Rodney Hide: Self focus alienates voters

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David Cunliffe. Photo / Marty Melville
David Cunliffe. Photo / Marty Melville

You have to feel for David Cunliffe. He is beavering away making Labour a credible alternative. He is succeeding. And then, bang, the party get together and trip him up.

I don't know what it takes to float the boat of former Helen Clark voters now voting John Key or the famous 800,000 who didn't vote. It could be KiwiAssure, KiwiBuild, or perhaps KiwiFood and KiwiPokies. I simply do not know.

But I do know what won't. That's Labour's new rule requiring a caucus that's 45 per cent female after the next election and 50 per cent after that. The issues of concern to possible Labour voters are bread-and-butter issues, not gender balance.

The party's drive to get a precise balance of female and male MPs reinforces the view that Labour is more concerned with itself than with voters. That's the last thing Cunliffe needs. He needs the party trumpeting what he's doing for working people, not what the party is doing to itself.

Voters aren't stupid. They know that Labour achieving a strict male-female balance won't change people's lives. We recently had a female Prime Minister, a female Governor-General and a female Chief Justice, all at the same time. Things were no better - or no worse.

Labour's gender balance rule is correctly seen as extreme tokenism. The last male in on Labour's list last election was Raymond Huo. The first female who missed out was Carmel Sepuloni. The 45 per cent-rule would be achieved by swapping these two.

But potential Labour voters don't know either politician, or care about them. I was surprised to learn that Huo is still an MP and Sepuloni isn't. Which MP is in - and which is out - is not an issue for would-be voters. Indeed, such inward looking stuff is a turn-off.

Of course, we want our Parliament to be representative but we expect Labour to trust itself to achieve a representative caucus without hard-wiring a female quota.

The quota is destined to make headaches. Labour is also committed to "fair representation of ages, ethnicity, disabilities and sexual orientation". Replacing Huo with Sepuloni would get the male-female balance right. But it means replacing a Chinese MP with a Tongan.

Is that a plus for ethnic representation or a minus? And how is ethnic diversity balanced against achieving the correct male-female balance? I don't know. I doubt that the Labour Party does either. And the headaches are bigger than that. In 1999, Labour had 37 MPs. In 2002 it had 52. The number of MPs goes up and it goes down. The balance of list to electorate MPs swings even more wildly. In 2002, 45 MPs were electorate and only seven were list. Two elections later, Labour had only 21 electorate MPs but 22 list. More than half of its electorate seats had been lost and its number of list MPs had more than tripled. The party must now factor in every possible combination of outcome and then some to ensure every electoral contingency delivers first a 45/55 female/male split and then ever-after a 50/50 split. That's not going to be easy. The headache is made all the bigger by 14 of Labour's 22 electorate seats being held by men.

Achieving the correct male-female balance across all conceivable electoral outcomes means an effective man-ban in all new electorate selections. It means pushing men down and off the party list. And it means suggesting to older male MPs who hold safe seats that they retire. It all adds up to a world of pain for the new leader managing the effect on existing and potential MPs.

Labour's future is also for a less talented caucus. That's because the gender balance rule constrains selection choices. Heck, in 1999, the rule would have cost David Cunliffe his selection.

- Herald on Sunday

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