When a major political party decides to hold its leadership election in public, we should hear something of substance from the candidates. They are, after all, competing for the votes of party members, a more sympathetic electorate than they usually face and probably on average a better informed one.

Labour Party members in particular are more interested than most people in the finer points of policy, as is usually evident at the party's annual conferences. They are less interested, we would have thought, in the fact that David Cunliffe is smart and possibly conceited, Grant Robertson is gay and conservative constituencies might care, Shane Jones has watched porn but says he is not running for pope.

That has been the level of most of the discussion this week. In the belief the candidates have something better to offer, the Herald on Sunday invited each of them to supply a vision for New Zealand. The results were disappointing.

Cunliffe wants to "take New Zealand to a better place ... help Kiwis with their dreams [and] refuse to stand by and let our children become the first generation to do worse than their parents".


Robertson seeks "a New Zealand where your future is not decided by who your parents are, but on your hard work and the support provided by our collective efforts".

Jones offers a "new New Zealand that is inclusive, outward-looking and realises our full potential".

Nobody, of course, would disagree with those goals, only in the means of reaching them. The candidates gave us not a hint of how they would get us there. Higher taxes is one obvious means that would find favour with the voting party members, though simply raising the top rate can add to avoidance.

National's policies have left Labour plenty of room for new ideas in ensuring all those on higher incomes pay their share of tax, but nothing of that kind has been heard from these candidates yet.

They may be wary of committing themselves, or the party if they are elected, to policies that might appeal to Labour activists but return to haunt the party at a general election. But it would be a pity if this election of a leader involving the whole party - members, union delegates and MPs - should produce no better debate than a general election campaign.

United States presidential primaries, which Labour's election resembles on a much smaller scale, often produce radical policy proposals that challenge all candidates to match or answer them. Cunliffe is the one most likely to have a few of those in mind, but while polls give him the front-running he will prefer to play safe.

Jones, with little to lose, might be the wild card. Already he has raised the bar for Labour's performance at next year's election, saying the party cannot lead a government with moral authority unless it wins something over 40 per cent of the vote. Robertson, appearing on the same radio programme, was obliged to agree with him.

It means this might not be a contest about who can best work with the Greens, it is about how to lift Labour to a stronger position, at the expense of the Greens if necessary. The party will be looking for the candidate who is most sure on his feet, confident of Labour's prospects next year and willing to assert the party's identity with the lower paid, women and the poor.


Labour wants the public to take notice, hoping the race will help boost its ratings. But the public's attention will wane if it hears nothing but windy sentiment.