When a former MP accused her own political party of running a corrupt process to get rid of her, Audrey Young decided to find out what really happened ...
On the afternoon of Saturday, April 8, I received a private call from a senior Labour Party figure about an article that had run in that day's Herald on Louisa Wall's effective deselection as Manurewa MP.
A few days earlier, Wall had announced her resignation from Parliament as a list MP but she had yet to make her final speech to the House.
The article was about Wall's troubled history with the Labour leadership and how upset she was that despite having been MP for Manurewa since 2011, she had withdrawn from a selection in 2020 that two others were contesting and agreed to go on the party list.
Despite her national profile as a Silver Fern and Black Fern and the sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill, Wall was considered a difficult member of the Labour caucus.
She frequently got offside with people and she had a particularly poor relationship with one of the party's most influential members, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson.
Wall has attributed her poor relationship with Robertson and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to her having been a former staunch supporter of David Cunliffe and to disagreements over how she ran the marriage equality bill.
The person on the other end of the phone that day asked if I knew that the real reason Wall had withdrawn was that she had lost the support of the Labour electorate committee (LEC). That's the local executive in each electorate that runs party business.
The suggestion was news to me but it was a line to be repeated publicly in the following days by at least two Labour-aligned commentators, Neale Jones and Mike Williams.
It seemed others had received a similar call about why Wall had resigned.
It heightened expectations about what accusations Wall would level at whom in her valedictory speech on April 14.
She went out all guns blazing, claiming she had been the victim of a "corrupt process" which had forced her out of the selection process.
She said she had been forced out of her electorate by the "unconstitutional actions" of party president Claire Szabo, who had been in the job only since November 2019.
Wall said the LEC had been disenfranchised "and it is the result of that corrupt process that I am standing to deliver my valedictory statement today".
Outgoing MPs have occasionally made digs at their parties but for an MP to publicly accuse one's party – the governing party - of running a corrupt process to get rid of them deserved further investigation.
Szabo was not willing to give any oxygen to the accusation by even discussing it. She issued a statement soon after the valedictory saying: "The processes of the Manurewa selection in 2020 were in accordance with the Labour Party constitution. However, I do not wish to detract from Louisa's many achievements as an MP. The Party wishes her well for the future."
So what exactly happened and was this a case of an MP who had withdrawn from a contest she was about to lose or was she the victim of corruption?
Nobody was willing to publicly discuss the internal processes of the Labour Party but I have built a picture of what happened.
It can safely be said that the phone call was wrong. Louisa Wall did not lose the support of her LEC. She not only had the support of her LEC, she had the endorsement of E Tu union, the support of Te Kaunihera Māori (the Māori council of the party), and Labour's Māori caucus with the exception of deputy leader Kelvin Davis.
But it can also be said that through the messy machinations of the Manurewa selection, there is no evidence of corruption, in the way that most people would understand the term. If by corruption, Wall meant the rules had been unfairly interpreted by the ruling New Zealand Council to her disadvantage, she might be on slightly stronger ground but not solid ground.
She could probably say that the rules were applied to Manurewa in ways that may not have been so assiduously applied in other electorates but nonetheless rules were broken.
The upshot was that instead of a candidate selection panel which could have comprised four local votes (two LEC, one floor rep and one ballot vote from qualified party members present) and just three New Zealand Council reps, there were only two local votes which were outnumbered by three New Zealand Council reps.
After intense pre-selection negotiations involving MP and whip Michael Wood, senior Māori MP Nanaia Mahuta, and former general secretary Tim Barnett, Louisa Wall pulled out to go list-only a couple of days before the selection contest and agreed to resign from Parliament altogether during the current term.
That left the selection panel of five (three NZ Council and two local) to choose between two lawyers, Ian Dunwoodie, a devout Christian and a local, and Arena Williams, who was the eventual winner at selection and at the election.
Williams had got to know Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when Ardern had been a list MP based in Auckland Central and Williams had been president of the Auckland University Students Association. Williams was even closer to Grant Robertson, who was a mentor. She had stood in Hunua in 2014.
Her initial intention for the 2020 election had been to seek selection in Upper Harbour, where she had lived and which Labour's Vanushi Walters eventually won for Labour.
But with the knowledge that Dunwoodie was going to force a selection contest against a sitting MP in Manurewa, Williams decided to go for it as well in the safer Labour seat.
Robertson had a particularly bad relationship with Wall and if he (or Ardern) had advised Williams not to contest the nomination, she would not have put herself forward. Of that, there is no doubt. At the very least, Williams had their tacit support.
Dunwoodie had been among a field of seven who had sought the Manurewa nomination in 2011 to replace the retiring George Hawkins. Others included commentator Shane Te Pou but Wall, a list MP at the time, won it, and the seat in 2011, 2014 and 2017.
Dunwoodie has a reputation as a good on-the-ground campaigner and is good at signing up people. He had returned to Manurewa from a stint living in Wellington and, possibly with a view to challenging Wall in 2020, had been signing up new members loyal to him.
