John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: McCarten taking on one of politics' trickiest jobs

New chief will have to find a way to make Cunliffe palatable to centre without alienating those on the left

It is still early days, and McCarten should be judged by his results rather than his ideology. Photo / Michael Craig
It is still early days, and McCarten should be judged by his results rather than his ideology. Photo / Michael Craig

They are the powers behind the all-powerful. They are the sounding boards for the ideas - good, bad but never indifferent, passed down from on high. They are often the first and almost always the last ports of call for advice before crucial decisions are made.


They are the jesters at the foot of the throne. They are the ones who can tell the Emperor he has no clothes.

They are the communication channels between those who lead and those who can only dream of leading. Their desks guard the door to the inner sanctum. They control who enters - and for how long.

They control the phones. They control the flow of information. They control who sees what. They are the eyes and ears of their master or mistress. Their job is to spot trouble before anyone else sees any trouble to spot. And then deal with it. Quickly.

They do not court publicity even though those in the publicity business might try to court them. They never upstage their boss, their relationship with whom is one of absolute mutual trust. If and when that commodity is exhausted and all trust is gone, so are they.

"They" are the chiefs of staff who run the offices of the respective party leaders at Parliament and who are the largely unseen and unheralded right-hand men and women on whom the country's senior politicians depend utterly. It is into this all-consuming and absolutely pivotal role in the Labour leader's office that Matt McCarten has now been thrust. Not to do the donkey work of office administration, but to offer strategic and tactical advice as to how David Cunliffe embarks on the Sisyphus-like task of getting the better of what McCarten calls the "phenomenon" of John Key. So far the narrative has been more about McCarten and less about what he might actually do to help Labour close at least some of that vast gap in the polls in the run-up to the election this year.

The appointment was an audacious move on Cunliffe's part. He has taken a big punt on would-be Labour voters swallowing hard and accepting that the ex-Alliance cuckoo be allowed into the Labour nest for the common good of the centre-left.

But it looks like there is going to be a price to pay. Judging from comments posted on the Herald's website, some voters are already reassessing whether they will give Labour their vote.

It is still early days. In this instance, McCarten is also better judged by his results, rather than his ideology.

Nevertheless, Key's informal scare campaign, which is designed to frighten voters off the idea of Labour-Greens coalition government, has been given a whole new dimension.

The Prime Minister wasted no time in typecasting McCarten as someone from the "hard left". He predicted the appointment would see a change in Labour's tone and the main Opposition party would become much more aligned with the Greens.

That is not going to happen. But this is all about Key creating perceptions, namely that McCarten's appointment is further evidence of Labour "lurching" to the left.

That perception is oddly enough somewhat reinforced every time Cunliffe seeks to challenge it.

He insists he is not moving Labour leftwards. Yet those on the party's left have cheered and applauded everything he has said about the direction he intends taking Labour under his leadership.

That has some of his colleagues worried that the strong rhetoric he wheels out for that audience risks alienating a far bigger and more crucial one in the political centre.

Labour must win votes in the middle ground as well as among low-income earners struggling to make ends meet. The concern is that Cunliffe will have to shift his focus back to the centre at some point, which has those on the left furiously slamming him as insincere and a phoney, while those in the centre simply view his sudden and belated efforts to woo them as plain desperation.

There are deeper forces at work here which should be key determinants of where Cunliffe should position Labour. But he appears to have taken little cognisance, instead leaving doubt and ambiguity as to where Labour stands on the spectrum even if Cunliffe, to his credit, is much clearer about what Labour stands for.

At some point, however, Cunliffe is going to have to confront what is for Labour an unpalatable fact of political life in New Zealand.

It is something Helen Clark well understood and something that underpinned her strategic thinking as leader and prompted her to position Labour as close as possible to the centre.

Labour's humiliation in the 1975 general election taught her a vital lesson - never underestimate the deeply conservative disposition of the great bulk of New Zealand voters.

It takes them a long time to get sick of National governments. Apart from Clark's Administration, voters' flirtation with Labour can be remarkably short-lived. That has been the pattern since World War II. There has been nothing in this election year to alter that assessment. Instead, there is much to reinforce it.

That conservative streak running through the electorate was why she shut the Alliance out of the finance portfolio completely when she won the 1999 election.

In the end, she could not stop that conservatism killing her Administration. That conservatism came in different clothing - namely voter antipathy towards so-called political correctness.

Like other leaders elsewhere in the world, Key has used that advantage to craft his own version of what is dubbed "progressive" conservatism. Thus does the modern National MP espouse tight fiscal restraint in one breath and vote for gay marriage in the next.

So far, however, Cunliffe has been able to straddle both the centre and centre-left parts of the political spectrum to some degree. The "baby bonus" policy catered to both the poor and the reasonably well-off. The setting up of a state-owned insurance company was not a million miles from the kind of things the last minority Labour government did.

The trouble is that there is not much new policy - and where there is new policy it does not seem to be benefiting from strong promotion.

Where Cunliffe has serious problems with voters is on the trust and sincerity front, in part because they do not know what to make of him. Perhaps unwittingly, McCarten likewise made mention in one radio interview of his uncertainty at one point on whether Cunliffe was for real.

January's 3News-Reid Research poll had Cunliffe trailing his predecessor, David Shearer, in terms of substance over style, being down-to-earth and not talking down to people.

McCarten has work to do on the credibility front. He also needs to curb Cunliffe's propensity to take on Key when he is on a hiding to nothing - the case with Cunliffe's barbs at Key for living in the "leafy suburb" of Parnell when he resides in one too.

And if all of that was not enough, there is a show-stopper: how the heck do you sell a capital gains tax in a country where property is king?

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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