What if I told you that Labour has walked into a trap in Mt Albert?
Specifically, a most excellent trap of National’s own devising.
You’d probably shoot me a somewhat incredulous look. Mt Albert, as the received wisdom goes, is a safe Labour seat – so safe, in fact, that National’s not even standing a candidate there. Apart from a minimum modicum of expended campaign-funds, what possible detriment could Labour incur by winning in the Mt Albert by-election to be held later this month?
Well, the answer doesn’t exactly lie inside Mt Albert.
Consider the way this by-election’s caused Labour to re-arrange its battle-lines and formation going into 2017.
Are there any ‘key’ battleground electorates which are now presently bereft of a Labourite candidate-champion as the directly attributable result of what’s happening in Mt Albert?
If you answered “Auckland Central”, then you’re bang on the money. (Or, should I say – “the McCully”)
National has always known that its hold over Auckland Central has been a pretty flimsy one. Nikki Kaye has worked tremendously hard to first take the seat off Labour in 2008 – and then to hold it via a series of razor-thin majorities.
But hard work isn’t an iron-clad guarantee of continued success in politics, and the risk was that through a combination of a slight swing against the Government (as the late-2016 poll trends appeared to suggest, alongside concerns that Bill English’s more socially conservative style might be less popular with Auckland Central voters) and the net effect of an incumbent candidate who’s recently suffered a rather scary health complication … well … a six hundred vote margin of victory appears to have been perceived as too tight to be a sure thing. Particularly in this new environment wherein Labour-Greens strategic co-operation might actually have resulted in something half-way intelligent like the Greens candidate standing aside in order to give Jacinda Ardern a clear run at Kaye. (A notion which, had it come to fruition, could possibly have counterbalanced the detrimental effect on Labour’s vote of its Grey Lynn supporters being rezoned into Mt Albert with the change of electorate boundaries)
Now, as it happens, some of these concerns have since been nullified. National’s polling appears to have rallied, and Bill English’s elevation to the Prime Ministerial heights doesn’t appear to have dented the Government’s credibility nor popularity with just about anyone (in fact, it’s starting to appear quite the contrary). Alongside this, the Greens and Labour are once again set to compete against one another in the seat (with Denise Roche having just recently won her selection battle against newcomer Chloe Swarbrick; and Labour having closed off nominations for the seat but not yet announced a candidate) – although I would be inordinately surprised if Ardern’s successor in Auckland Central comes anywhere close to her vote-tally.
But at the time that this ‘trap’ was being constructed and set, these things were not known. Indeed, many signs seemed to point towards the ‘uphill battle’ scenario for National which I outlined above – in which a focused Ardern, supported by non-vote-splitting Greens, and up against a debilitated Kaye, would carry the seat. Given the knife-edge majority which the Government looked set to be on … but a single electorate seat could have made all the difference.
Oh, and lest you think I am facetiously playing up the idea of Kaye not being able to put in the same level of campaign effort which just barely won her the seat last time around due to her illness … I’m not. In her first major interview of the year, she states exactly that – candidly noting that she “won’t be able to” replicate her previous on-the-ground effort. And there’s no shame in that (indeed, quite the opposite for being open, up-front and honest about it) – but given this is her several months on (in terms of healing and reinvigoration) from the point at which these plans were made, you can well understand why National’s backroom strategists were feeling quite nervous about her seat at the time. Particularly if she were to be up again against her old adversary, Ardern.
So with all of that in mind, if Auckland Central’s status as a (tenuously) blue seat was to be protected, then something would have to be done. Specifically, something to excise Ardern from her long-standing candidacy there – on the assumption that a fresh (and presumably novitiate) Labour candidate wouldn’t come nearly as close to beating Kaye as Jacinda had done previously, even with potential Green Party non-standing help. (I have my own private thoughts as to whether Denise Roche would have been likely to stand aside if asked, but that’s another matter entirely)
Enter Murray McCully.
Now, at the moment he’s known to most as our Foreign Minister – but inside beltway circles, he’s long been given a different descriptor. In specia, National’s “Minister of Dirty Tricks”. This is because, when it comes to coming up with *ahem* “alternative” means for securing desired political/psephological outcomes … McCully’s something of an evil genius.
