The events of last week surrounding the resignation of The Labour Party president demonstrated shortcomings with the NZ media while bringing back some wry memories for me.
Apparently distracted and overwhelmed by the sensational and salacious revelations in The Spinoff, the media focus was entirely on who knew what and when.
The more important aspects of the effects of the resignation were either neglected altogether or misreported.
We were told that the senior vice president would automatically succeed to the role of chairing the party council and that a new president could be elected at the annual conference in Whanganui at the end of October.
A quick glance at the Labour Party constitution, easily available online, shows that there is no succession specified when a president resigns, and neither is delaying the election of a successor an option. The relevant clause is clear:
"If the position of President becomes vacant before the next Annual Conference, the General Secretary must, within 14 days of the position becoming vacant, invite the constituent organisations with voting rights to provide nominations for the position of President, to the General Secretary."
This episode reminded me of some of the many lessons I learnt when I filled this currently vacant position.
One lesson is that the Wellington parliamentary precinct is the rumour mill par excellence and anyone reporting such matters as became public last week should remember my grandmother's adage: "believe none of what you hear and half of what you see".
Matthew Hooton is right in characterising Parliament as a "co-educational boarding school with alcohol".
There are many shenanigans - we were reminded of this with the Jami-Lee Ross affair when the publication of sensational late-night text messages gave credence to what had been rumours - but it truly doesn't pay to believe much of what you hear second or third hand.
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I was once told of a promising Labour Party candidate who'd stripped naked at a drunken party at the Opposition Research Unit late one night. This story circulated widely and was attributed to "reliable sources". However, on finding a friend who'd attended the function I learnt that the alleged nudist had merely taken off his shirt to show off the illustrated T-shirt he was marketing to raise campaign funds.
Nigel Haworth's departure is a blow that the Labour Party can ill afford at this point in the electoral cycle, and the media coverage, or lack of it, last week caused me to doubt if the current generation of political reporters have any idea of what the job entails or realise that the position is not comparable in importance to that of the National Party president.
Apart from chairing the governing council of the New Zealand Labour Party, the president, by custom, chairs the panels which select the members of parliament, both the electorate MPs and those who enter parliament by the list.
Leader of the fifth Labour Government, Helen Clark, saw this role as a central task of the Party President and when I was first elected to that position in the year 2000, told me to "go and find the sixth Labour Government".
I treated this advice seriously – more than half of the current Cabinet was selected by panels I chaired.
Labour Party presidents are key corporate fundraisers. The Labour Party is less dependent on company donations than the National Party, but in a democracy with none of the state funding of political parties that is common in Europe and even Australia, this is an important source of campaign finance which no MP and certainly no Minister can access.
in my view by far the most important role that the party president performs is to develop and promote the party's on-the-ground campaign.
While it's demonstrably true that a party's leadership, candidates, policies and record in office are the key factors in electoral success, those last few thousand votes that are the key to victory come from the activities of Party activists on doorsteps, at enrolment booths, putting up (and repairing!) hoardings and getting the vote out in the weeks leading up to the election.
All the MMP elections have been decided by tiny margins – you'd only have to move the party vote dial minutely in National's direction with the 2017 general election result and Bill English would still be PM.
Many of the very best initiatives of Jacinda Ardern's government have benefitted those least likely to vote so the new president should quickly turn their attention to the kind of turnout-promoting activities which won Helen Clark a third term in 2005 when participation leapt from 77 per cent in 2002 to a touch under 81 per cent three years later.
The targets will be different in the 2020 campaign, but the strategy will be similar. Time is short.
*Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.