Lunacy or Brilliance? Cunliffe appoints Matt McCarten as his Chief-of-Staff.


image001MATT McCARTEN’S appointment as David Cunliffe’s Chief-of-Staff was assessed by former Labour President, Mike Williams, as either “an act of lunacy or a stroke of brilliance.” Certainly, it is very hard to dispute the judgement of PR consultant, Matthew Hooton, that McCarten is “an incredibly unorthodox” choice.

There will be more than a few in Labour’s Caucus and across the wider party organisation who find themselves both disbelieving and outraged that this splitter, this maverick, this unrestrained critic of everything the modern Labour Party stands for, now occupies the office adjoining the Leader of the Opposition’s.

There will be at least as many in the Treasury, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, State Services and the security agencies who are scratching their heads in similar bewilderment (and revisiting their files). Because the position of Chief-of-Staff is one that usually extends beyond electoral success to become a critical node of power and influence within the new government. In that position, Matt McCarten could prove very challenging for New Zealand’s senior civil servants.

Considering Labour’s declining effectiveness in the House of Representatives, and in the context of a rapidly spreading and potentially debilitating loss of confidence in the party’s ability to successfully challenge John Key’s easy dominance of the New Zealand political landscape, Matt McCarten’s appointment has come not a moment too soon.

Since the departure of Helen Clark and her Chief-of-Staff, Heather Simpson, the Labour Leader’s Office has lacked what American political journalists call a “junkyard dog”. Someone steeped in the values of the movement and who knows where all the important bodies are buried (often because he or she put them there!). A bruiser and a brawler who will frighten the Bejesus out of anyone who so much as looks sideways at the party leader.

New Zealand currently possesses only two match-fit junkyard dogs, Matt McCarten and Richard Prebble. And isn’t it the most delicious of historical coincidences that both of them have been recalled to the electoral fray at the same time? Both men can call on extensive personal networks and both possess extraordinarily campaigning and negotiating skills.

In New Zealand’s MMP environment, the latter are especially important. McCarten’s history with the Greens (once part of his old party, the Alliance), the Maori Party and Mana will be of enormous value to Labour should they find themselves in a position to forge a governing coalition.

For New Zealand’s political journalists and commentators, the temptation to characterise McCarten’s appointment as a “lurch to the Left” will be strong. Given the man’s status as the leader of the radical trade union, Unite, and his role as one of the nation’s leading left-wing commentators, it would be an entirely understandable reaction. It would not, however, be a very accurate assessment of the role McCarten is being asked to play.

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Detailed policy formation remains the preserve of the Labour Party’s Policy Council and its Caucus. But thanks to the radical constitutional reforms of 2012 and 2013, Labour’s specific policies are required to slot in without excessive friction to the general principles and objectives enshrined in the party’s “Policy Platform”. If McCarten has any role at all to play in Labour’s policy direction, it will only be as a direct and unequivocal promoter of the party’s already agreed goals.

And these, Labour’s “democratic socialist” goals, have not changed appreciably in forty years. What has been absent at the highest levels of the party, however, is any sign of a determination to articulate them. With the election of David Cunliffe that 25-year absence has been filled. And, with today’s “incredibly unorthodox” choice of Chief-of-Staff, the clearest possible signal has been sent to Caucus, the party organisation and Labour supporters generally that Cunliffe is not only determined to articulate his party’s ideals – but he also means to enforce them.

Given Matt McCarten’s brilliance as an organiser, a negotiator and an enforcer, it would have been lunacy on Cunliffe’s part not to appoint him Chief-of-Staff.


  1. ‘And these, Labour’s “democratic socialist” goals, have not changed appreciably in forty years.’

    That doesn’t make much sense to me seeing as Labour has been a neoliberal party for the last thirty years.

    • Indeed they have and they can’t walk away from it all. Are they really opposed to free trade agreements, I doubt it.

  2. Chris, you may be right about Matt’s talents. But, unlike Heather Simpson, Matt McCarten has a strong public profile and one that is firmly linked with a style of left-wing politics that middle NZers regard as toxic. Cunliffe – and the Labour Party – could well use a loyal enforcer committed to its core values. The risk is that they will lose the kind of voter that is essential to an election victory. I think it’s a suicidal move.

