Editorial: Robertson move shows peace still some way off

One member to emerge well from the leadership change is David Parker. Photo / Marty Melville
One member to emerge well from the leadership change is David Parker. Photo / Marty Melville

Grant Robertson's decision to spurn the deputy leadership does not bode well for the Labour Party under its new leader. David Cunliffe had intimated his support for Mr Robertson in the clear hope of reconciling the caucus to the result of the party election.

Mr Robertson, preferred by 16 MPs to 11 for Mr Cunliffe and seven for Shane Jones, had given every impression in the campaign that whatever the result he was unlikely to rock the boat. Now he is making waves.

His decision is a declaration that he does not wish to work too closely with the new leader. Instead he will be Labour's shadow leader of the House, a role that may let him range widely of his own accord.

The decision suggests he has not put his leadership ambition aside for the time being. If he was content to wait he would have continued in the deputy role, an ideal position for keeping your name to the fore and proving yourself capable in the leader's absences. But an ambitious and honourable deputy is also supposed to give the leader unconditional support.

That perhaps was the obstacle for Mr Robertson continuing in a job he has reputedly done well.

His move presents Mr Cunliffe with a watered-down version of the destabilising figure that Mr Cunliffe posed to David Shearer - a potential replacement who will haunt him if he cannot lift the party's polling results in the year or so to the next election. It is reasonable to suppose Mr Robertson did not make this decision alone. Some of the 16 MPs who voted for him will have been consulted. They must not have wanted him to take the deputy job. The antipathy to him in the caucus seems to run deep.

The public will soon come to know Labour's new leader better than they know they rest of the caucus. If the reason for the antipathy does not become clear, the public will begin to wonder about the maturity of the caucus. This is not a trifling subject. The Opposition bids to be the Government every three years. The caucus that has made its attitude to Mr Cunliffe fairly clear could be the Cabinet one day.

One member to emerge well from the leadership change is David Parker, who also had ambitions to the job when it was last vacant. He will be deputy leader as well as remaining the finance spokesman. He is not the first to combine those roles, Michael Cullen did so effectively in opposition under Helen Clark.

More important than any of this, is the policies the party might adopt under Mr Cunliffe. The Prime Minister is too quick to suppose it will veer to the "far left". Certainly, the party members and unions who have put Mr Cunliffe where he is will expect him to deliver the higher tax rates and industrial relations law he advocated in the campaign.

But first, they need him to win an election and raising taxes and restoring union powers are not usually an election winning formula, for good reason. They are not an economy enhancing formula either. If those who voted for Mr Cunliffe really want the rich to pay more tax, a rise in the top rate is not the way to do it. Labour would do better to produce policies that tackle tax avoidance, which a high top rate merely encourages.

Mr Cunliffe is well placed to inject new ideas into the party's platform and, ironically, he is better placed now than he was before Mr Robertson turned down the deputy position.

"Peace" is clearly not breaking out as Mr Cunliffe predicted on Monday. He may be wasting his time trying to placate those who did not want him. He is free now to advance those in the caucus he respects and trusts. He can forge the Opposition he wants and give the election next year his best shot.

- NZ Herald

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