Claire Trevett

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

Labour MPs use caucus retreat to refine attack plan

Labour Party leader David Shearer and deputy leader Grant Robertson. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour Party leader David Shearer and deputy leader Grant Robertson. Photo / Mark Mitchell

On his way up to Labour's caucus retreat in Taupo, Labour leader David Shearer told the audience at Ratana Pa that his background as an aid worker had given him "the instinct not to oppose but to unite."

But it is in Opposition that Mr Shearer finds himself and at the caucus retreat over the past two days, as much of the discussion focussed on how to do that job well as it did on how to ensure Labour began to look like it was ready to govern again.

Mr Shearer knows that Labour has to make sure it's not so busy looking across at National that it forgets the Opposition benches are crowded with loud voices - and that it's not Winston Peters who gets all the running from such issues.

Mr Shearer emphasised to his MPs that they needed to be hungrier, quicker and more coherent in stealing wind before other Opposition parties could get to it.

Labour has now had the chance to get the measure of National's ministers. Their initial punts as to who would be vulnerable targets were sometimes wide of the mark - such as welfare minister Paula Bennett.

They used their caucus retreat to refine their attack plan. Anne Tolley and Jonathan Coleman can expect to come under some pressure this time round.

Paula Bennett will not get off scot-free because Labour can not afford to ignore such a critical area as welfare reform. However, Labour is likely to wait until it has heavy artillery before trying to embarrass her.

He was handed some gifts over the two days of the caucus to cut his oppositional teeth on: there was the looming decision on the sale of the Crafar farms to a Chinese company, which Mr Shearer took full advantage of.

He got his first minor notch up against Prime Minister John Key after questioning the criteria that allowed Kim Dotcom to get residency.

Yesterday there was the leak of the teapot tapes, and Mr Key's speech admitting the forecast surplus for 2014/15 was now much reduced - all issues which Mr Shearer was quick to jump at.

There were no big announcements made at that caucus retreat, but Mr Shearer promised that the changes he had been talking about since he became leader would be noticeable over the next few weeks.

The changes that wracked the party last year - the humiliating election result and leadership battle that followed - did linger on in part. There was a sense of a loss of equilibrium among the MPs, still uncertain of their niche within the new regime.

The previous order had changed and all the new pieces were yet to settle into place. But there was a concerted effort to ensure those pieces did start to settle.

MPs ensured they spent time together outside the work to re-cement personal relations - playing golf in the early morning and a fishing trip.

David Cunliffe did not pretend he was not disappointed at losing the leadership battle - but nor did he sulk.

He'd taken the month break to lick his wounds and grow a beard and he returned determinedly upbeat. Yesterday, he happily went out playing golf with colleagues and just as happily admitted "I sucked" when he returned.

When Mr Shearer asked him if his beard was staying or going, he grinned and said "it's staying, I'm sorry dear leader." He said it without malice.

It was the caucus' first taste of Mr Shearer as leader in an intensive environment. Mr Shearer's lack of institutional knowledge is both a boon and a danger. It means Mr Shearer himself can take no personal blame for what previous Labour governments did.

On the other hand it will undoubtedly see him come a cropper a few times. His antenna is not yet fully tuned. Critically, his colleagues will cut him some slack when those stumbles inevitably happen.

- NZ Herald

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