Claire Trevett 's Opinion

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

Claire Trevett: NZ game of thrones - does Cunliffe dare to play?

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Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / Brett Phibbs

In an eerie parallel with the current series of Game of Thrones, the 2014 election has also reached the stage in which the alliance of wildlings and giants are trying to breach the Wall led by Mance Rayder in the form of Kim Dotcom and his mammoths in the form of dollars.

The Houses of National and Labour are lining up their bannermen in the form of future coalition partners.

The price for the bannermen, of course, is that National must promise a castle as a reward for their fealty. Castle Epsom is already effectively promised to Act's David Seymour, although Prime Minister John Key is yet to make the promised announcement of it. National's candidate in Epsom, Paul Goldsmith, is again in the role of Reek - a candidate broken down to the point where he is effectively an obedient, submissive dog. With Epsom and Ohariu effectively done deals, that leaves National with the House of Conservatives to contend with.

Conservatives leader Colin Craig has said he will not ask for a deal and does not need one because he is confident he can reach 5 per cent, while also saying he wouldn't necessarily turn down a deal should one be offered.

The trouble National has is that there are no Reeks in the three electorates in question: Upper Harbour, Rodney or East Coast Bays.

Political parties run candidates' schools in the lead-up to an election, teaching candidates everything from how to tend to their books to the art of doorknocking. The primary aim is to teach candidates how to win. Things are at the stage now that they also need a separate school to teach candidates how to lose. Such deals require a particular kind of candidate.

Goldsmith is practised at the role. In 2011, he had subtle signage on his car and rarely parked it in sight of the public. He'd turn up to candidates' debates but spoke only when absolutely necessary. There were no tantrums. He had the necessary attributes: a low profile and a willingness to take one for the team (in return for a decent list slot, of course).

Paula Bennett, who is standing in Upper Harbour, is not an ideal candidate to be a Reek. She is congenitally indisposed to being low-profile. She cares about being an electorate MP and will be hard to mould. East Coast Bays MP Murray McCully's long-standing role in National has been more that of the Bastard of Bolton - the man who creates Reek through torture - rather than Reek himself. Which leaves Mark Mitchell in Rodney. Mark Mitchell is junior enough to be bossed about. But he, too, cares about being an electorate MP. And in his past life as a police officer and then security contractor in the Middle East, he faced down samurai swords, mobsters, and Shia militia storming the compound he was guarding. Good luck, Steven Joyce.

Labour's problem when it comes to such deals is not the invasion of the wildlings but the potential for a civil war within its own ranks if it becomes allies with the wildlings. Cunliffe has ruled out any electorate deals, along with promising to rid the nation of coat-tailing after the election. However, there are ways to do deals without having to admit you're doing the deal.

Labour's Kelvin Davis has made it clear he is out to win the Te Tai Tokerau seat and has used the deal Hone Harawira brokered with Kim Dotcom's Internet Party to try to enhance his prospects. But if Davis is given a high placing on the list, it will be interpreted and used by Hone Harawira as a nod and a wink from Labour to voters to let him keep his seat.

More critically for Cunliffe is the open opposition among senior members of his own team to any collusion with the Internet Mana Party. The caucus is split between those who believe the party should hold its nose and do what it must to get the Government benches and those vehemently opposed to any such deal. The official line is that Labour will make its decision after the voters have had their say. Yet MPs Phil Goff, David Shearer and Chris Hipkins, as well as Napier candidate Stuart Nash, have strongly and publicly condemned the Internet-Mana situation.

Such things are usually left to the leader to take a stand on in public. The fact these MPs went over his head and spoke out shows the strength of their views and suggests they are wary of what Cunliffe might do and hope to pre-empt it.

There is some suspicion about the influence of Cunliffe's chief of staff, Matt McCarten, who has past allegiances to the Alliance Party, now reborn through Laila Harre under the Internet Party banner, and Hone Harawira's Mana Party. He could well believe a deal in Te Tai Tokerau was a good idea. The MPs in question did get some return fire on David Cunliffe's Facebook page from Labour supporters.

But Cunliffe can't afford to ignore such strongly-held views in his caucus. He is about to head into his own danger zone. From June 20, Labour's caucus has a three-month window to change the leader without having to go through the party's new primary-style process giving its membership a vote.

If Cunliffe was thriving in the polls, he'd be on much safer ground to make such calls about the Te Tai Tokerau seat and the Internet Mana Party. There might be some grumbling but little else because there would be too much to lose by changing the leader. As things stand, it might not take much to spark a revolt whether a rival contender is ready and willing or not.

Cunliffe may well be proud that red is the colour of socialism. But he can't really afford a re-enactment of the mass slaughter in the Game of Thrones' Red Wedding, provoked by a botched attempt at a deal between the Starks and Freys.

- 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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