Party leaders' gender and minority rights message isn't the one voters want to hear, writes Damien Rogers

The real leaders of the New Zealand Labour Party resemble those short-sighted generals who, lacking in imagination, repeat the basic strategic error of organising their armies to win the last war.

When Labour Party president Moira Coatsworth and general secretary Tim Barnett influenced recent decisions to select Meka Whaitiri to fill the vacancy left by Parekura Horomia, and Poto Williams to fill the vacancy left by Lianne Dalziel, they sent a strong message to the voting public, party members and party affiliates.

The message is that under their leadership, the Labour Party is gearing up for - when it is not already waging - a war for gender equality and minority rights.

This is a war commanded from behind closed doors at party headquarters in Fraser House. The battlefield is not so much the hearts and minds of voters as it is the internal dynamics of the party.


Structural reform is the weapon of choice. Divisions created by special interest groups based on "identity markers" are encouraged through the selection of candidates to contest parliamentary elections.

Policy making processes and the selection of the parliamentary leader are two other high-profile targets of reform pursued under the banners of equality and democratisation.

Interested observers could be forgiven for thinking Coatsworth and Barnett are no longer, if indeed they ever were, committed to winning the next election.

Both seem more concerned that their reform agenda attracts international attention for its pyrrhic victory in addressing gender equality and minority rights within the narrow confines of the Labour Party.

The fact that the battles over gender equality and minority rights were largely decided elsewhere during the early 1980s seem to have passed Coatsworth and Barnett by. The quota-based approach favoured by the Labour Party leadership not only fails to evade the ugly structures of gender and ethnic discrimination, but helps to strengthen those structures.

Changing the composition of the Labour Party will not change New Zealand society. An elected representative claiming a certain gender or ethnic background will not necessarily effectively represent all voters sharing those identity markers. Confusing the party apparatus as a means to political power with the ends of a less unequal New Zealand society only makes the party less relevant to most New Zealanders.

With Coatsworth and Barnett at the helm, the newly elected leader of Labour's parliamentary team, David Cunliffe, will largely have to fight the next election with one arm tied behind his back.

Mr Cunliffe's recent performance in the House of Representatives and his reshuffling of caucus into a shadow Cabinet, show he understands the next election will be fought on the battleground prepared by the mainstream media and not among the internal workings of the Labour Party.


He also understands the issues concerning most New Zealanders emanate from the absence of opportunities in jobs, education and lifestyle, as well as from the need for good stewardship of the ecosystem that will pass to future generations. Special interest groups practising a politics of resentment do not rate highly among the mainstream.

Since Mr Cunliffe knows that most of the swing vote in New Zealand gathers around the so-called "centre", his rhetoric will shift from appeasing the party's leaders and hardliners to connecting with the public. He will now seek to make the case for a change of government and to offer an attractive alternative which will have need to slay the ghost of Rogernomics that still haunts the thinking of some of his parliamentary colleagues.

Tactically, Mr Cunliffe could do worse than to characterise the Green Party as being "far left", in the same way as Prime Minister John Key characterises the Act Party as being "far right". Not for us are those extreme free-market ideas, Key says, while preaching an intellectually bankrupt fiscal policy of austerity, privatising public assets, and redistributing the tax burden from the well off to the not so well off.

Just as the shortsighted and unimaginative general has his or her incompetence exposed by defeat in battle and is subsequently pilloried, sacked or executed, both the Labour Party president and general secretary will have to resign if Labour does not hold Christchurch East in the upcoming byelection, or if media coverage of the upcoming party conference in Christchurch focuses on the revival of the "man ban" at the expense of Mr Cunliffe's treatment of the electorate's issues of primary concern.

Anything less would reward strategic incompetence and make a mockery of command responsibility.

Dr Damien Rogers lectures in the politics programme at Massey University, Albany.