The Labour Party's financial deficit problems should be of concern to all New Zealanders. It is not necessary to be aligned with National or Labour to recognise that a healthy democracy needs two parties capable of providing sound government. Labour's fundraising difficulties, revealed in its latest annual financial report, are not a surprise. Ever since the party's former president, Mike Williams, stepped down there have been murmurs that his successors did not have the same persuasive touch with business donors.

But corporate leaders should not need much persuasion. There is a long tradition of large companies in this country donating fairly equitably to both major parties for exactly the reason already stated. No one party is ever going to govern New Zealand unchallenged. We are an electorate in the Westminster tradition of politics, like Australia, the United States and others, that expects a choice at elections and one way or another we will get it. If one of the main parties is wound up, a new one will rise on its side of public opinion.

In National and Labour we have two parties that differ fundamentally in the priority they give to social equity or economic efficiency while recognising the importance of both. If National faded from the scene its place might be taken by a party that would not recognise social disadvantage, if Labour disappeared it might be replaced by a party that cannot see the benefits of competitive markets.

Labour's accounts show an operating deficit for the past two years, which its president blames on the costs of byelections and party leadership contests. Yet last year's general election campaign cost the party $125,000 more than it had in funds. It received only $940,000 in donations during the year, compared with $4 million donated to National. If those figures mainly reflect comparative corporate contributions, the donors need to think more carefully.

Advertisement

Last year was a difficult one for Labour. Its only prospect of winning power was in a coalition with the Greens, Winston Peters and possibly the concoction of the far-left financed by Kim Dotcom. This was not a prospect to inspire corporate generosity. The Green Party is said to have raised more in donations than Labour did. David Cunliffe did his utmost to distance Labour from Internet-Mana but probably not enough to put donors' minds at ease.

The political stage now is quite different. Labour has a pragmatic leader in Andrew Little, who is going out of his way to win the confidence of business and focus the party on the nature of work and economic security in the future. The Greens, too, have a new co-leader with corporate experience and a businesslike outlook on issues. No mad-hatter party is around anymore.

The country will go to the next election with sensible alternatives on offer, to re-elect National for a fourth term or decide it's time for a change. Three-term governments have usually been enough for New Zealand voters, but normally the mood for change is evident by this time. Labour may have to hang in for a longer haul and it needs help. It deserves a fair deal from those doing well in an economy that took two parties to put right.