Claire Trevett

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

Caucus apology for 'gaggle of gays' remarks

Damien O'Connor. Photo / APN
Damien O'Connor. Photo / APN

Labour MP Damien O'Connor has apologised to his caucus for his choice of words in criticising the party's "gaggle of gays and self-serving unionists."

However, he does not appear to have backed down from the concerns he expressed about factional interests within Labour dominating its list ranking process at the cost of provincial representatives and "straight shooters."

Labour leader Phil Goff told media this morning Mr O'Connor had apologised.

However, he would not say if other MPs were upset with Mr O'Connor or whether any agreed with Mr O'Connor, saying airing such issues was an internal caucus matter.

Mr O'Connor apologised to his leader, Phil Goff, yesterday for causing trouble - but made it clear he stuck by his concern that the party's direction was driven by "a gaggle of gays and self-serving unionists".

Mr Goff said yesterday that the comments were "inaccurate and unfortunate" but stopped short of calling them offensive.

Mr O'Connor fronted up to Labour's caucus this morning about the comments, which he made to the Herald to explain why he had pulled out of the list ranking process.

Mr Goff gave him some backing, saying he spoke from disappointment that he was not given a high list placing "and I think in terms of his qualities he should have been".

"But that doesn't justify the nature of the comment he made and he regrets making it in that way."

However, Mr O'Connor yesterday made it clear his apology was for Mr Goff alone and was for "causing undue stress", rather than an expression of regret for his comments.

Asked if he would apologise to the wider caucus, he said he would welcome a "robust discussion" and was prepared to face up to any offence caused. He would not comment further, saying he had undertaken not to do so until after the meeting.

Labour MPs yesterday said they had been told not to discuss the comments with reporters. While some were disturbed by them, saying they were disparaging to gays, Mr O'Connor also had some backing. One MP said he expected Mr O'Connor would be punished for "telling the truth".

Outgoing MP George Hawkins - who has a long history of distrust of the unions - also backed him, saying he had a lot of sympathy for his position.

"He's going to have to fight the battle without a backup or fall-back position. I think Damien is in a pretty rotten position. I would have liked to see him be in the top 20. I think he's been there a long time and he's a genuinely good guy who has his electorate at heart."

Mr Hawkins said he did not want to talk about the unions - "they're completely irrelevant to me".

A supporter of Mr Goff, Mr O'Connor told Radio NZ his comment was prompted by concern that "personal agendas" in the union movement were dictating a democratic process. In a clear reference to Andrew Little, he said that "wannabes" were "positioning themselves for leadership in the future".

Mr Little said he rejected any such claims "whether explicit or implied".

He had taken no part in the selection process beyond speaking at the Wellington regional conference as a list nominee. He also made sure he stood down as party president before the final ranking committee.

"I don't think [Mr O'Connor's claims] are legitimate or valid at all, and personally I reject them."

He said he found the comments offensive "to a lot of people within the party, particularly the volunteers".

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UNIONISTS AND GAYS - IS HE CORRECT?

Damien O'Connor also says provincial MPs are isolated - do the potential Labour MPs bear out his concerns? Labour MP Damien O'Connor has raised concerns about the influence of "self-serving unionists and a gaggle of gays" over the party's list. The Herald analyses whether the 47 candidates - list and electorate - who could make it to Parliament in 2011 bear out his concerns:

1. Narrow horizons

"Provincial MPs in the Labour Party have ended up being isolated ... there's a risk that then the party doesn't represent the wider New Zealand."

If Mr O'Connor does not win the West Coast Tasman electorate, Labour will have only one MP in rural/ provincial South Island - Nelson-based list MP Maryan Street.

None of the 10 newcomers among the 47 are South Island based and only one, Lynette Stewart, comes from a provincial area. The Northland candidate is unlikely to make it in on the list. Parliamentary staffer Deborah Mahuta-Coyle will now move to her Waikato hometown.

In the North Island, the only "provincial" electorate held by Labour is Palmerston North. That is held by Iain Lees-Galloway, who was given a low list placing at 37. The Maori electorates held by Parekura Horomia (Ikaroa Rawhiti) and Nanaia Mahuta (Hauraki-Waikato) cover rural areas.

Overall, Labour has more candidates from Auckland alone than it has from provincial areas nationwide. Of the 16 Auckland candidates, nine are likely to rely on the list rather than an electorate.

One-third of Labour's top 47 candidates are provincial (13) and only a couple are rural. It has 34 in main cities: Auckland (16), Wellington (10), Christchurch (5) and Dunedin (3). Thirty-seven candidates are North Island and 10 are South Island

2. Union power

Self-serving unions?: "Personal agendas and politics in the unions shouldn't dictate the outcome of what should be a democratic system."

Nine of the 47 candidates have worked for trade unions in the past, although far more have been union members. Seven of the nine are likely to be list MPs. Of the newcomers, three are from union backgrounds: Andrew Little (EPMU), Michael Wood (FinSec) and Jerome Mika (EPMU). A further four newcomers were endorsed by the unions in their wishlist for rankings.

3. Gaggle of gays?

Of the 47 candidates, five are openly gay and three (Maryan Street, Charles Chauvel, Grant Robertson) are in the top 15 on the list. Of the new faces, one - Jordan Carter - is gay but he is placed low at 40. By comparison, there are 17 heterosexual white males - five of whom are in the top 15.

- NZ Herald

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