Claire Trevett 's Opinion

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

Claire Trevett: Rough going for Labour's battered rickshaw

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The reason for Labour's ups and downs are not necessarily what Labour has or hasn't done, but rather what its mates have or have not done. Photo / APN
The reason for Labour's ups and downs are not necessarily what Labour has or hasn't done, but rather what its mates have or have not done. Photo / APN

If polling tracks were Roads of National Significance, then National is in a people-mover on the Waikato Expressway, occasionally zooming up and down gentle inclines but confronting little that has yet forced it to alter its speed.

Labour, meanwhile, is clinging to a battered rickshaw rattling along pothole-ridden, precipitous back roads hoping like hell to hit a flat stretch. Alongside are the outriders of the Greens and NZ First, trying to pop the rickshaw's tyres so they can purloin its passengers for themselves.

The latest Herald DigiPoll puts Labour at just over 30 per cent, a disastrous result after promising signs of a Labour Spring.

The reason for Labour's ups and downs are not necessarily what Labour has or hasn't done, but rather what its mates have or have not done.

One of the features of MMP is that there is a finite number of voters so for one party to go up, another must go down.

Labour has made merry at National's expense, painting it as the dunce in the schoolyard, sitting in the corner eating lunch alone while the other kids try to avoid eye contact. According to Labour's fable, National's friends are either in the court dock (John Banks, over his mayoral donations), in disarray (the Maori Party, over its leadership) or on the way out (United Future's Peter Dunne). This may be true, but at least National's friends aren't stealing its votes.

It's been quite a while since any votes flowed from one bloc to the other in any great numbers. Instead, the main changes have been between the parties on the left. As the Green's fortunes go up, Labour's fall. As Winston Peters rattles his sabre, Labour suffers. That movement makes Labour's polling look more volatile than it is - but the real point of worry.

Winston Peters has benefited from courting the cameras with his pursuit of Peter Dunne, shuffling his race cards to question Chinese migrants' entitlements, and toying with Prime Minister John Key over whether he will support a law change for the GCSB. He is in his element.

Labour, too, has joined in the persecution of Peter Dunne. But it has not seen any of the benefits Peters has enjoyed. People expect it of Peters. It is his modus operandi and appeals to the small portion of voters he needs to ensure his party's survival. To the rest of them, it is starting to look a bit like bullying.

Labour's Trevor Mallard has tried to paint it in terms of simple moral and legal rectitude: The Electoral Commission has decreed that, technically, it has to treat United Future as a new party when registering it because the Electoral Act provides only for registration and de-registration - not for situations where a party de-registers and then registers again. Hence, Mallard and Peters have argued Parliament must follow suit and look at United Future as a "new party."

This means that, technically, Dunne has waka-jumped from United Future and gone off to set up a completely new party, called United Future. The maxim of "if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck" does not apply. It also means that to qualify for the same funding he got as one MP with the old United Future, the new United Future needs to have at least 6 MPs to get that funding - a provision Parliament put in place to help deter waka jumpers under MMP.

Dunne's objections over the Electoral Commission and its demands for paperwork may be misplaced - the commission is, after all, guided by the law that Dunne and his fellow MPs put in place. But he is right that it is farcical for United Future to be treated as a new party for parliamentary purposes.

What nobody has yet pointed out is that if the Speaker does take a similar strict interpretation of that rule as Peters and Mallard have demanded, there is still one way for Dunne to try to get his funding back in time for the 2014 election. It is risky. He can do a Hone, by resigning and forcing a byelection in his Ohariu seat. That is what Hone Harawira did after splitting with the Maori Party and forming Mana. At the time he claimed it was to give his electorate a chance to reaffirm his mandate outside the Maori Party.

But an equally strong driver was the funding. The 6-MP rule for new parties was in place and had he not subsequently won the byelection in Te Tai Tokerau, he would have had to struggle on until the 2012 election as an independent MP without that extra funding.

Despite the recent rushes of blood to the head, Dunne remains a sensible man so is unlikely to go that far. There is a risk he could lose any byelection, although he does have a loyal following in Ohariu and many are beginning to feel the persecution of him over the GCSB leak and his party's registration has gone too far.

Dunne could be punished for forcing a $500,000 byelection simply to secure $185,000 in funding for his own means for the one year left before an election. Going to such an extreme would, however, make a point about the need for rules sensible and flexible enough to meet the circumstances.

Such a move would be rather cynical. But then again, so is Labour's insistence that his funding should not be reinstated by relying on a ridiculous technicality and a rule designed for a completely different purpose - to deter real waka jumpers.

- NZ Herald

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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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