Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Off boil Labour checking all wrong boxes

The decision by a quartet of Labour MPs to accept the invitation from SkyCity to enjoy their generous hospitality was staggering in its myopia. Photo / Ben Fraser
The decision by a quartet of Labour MPs to accept the invitation from SkyCity to enjoy their generous hospitality was staggering in its myopia. Photo / Ben Fraser

A horrible word. It hurts to type it. Optics. Meaning the perception of behaviour, the way something is seen, rather than its substance, "optics" has become a staple in Canadian and American political pundit-speak.

The term lends to something otherwise obvious - an "an aura of brainy precision ... like physics, statistics, and tectonics", wrote Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe five years ago.

As Oliver Burkeman put it in the Guardian during last year's American election, it's "a staggeringly pointless piece of jargon that just means 'how things look' or 'public perception"'.

I've yet to hear it in New Zealand political commentary. Which is a very good thing. And yet, if there's one place that the word might be required, it's the Labour caucus room. In the form of a giant, flashing neon sign, perhaps. "OPTICS!" Propped up on a slot machine, even.

For the decision by a quartet of Labour MPs to accept the invitation from SkyCity to enjoy their generous hospitality and a sweet view of the first France test was staggering in its myopia.

Hang on a minute, a few have objected, it's not that big a deal, in the scheme of things. The criticisms of the Government's agreement to deliver a raft of legislative concessions in exchange for building a conference centre should not be washed away by a night out in a corporate box. As for the substance, true enough. But it's little wonder that when Judith Collins spotted the Labour MPs in that corporate box, her eyes lit up brighter than the Eden Park floodlights. As any halfwit could tell you, it looks bloody terrible.

David Shearer's admission in March that he had overlooked and failed to declare several thousand dollars in a New York bank account was a nightmare for Labour, skewering two of the attacks levelled at the prime minister: that his wealth distances him from normal people, and those forgetfulness issues.

In that case, however, it was almost certainly a mistake of omission. The Labour leader had his own memory lapse, and admitted it. In the latest example of an optics facepalm, however, it was utterly, utterly avoidable. Unfathomably stupid. Labour can expect to be reminded of that Saturday night every time they mention the pokies-for-convention-centre deal.

On its own, the SkyCity box thing does not a Labour party crisis make. But it fits a pattern. The commanding effort by David Shearer at the party conference late last year increasingly looks like an anomaly. In his contribution to the urgent parliamentary debate on the Peter Dunne resignation the other day - a debate Shearer personally demanded - the Labour leader appeared to be reading from a script that had been torn up and sellotaped together at random.

It was a small example of a wider problem. While a handful of Labour front-benchers have creditably countered the ministers they shadow, rarely has it been knitted into a wider, cohesive argument. The Labour argument has looked as unswerving as the windsock at Wellington airport.

When it comes to cohesive arguments, the Greens have comfortably outshone Labour. On TV3's The Nation last weekend, Russel Norman said that voters "don't want us to carp on all the time, but they do want us to speak strongly where it's important". He might easily have been critiquing the Labour party. The approach is all tactics, and no strategy.

It's true that Labour could end up leading a government if it continues in the current vein, but it would be one of hell of a shaky coalition, with the party outnumbered in Parliament by National by some distance.

They need a shake. An adrenaline shot. A risk, even. It's now seven months since David Cunliffe was sent to the naughty step - expelled from the front bench for failing to squash talk of an insurrection.

Clearly he continues to be seen as a divisive figure, but he's also shown, even from the backwater of the tax spokesmanship, that he remains a formidable politician. Confronted with National's niggly, muscular front-row of Joyce, Brownlee and Collins, Labour can't afford to leave Cunliffe in the shed.

Give him the economic development role, a Virgil to David Parker's Brains. Throw him ICT: the surveillance acts currently getting shimmied through Parliament are ripe for the attentions of an aggressive, hefty intellect. Demand that he pour his energies into helping shape a strategy for the next election.

As for the - ahem - optics, the promotion of an MP who had served his time would project strength, evidence of the leader's vaunted experience in conciliation. To those MPs who continue to feel aggrieved on Cunliffe's part it would send a message that the infighting must end.

A risk, yes. But a necessary one. Shearer's elevation to and retention of the leadership has been enabled, so we're told, by the weight of the Anyone-but-Cunliffe sentiment in the Labour caucus.

Less than 18 months out from the election, that ABC needs rethinking. Anything but carry on like this.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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