Louisa Wall had been nominated in late 2019 soon after nominations opened for the 2020 election. She was nominated by the LEC chairman, Andrew Beyer, and secretary, Bill Marshall, both of whom had signed her nominations for the 2014 election and the 2017 election. Under the constitution, nominations can be made by constituent organisations in the electorate.
Andrew Beyer is known to many Labour supporters in Auckland, having worked as a regional organiser for the party right through the Helen Clark years and beyond. Bill Marshall had been a party stalwart when George Hawkins held the seat and worked in Wall's electorate office.
The deadline for nominations of a number of electorates including Manurewa was extended by the party's ruling body, the New Zealand Council, from January 17 2020 to February 7. The party's general secretary at the time, Andre Anderson, issued a notice about the extension and said nominations closed at 5pm on February 7.
But the New Zealand Council received complaints from two of the three candidates after nominations closed. Louisa Wall complained that Arena Williams' nomination had arrived after the 5pm deadline on February 7. It was hand-delivered to Claire Szabo's Auckland home after 5pm, after Williams had contacted head office saying she was not going to be able to meet the deadline (the reason is not known).
Ian Dunwoodie complained that the LEC annual meeting in 2019 had been held unconstitutionally because it had not advised all 250 plus members of the meeting and therefore the LEC was not constitutional and should not have two reps on the selection panel.
The selection had been due to take place in March but it was delayed until May so the complaints could be examined. Szabo had also expressed concern to the NZ council that some on the membership lists might not be valid members and along with the LEC issues, a selection could be open to legal dispute.
Louisa Wall submitted legal advice from former National Attorney-General Christopher Finlayson, QC, to say that Labour rules did not allow for the extension of time which had been granted to Arena Williams on February 7 by Szabo and her nomination should be invalid.
The New Zealand Council sought advice about the two complaints from its own QC, Andru Isac, who has since been made a High Court judge. The specific advice was not published but council member and Auckland lawyer Simon Mitchell conveyed the opinion to non-council members.
On the first count, it said Arena Williams' late nomination was valid because under Labour's constitution, the council was required to set dates but not times as deadlines and while Williams' nomination was received after 5 pm, it was still received on February 7. It held that the 5pm deadline set by the general secretary had been an administrative convenience rather than a requirement.
Labour's QC also upheld the Dunwoodie complaint that inadequate notice of the LEC AGM had been given and concluded, therefore, it was invalid.
The old LEC was loyal to Wall and therefore cutting out its two votes from the process was important.
Between the time the complaint about the LEC had been made and the time of the May selection, the LEC could have convened a constitutionally valid AGM and selected two LEC delegates for the selection panel but it did not.
It may have avoided doing so because it was not confident it had the numbers to get delegates loyal to Wall. But under the constitution, 25 per cent of the local membership could have forced a special meeting to sort things out and that didn't happen either. It was a stalemate.
The LEC had accepted it had notified only active party members about the AGM but did not believe its breaches were significant enough to be ruled out of the May 30 selection. But Wall withdrew her nomination, leaving just two candidates, Dunwoodie and Williams.
The New Zealand Council reps on the selection panel were president Claire Szabo, former general secretary and affiliated unions rep Chris Flatt and Waikato-Bay of Plenty rep Rosina Taueki.
The locals elected a person from the floor and there was a ballot of qualified members present. They are understood to have favoured Dunwoodie over Williams because of the organising he had done. But they were two votes against three from the NZ Council, which clearly preferred Williams over Dunwoodie.
It is impossible to say what the result would have been had Wall remained a nominee in the five-vote panel although it is evident Wall believed head office would still have used its majority to select Williams over herself and Dunwoodie.
It is also impossible to say what the result would have been if the old LEC had been allowed to remain part of the selection process and it had been a seven-vote panel.
If the two LEC votes had favoured Wall, and the two floor votes had favoured Dunwoodie, it would have been a big call for head office to de-select Wall in favour of Williams.
An even more interesting what-if would have transpired if the LEC had held a valid meeting before the selection and it had elected office holders loyal to Dunwoodie for the selection panel, because that would have given him a majority over head office.
What is clear is that Dunwoodie was the candidate least favoured by head office, although his challenge of Wall paved the way for Arena Williams to join the challenge, rather than initiate it, and to finally realise her political ambitions.
Ardern was keen for Louisa Wall to endorse Arena Williams as the Manurewa candidate although that did not happen. The pair did not acknowledge each other in their respective valedictory or maiden speeches.
Ardern asked Williams to move the address-in-reply to the Speech from the Throne after the 2020 election – a big honour for a new MP – and left no doubt who Ardern supported in the bitter deselection.
Wall accepted a fixed-term job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as an ambassador to promote gender equality in the Pacific and LGBTIQ issues more widely. Before leaving Parliament she said she would remain a loyal member of the Labour Party.