“IN WAR, RESOLUTION; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.” David Cunliffe has, by and large, adhered to Churchill’s famous formula. There are enemies in the Leader of the Opposition’s new shadow cabinet who could (some might say should) have been punished more – but weren’t. And friends who, maybe, deserved more – but didn’t get it. Taken together, however, Cunliffe’s choices point to both a more cohesive and effective “government in waiting”. Unavoidably, there are also one or two decisions that may come back to haunt a Cunliffe-led government.
Chris Hipkins is the most obvious beneficiary of Cunliffe’s magnanimity. Not only does he keep his education portfolio, but, unlike so many of his friends and allies in the ABC Club, he actually goes up two places in Labour’s pecking order.
Annette King, another active member of the ABC Club, also rises two places and retains her health portfolio.
Clayton Cosgrove will breathe a huge sigh of relief that, in spite of his ABC shenanigans, he has kept his portfolios and dropped only two places.
Phil Goff, similarly, has reason to breathe a sigh of relief. His position in the caucus rankings remains unchanged and he keeps the important portfolios of trade and defence.
But it is the man Cunliffe replaced, David Shearer, who has most reason to be grateful to Labour’s new leader. In giving the former UN administrator and aid worker the key portfolio of foreign affairs, Cunliffe has given Shearer a wonderful chance to shine.
Perhaps, like many other New Zealanders, Cunliffe was watching TVNZ’s Q+A programme when Shearer spoke so powerfully and persuasively about the situation in Syria, and realised, along with the rest of us, that this was something the MP for Mt Albert could do well. In the Foreign Affairs portfolio New Zealanders may finally get to see the real David Shearer. He may turn out to be Cunliffe’s most inspired appointment.
Jacinda Ardern can hardly have been surprised to lose the social development portfolio. She simply wasn’t connecting – in any sense. Such blows that she attempted to land on the Minister, Paula Bennett, missed. And, she was demonstrably incapable of talking about social welfare in a way that connected with the electorate.
One is tempted to think that Cunliffe has given Ardern the Police and Correction portfolios for no better reason than to toughen her up and introduce her to the more visceral and less forgiving elements of Labour’s broad church. The official spin from the Top Floor, that Ardern was given these jobs because “she asked for them” can, of course, be read in a number of ways!
The woman Cunliffe has chosen to go toe-to-toe with “Paula Benefit” is Sue Moroney. She rises three rankings to meet her added responsibilities, and her boss will be hoping that she will also rise to what is a formidable political challenge.
For National, welfare policy represents Labour’s soft underbelly: the place where its bleeding heart tends to leave the biggest mess. Moroney will not only have to call Bennett on the cruelty of her reforms and provide policy comfort to their victims, but she will also have to but flesh on the bare bones of Lianne Dalziel’s brilliant parting gift to her colleagues – “the resilient society”.
Moroney has been one of Cunliffe’s most steadfast supporters and her reward has been the opportunity to make something new and inspiring out of the social development portfolio. It is easy to imagine Moroney musing ruefully, in the days ahead, that if her new job represents Cunliffe’s idea of a reward, then she would hate to be on the receiving end of one of his punishments!
Andrew Little continues his relentless rise in the rankings to take on the labour portfolio which Cunliffe has stripped from Darien Fenton. Little is a qualified lawyer and his new responsibilities in the field of labour relations join those he already carries in the portfolio of justice.
Has Cunliffe given these two portfolios to Little because the reforms he has promised in the field of workers’ rights are conceived in strictly legalistic terms? Is the Labour leader asking Little to take the cumbersome top-down reforms cobbled together by the Council of Trade Unions’ hierarchy and simply translate them into law? If he is, then Labour will be missing a golden opportunity to engage in some exciting “blue-sky thinking” on what labour relations should look like in the twenty-first century. Thinking best done by ordinary working people.
Cunliffe owes his leadership to a revolution from below. If he is wise, he will make “revolution from below” the watchword of his quest for the Treasury Benches. In social welfare and in labour relations the Labour Party would be most unwise to go on doing what it has always done – for no better reason than it has always done it. Radicalism is what you get when you broaden the scope of decision-making to those who are usually excluded from the process.
That Cunliffe “gets” the radical meaning of his victory is something his supporters are currently taking on faith. And, it is that faith, alone, that prevents them from feeling the first forebodings of danger and doubt when surveying the “cluster” of economic policy ministers that Cunliffe has so proudly announced.
They will be assuming that in David Parker, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones, Labour’s new leader has chosen a trio of hard-headed enablers of his radical vision for the New Zealand economy. They will be trusting that as ministers in a new Labour-Green government it will fall to them to both explain and reassure the business community that the changes being made are not intended to impoverish “them” but to enrich “us”.
Reconciling the powers-that-be to a Labour-led government determined to honour the “revolution from below” that brought it to power is not going to be easy. And it is in the allocation of the broadcasting portfolio – absolutely crucial to keeping at least one reliable channel of communication open to the ordinary Kiwis – that Cunliffe may have made a serious mistake.
For all her faults (and they are many) Clare Curran understands the need to put the public back into public broadcasting. In spite of his former occupation, there is scant evidence that Kris Faafoi understands that need as deeply as his predecessor.
If Chris Hipkins could hold education, then why couldn’t Curran have kept broadcasting? It’s a portfolio which Labour has disregarded in the past – and paid a heavy price for doing so. There is a good reason why among the very first steps Mickey Savage took in 1935 was to deny the private sector the sort of power over the airwaves that it already enjoyed over newsprint.
It is clear from the composition of his first shadow cabinet that Cunliffe has learned many lessons. It is to be hoped that by the time he is required to assemble the real thing he will have learned that who controls the means of communication matters almost as much as who controls the means of production, distribution and exchange.
- Click here for the full list of Labour’s MP portfolio list and rankings.