Three ‘semi-dangerous’ higher order primates that had been the star attractions, living in a detached world of their own, have escaped from their enclosure in Christchurch… and have gone off into the public. It was early in the morning, but I was now listening intently. The bulletin went on. For their own security the public had been put into safe rooms where they could witness the carnage as they ran amok. How rowdy are these affiliate meetings? It’s not the 80s. Until they mentioned the three characters were Gibbons in a wildlife park it could well have been a description of the Labour leadership contest thus far.
The gorilla in the room – as Shane Jones is given to say – is John Key. That casts the vying Labour candidates as monkeys in this internal party circus. The near month long time-frame, the multiple voting opportunities, the sense of mass participation via the media, the demographic appeals – Julie Christie couldn’t have come up with a better concept for TV. Why an established political party would opt out of the certainty of caucus support for a system that resembles a reality TV gameshow is another question. If however the point was to generate interest in Labour as a political force then it has already worked.
Who will best best Key? David Shearer, thoroughly nice chap that he is, decided to quit after Phil convinced him no-one believed that he could hold his own against Key in a televised debate and therefore had no chance of winning an election for Labour – that’s what happened. So the job description is quite specific. It isn’t so much about who can do what specifically for each section of the fractured rainbow that is Labour, but who can box Key around the ring and hope to prevail. The Paganis having strapped one hand behind his back would have thrown in Shearer’s towel at the opening bell; the new alternative is expected to have left wing credentials that will carry the fight every round.
If the contenders on paper don’t seem to offer much, then they probably offer even less in the glare of television which can devote as much time tearing down and beating up (as in the case of Grant Robertson) as it does to building up and making out (as in the case of Shane Jones). As far as media appearances go, audiences will be aware that Cunliffe is a smarmy Aucklander, Robertson is a ‘beltway’ (Wellington) bureaucrat, and Jones is a Maori bloke. Their back-stories are a bit more opaque and will become more so as they try to paint their own pictures – in which case the notoriously vain Cunliffe is at a distinct advantage.
Cunliffe and Jones may have both been corporate warriors who sacrificed salary for the advancement of their ego when they went into politics, but Jones just can’t help himself… helping himself. He entered politics having done a deal with Hone Harawira not to stand in the Tai Tokerau electorate, he double-dipped as an MP taking a fisheries board stipend, and his short ministerial career was a blur of blue movies and red light districts with the only notable legacy in managing his portfolios being the granting of citizenship to one of Dover’s dodgy Chinese ‘business’ mates.
They might call this corruption in other countries.
Jones plays fast and loose – especially with himself. To what extent these foibles are a handicap become overlooked when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being elevated to a King-maker position. He also has a very outside chance of winning in a three horse race should one of the two favoured candidates implode without the other one having the numbers to cross the line. It’s a chance and Jones’ style is to take chances – which makes him a great contender from the media’s point of view, but would make for a terrible leader. Jones’ strategy of wheeling out the missus in the last few days though shows he is serious.
Cunliffe has kept his family in the background except for offering excuses (breast feeding!?) why he lives in a wealthy inner-city suburb while he represents a working class West Auckland electorate. Robertson on the other hand has had to try to communicate past the media gatekeepers on the issue of family because they won’t leave his sexuality alone. They are the only ones who think Grant Robertson’s sexuality is sexy, as such, no one else really cares.
To address this faux issue, Robertson has taken to a faux response, saying he is a grandfather – a grandfather to his partner’s grandchildren. It’s all very silly – an extension of being forced to kiss babies. He’s had to deal with Paddy Gower and company doing things like editing the ‘maybe/iffy’ hand signal he was making in one interview as if it were a limp wrist expression as Paddy intones how he’s too camp to be leader. Just making it up, cooking it up, stoking it, no matter if they have to twist things to fit, they’ll make it fit. Such as tracking down Pacific Islanders and getting them to say they won’t be having a gay leader and threatening to quit if they do and so on. It’s all very, very silly. These Pasifika members are the same people who backed Helen Clark and thought that she was the best PM ever. The same Helen Clark decried as the Queen of the dykocracy, whose butch sidekick accompanies her everywhere, who calls herself Miss even though she’s married, who is the leading light of the gay caucus… who wears coullots and dungeries… that Helen Clark, that you supported as Labour leader and as PM for nine years. So fondle your crucifix or say a prayer or whatever you have to do to function in the 21st century and get the fa’afine over it. A gay leader of the Labour party will do more good for the PI community than any straight leader of any other party ever will so that type of manufactured agitation is silly – as silly as to take everything the missionaries say as Gospel. It ain’t necessarily so. The bigots they selected to drum up a predictable response in the PI community wouldn’t know a lesbian if one came up and kissed them.
However being one of Helen’s little hand-bag holders in her ‘gaggle of gays’ in the Beehive is a more damaging allegation because combined with his shallow background in student politics and MFAT his CV is pure party hack and every wobble of that Ballemy’s chin underscores the impression he is business as usual. A more ambitious version of Jonathan Hunt. An affable bloke, but grey and dry and dull. He’s on the left, but he’s institution before ideology, and being Wellington Central he is the ultimate inside candidate not of the real world. How left can that candidate’s instincts truly be existing inside such a bubble?
Cunliffe, the born-again socialist, started his red flag waving, unionist firebrand, Pasifika campaign with typical over-confidence. It was an operatic overkill that went viral for all the wrong reasons. His weakness in chin is not for lack of exercising his jaw. His verbosity can be as expansive as Jones’ metaphors and as mechanical as Robertson’s depending on the audience, but bellowing at anyone who isn’t white as if they were hard of hearing and of limited English, is gauche. If only he could engage with an audience as if they were the sum of its individuals and not the mean he would be a lot less patronising.
For all these faults Cunliffe is still a more savy communicator than the rest and is ahead on TV presentation at the very least. He looks the most prime ministerial – he already looks like an Australian state premier, if that’s a look (and if you’ve seen Phil Goff’s mate Mike Rann, the former South Australian premier, it is a look and Cunliffe has it).
Cunliffe’s ministerial experience may yet be his trump card. This translates on screen as a commanding and decisive bearing, while Robertson, although articulating the same point in more or less the same language has a demeanor akin to a bureaucrat lecturing you from the other side of a counter. Maybe someone who was on the debating society, but basically just a glorified parking warden spouting jargon. This really is because he has no experience and that can only be remedied by time and circumstance, of which he has neither.
Robertson’s candidacy (his second) demonstrates the audacious presumption that one of Helen’s acolytes would have after barely more than a term in parliament to walk into the leadership. Then again Phil’s mate, David Shearer, did exactly that… and look how that turned out. In the TV stakes, and on which monkey can take it to the gorilla in the house, it’s got to be Cunliffe over Robertson and Jones.