true, but he is pitched against the most popular prime minister in living history.

It will take Shearer at least until election year before voters pay him much attention. His current 13-14 per cent preferred prime minister support is twice as much as Phil Goff managed and it took Helen Clark almost a decade before she smote her opponent.

It was always going to take a lot to knock off a Key-led National Party. Does it look like Shearer could despatch Key yet? Of course not.

But no single person can win government without a front bench of competent potential cabinet ministers. So here's the real question: do Labour front benchers look like they are ready to govern? Have they earned the confidence of the public?

Labour's problem is not its leader, it's the caucus. The Green Party in Parliament is less than half Labour's size yet day after day they prove how lacklustre our main opposition party is.

With the exception of Shearer and his deputy Grant Robertson, do we hear anything much from the rest of Labour? What sense do you have of their finance spokesman? It's David Parker, if you've forgotten.

I assumed David Cunliffe would have been a better pick. But Shearer did appoint him to target Key's right-hand man, Steven Joyce, the Minister of Everything.

Cunliffe must have a secret plan he's not sharing with us because he hasn't initiated one attack on Joyce for more than a month. He's awol.

And what about our other great hope, Shane Jones? Admittedly, he's sidelined but he still sits on the front bench so he should do something notable. Alas, his website hasn't been touched since November.

Cunliffe and Jones' lack of seriousness suggests they should recommit or put up their hands for early retirement.

So about the other talent? During Cunliffe's leadership bid, he tried to persuade me that Nanaia Mahuta was a hidden talent and once in a front-bench leadership role she would be formidable. I was unconvinced. Does anyone outside the Wellington beltway even know she is Labour's education spokesperson?

You'd think with all the fallout from National Standards and charter schools she'd be a household name. Yet in over a month, according to her own website, she's put out a total of three press releases.

Even the new blood such as Jacinda Ardern, at No 4, can't seem to lay a hand on Paula Bennett as she goes about kicking the poor. The most attention Ardern got was when Maggie Barry made a nasty remark over her not having a child.

Labour has always owned health but I bet you couldn't tell me who its spokesperson is? Health minister Tony Ryall must find it hard to believe he hasn't had one sleepless night from being marked by Maryan Street. I respect Street but she's made no impact on him.

If you think I'm deliberately personalising my criticism, I'm not. My point is that most of the caucus aren't up to the task. For example, unemployment increased by 2000 people in the three months to June. The party's employment spokesperson didn't comment.

Even putting aside the day-to-day non-performance, think about this. Winning the Maori seats from the Government at the next election is Labour's key to victory. Yet its Maori Affairs spokesperson, Parekura Horomia, has put out just two press releases in nearly six months. One was condolences to a family and the other acknowledged the Maori New Year. Good grief!

Former leader Phil Goff was left by his caucus to do most of the heavy lifting in last year's election campaign. It seems the MPs haven't learned. Those current MPs who aren't pulling their weight should be sent to the back benches in a summer reshuffle and replaced with the few in their caucus who are actually doing their jobs.

Otherwise those Greens will continue to look better and better.

- Herald on Sunday

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