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

Toby Manhire: Ghost of Muldoonism comes back to haunt Labour

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Former National Party Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon. Illstration / Murray Webb
Former National Party Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon. Illstration / Murray Webb

It is a curiosity of New Zealand politics in the early part of the 21st century that one of the most devastating salvoes across the partisan divide is to compare opponents to your own recent forefathers.

If a Labour supporter, for example, were to critique a National Party policy by calling it "worthy of Rogernomics", it would not be shorthand for "as brilliant and ground-breaking as the reforms pursued by our charming old uncle Roger Douglas".

Equally, if a National stalwart suggests Labour rivals are behaving "like Muldoon", that is code for something other than "you are as visionary and brilliant as our beloved former leader, the longest-serving National PM of the last 50 years".

And so National MPs queued up in Parliament this week to denounce Andrew Little as Muldoon reincarnate. Bill English was moved to quiver at the "nightmares of the 1980s". Chris Bishop, who was in nappies when Muldoon called a snap election in 1984, cautioned the House, "the 1970s were not a great time in New Zealand, and it took the Labour Party and a Labour Government to sort it out".

Steven Joyce meanwhile saw in Little "possibly the angriest leader since ... Rob Muldoon", while Paula Bennett agreed it was "back to the 1970s", and Labour should refit their offices - "remove the photos of Michael Joseph Savage and put up large photos of Robert Muldoon".

This week most National caucus members had got the memo. The party's spin-bosses are masters of political messaging, and the overarching message, as often as not, goes: Labour sucks. To be fair, mind you, they do get served up a plentiful supply of material.

The Muldoon chorus, of course, was a response to Little leaving open the possibility of obliging banks to pass on changes in central bank base rates. It is a fine line between shaking a stick noisily at the banks and saying you might legislate to force them to toe the line on interest rates, but it's an important one.

In a week when the Government should have been made to sweat for years of ill-judged optimism about the dairy sector, with Labour sticking up for embattled farmers while cocking a snook at the big Australian banks, the party found themselves on the defensive. As with the calls for a "summit" to discuss the crisis in the dairy sector, Labour appears to be operating - apologies for the unintended pun - on the hoof.

The pervading sense of muddle from Labour continued into the week, with the "ethnic chef" imbroglio. Andrew Little professed to being "baffled" at reports suggesting he'd targeted "ethnic chefs" in discussing immigration policy. But parliamentary reporters were responding to remarks he made to the Hutt News about "ethnic cuisine", in which he is quoted as saying: "So you're Chinese, you're Indian. A lot of folks come here from overseas to get into the hospitality industry with those particular cooking skills and I think the question is, you know, can we actually source those labour needs internally?"

To be stuck defending itself against charges of Muldoonism and targeting Asian chefs can't be much fun for Labour, especially in the week after they enjoyed a big success in getting the Government to do away with zero-hours contracts.

In that spirit, however, where were they this week on revelations Bunnings Warehouse is paying "community group" workers below the minimum wage. As far as I could see, by lunchtime yesterday, no one from Labour had said a word on the matter.

The "ethnic chef" kerfuffle, coming in the wake of the Auckland property Chinese-names stunt - which chief architect Phil Twyford last week conceded to the Politik website was "a less than masterful piece of political communication" - is guaranteed to light the blue touch paper. What are they playing at?

Some have said this is more dog-whistling, Labour manoeuvring into NZ First territory. But it is probably nothing so strategically sophisticated. They don't look like Winston, nor like Muldoon; they just look a bit lost. For the time being, Labour still come across as the party barking at every passing car, making it up as they go along.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- 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 listener.co.nz, 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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