But he’s also the Foreign Minister, and has presided over New Zealand gaining a fairly strong degree of prestige and renown at the U.N. over the last few years. Admittedly, we don’t have the world’s first female General Secretary – but, as you cannot help but have noticed, we DO suddenly have a New Zealander gearing up to receive his appointment as the head of the UN’s mission in South Sudan.
I wonder how that could have happened…
Most explanations hinge around McCully leveraging the influence of his position (and therefore New Zealand’s position on the world stage) in order to have David Shearer given a reasonable shot at the aforementioned top UN job. What a stroke of luck that New Zealand just happens to be on the Security Council when one of its own favoured sons is being put forward for a Security Council-appointed position. And, to be fair, it’s not a role for which Shearer is entirely unqualified – he’s got an impressive backstory, long-standing ties to the UN, and (going on the strength of the previous two points) may well have made for a better ‘in-the-field’ type than he did a politician. (We can also make the usual jokes about how dealing with fratricidal factions in pretty much open warfare is an apt summation of the state of the modern Labour Party – so even notwithstanding his experiences in Iraq, it would appear he’s got some potentially directly relevant experience. Another instance of a formerly bright MP deciding that ‘Saving The World’ is likely to be far easier than ‘Saving The Modern Labour Party’, either way)
Encouraging Shearer to take an early retirement from his ‘safe’ electorate seat created a vacancy – and, as in the rest of nature, politics abhors a vacuum. Somebody would have to fill the void created by a departing Shearer.
Enter Jacinda Ardern.
Ardern is, quite clearly, ambitious (which, as I’ve previously remarked, is not necessarily a sin in a politician – indeed, its absence would seem to constitute a most marked character flaw); and as somebody talked about as a potential future leader for the Labour Party, there is an obvious symbolic importance to both being able to win one’s seat … and, for that matter, perhaps to holding *that* seat in particular (i.e. Mt Albert specifically). It was, after all, ‘Aunty Helen’s old seat – as well as providing the springboard for another Labour MP to take the Party Leadership (specifically, the one presently departing for the Sudan).
To add impetus to her decision, National made sure Ardern knew she’d have a fight on her hands if she remained in Auckland Central by having Nikki Kaye make a well-publicized return to Parliament late last year (about two days before news of Shearer’s impending departure was picked up by the media). They deliberately made sure she looked “fighting-fit” and enthusiastically energized for the task ahead – also signalling that she’d be taking over the high-workload Education portfolio in the very near future in order to help complete the impression of strength. (After all – you wouldn’t give such a crucial portfolio in an Election Year to somebody who’s anything less than brimming with capacity, now would you)
It has also been suggested that the news of Shearer’s ‘move sideways’ by about fifteen thousand kilometers was then deliberately leaked into the media two days later on McCully’s orders. The idea with that was to carry out a conventional ‘carrot and stick’ approach on Ardern. First, the ‘stick’ of facing a strong foe was deployed (in concert with the likelihood of Ardern’s vote anyway being under threat due to the boundary change) – then the ‘carrot’ of an easily obtainable (and ‘storied’) Safe Seat was dangled.
And, as we have seen, Ardern straight-up went for it. Eschewing the notion of in-depth trench-warfare in one of the country’s lead battleground electorates for her own (arguable) long term ambitions. And, in the process helping National to most likely outright win a seat that had previously been under threat – all without the proverbial shot being fired. They don’t even have to stand a candidate in Mt Albert in the by-election to try and fight Ardern there. And why would they – they want this ‘transition’ of Ardern into Albert to be as easy and painless as possible.
What National have cleverly done here, is they’ve made use of the ancient military principle of – where possible – getting the terrain (and the nature of your opponent for that matter) to do the fighting for you.
Labour has gained – and will gain – nothing from re-arranging their forces in the aforementioned way. National gains something of quite considerable importance – the pressure off in a much-watched battleground seat, and of an MP of theirs whose reputation they rather want kept in tact.
All things considered, the best summation of this that I’ve yet heard comes from an associate:
“It’s diabolical! It’s MONSTROUS!” It’s masterful!