Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Bitter lesson apt as Shearer looks to reshuffle

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Labour leader David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour leader David Shearer. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Labour could learn a lot from the chocolate wars - that bitter contest that played out on the bloody battlefields of the supermarket shelves in 2009.

At the time, Cadbury's was the most powerful army in chocolate-dom. It had topped the Readers' Digest "most trusted" brand for years running. Then it made two big mistakes.

It used palm oil instead of cocoa butter and made its products smaller but the same price - a change dubbed as a great new look but which was blatantly clearly just a smaller chocolate bar.

Whittakers was canny enough to make the most of the public outcry. It churned out new products and ran comparative advertising about its own goodness.

Cadbury's backtracked faster than Education Minister Hekia Parata on class sizes. There were ingratiating apologies, there was repackaging and new, ever more fantastical flavours.

Finally, there came "Joyville" a mythical marketing creation clearly designed to evoke the feel-good factor of Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory. It was to little avail: this year, it was Whittakers that topped the "most trusted" list.

So Cadbury's gave us the chocolate equivalent of the political maxim that Oppositions do not win elections, Governments lose them.

In the political realm, 2012 has shaped up to be National's palm oil year and Labour is in the position of Whittakers. It has mounted its attack advertising on matters such as the Dotcom case to try to dent the PM's credibility, the lack of jobs and exodus to Australia.

Soon enough Labour will be faced with the political equivalent of launching new products by announcing new policies - or at least frocking up some old ones. Before that, some new packaging is on the cards with the reshuffle leader David Shearer has promised.

There are two schools of thought on a reshuffle. One is that it is dangerous to play musical chairs too often. In the more complex portfolios it can take years to build up the networks, contacts and knowledge needed both to formulate policy and to get good stories running that will embarrass the Government. On the other hand, if the front bench is not firing it needs a good stoking. Reshuffles can create uncertainty but they also create renewed interest.

Among the matters Shearer will have to weigh up is whether to take on the education portfolio himself. That is risky given Shearer's job as the leader and the size of the portfolio. David Lange did it, but there were not the same questions over his abilities as there are over Shearer's.

But if he does it well, it would be one way to silence those critics who are sceptical as to whether Shearer has what it takes. It is an area in which Shearer - a former teacher - feels at home. It would also mean a negotiated compromise with Nanaia Mahuta was possible. Mahuta has made it clear she will be unhappy if the portfolio is taken from her, but there is less loss of face if a portfolio is taken from you to go to the leader rather than to one of your colleagues. In return, she could be kept on the front bench.

On education Labour needs to dominate over other Opposition parties. It is one issue that taps into the middle- class voters Labour urgently needs to win over. Social welfare is National's middle-class hunting ground, but Labour must rail against the social welfare reforms and that will not yield any more votes than it already has.

Opposition MPs should be like a dog with a bone and the education portfolio pumps out entire skeletons of bones. National Standards, class sizes, Christchurch schools, Charter Schools have all offered a good feed.

Admittedly, Shearer has pulled rank to front the more controversial developments. But there was a warning looming for Mahuta when Chris Hipkins was appointed to the education team to drive the Christchurch Schools overhaul - a key part in Labour's effort to regain the two Canterbury electorates it lost to National in 2011.

An education spokesperson on top of their game would have made merry with that announcement themselves.

Sometimes the threat of a reshuffle is enough. It acts as an invigorating tonic to those mentioned in dispatches. Mahuta, for example, has ramped up the press release machine to at least one a day this month. Until now, she has issued between five and eight a month.

Reshuffles are a difficult balance - on the one hand, you need the carrion bird instincts required to do well in Opposition while simultaneously trying to project the aura of being a Government in waiting. The entire process comes with a "handle with care" sticker because reshuffles are more likely to create Bitterville than Joyville.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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