    • Speak for yourself.Lots of people have been hoping for a shift to the left for a long time.I’d be willing to bet a good chunk of the 800k who went missing last election are among them.

      If anything is toxic it’s the the Neo-Lib con job we’ve had foisted on us for the last 30 years.

      • Dave, I’m more than happy to be proven wrong on this. If, as you suggest, this move has the effect of mobilizing people who didn’t vote in 2011 to vote for Labour, then I’d be delighted! I’m just a realist. I can’t see it happening.

      • @ Dave Rutherford: “Lots of people have been hoping for a shift to the left for a long time.I’d be willing to bet a good chunk of the 800k who went missing last election are among them.”

        I agree. When Dear Leader witters on about a “lurch to the left”, Cunliffe et al should just shrug it off. So what’s wrong with a move further left?

        While they’re at it, they could point to the current government’s cosying up to the loony right individualists: chemtrails, moon landing scepticism, no employment laws, no laws against incest…. have I left anything out? Gimme a bit of left-wing collectivism any day!

      • Moving further Left will likely attract back some Green voters but its a zero sum game for the left of centre and not an election winner.

  3. It’s interesting that (apparently Jim Anderton strongly advised DC against appointing Matt to this role.

    • It doesn’t take much to interest you, does it?
      An ex-politician didn’t recommend someone he had a falling out with.
      Give Paddy Gower a tweet, it looks like intrinsicvalue has found a story

      • Oh it’s not just that he didn’t recommend him. He advised strongly against him. And yes, that is interesting.

        • @ IV – So?

          It’s no big secret. Anderton and McCarten had a falling out. It was only televised into the homes of every New Zealander in the country when it happened. (You may’ve been watching ‘Shortland Street’, I guess.)

          So no surprise that Anderton didn’t recommend him.

          What’s the bet McCarten reciprocated, hmmm?

          • Yep, no love lost between them, based on this mornings headlines. And no, Shortland Street’s not exactly top of my TV viewing.

        • This says more about Anderton than than it does McCarten.

          And it is not interesting. Anderton is a has been, and has been, a has been for some time. Possibly starting from when he gave his vote in defiance of his party membership to enable participation in the pointless slaughter in Afghanistan which cost ten New Zealand lives with little to show for it. All in exchange for an unremarkable and long forgotten neutered role in a Labour dominated cabinet.

          The only thing about Anderton that is interesting is the cautionary tale of his singular act of treachery which spells out a lesson to any Green Party followers who seek to make the same trade off of principle for position.

          There are “bottom lines” And if you choose to ignore them, to cross them comes at a cost.

          For the Greens these bottom lines are Deep Sea Oil drilling and Denniston and to a lesser extent fracking and seabed mining. To give up opposition to these policies in parliament in exchange for seats in cabinet will destroy the Greens just as it destroyed the Alliance.

  4. Best bit of news I have heard in a long time, noticed by the way I had to hear it from TV news, the Herald still not mentioning it, one of the biggest political stories of the day ! And I am one of the Labour membership from many years back, we are not going to throw a hissy fit, but welcome the idea

  5. Prebble? Match fit? Prebble is an aged has been, doddering on his zimmer frame, harking back to the “glory days” of more than one ACT MP in parliament and bemoaning the fact that the government provides any services at all except the army and the police. His delusions have only deppened as his brain cells shuffle off this mortal coil. He’ll over see the demise and death of one ofm the nastier pieces of NZ history and good riddance.

    • Humble apologies Avenging Angel – I accidently pressed the thumbs down button – b”$%&*y tablet keyboard. Thumbs up, definitely.

  6. What did McCarten say? “the chemistry was unbelievable”…these are the glorious beginnings of any love affair with both parties having totally unrealistic and differing views on the “union”. If Cunliffe is looking for “articulation” I think he’s looking in the wrong place. McCarten’s initial assessment of Cunliffe is the correct one although as far as what we know about the world now they both look a bit silly in retrospect (sucked in by banking and Corporate and Government elite)and I’ve never rated McCarten’s views higher than 60/40 anyway. Watch this relationship crash and burn as both McCarten’s and Cunliffe’s do…but hopefully they can keep it together until post election.

  7. Yes Yes Yes! A very good move. I hope the spinless swinging centre voters are frightened by this appointment but I seriously doubt any of them know who the fuck Matt is!

  8. as a bit of a right wing fanatic, i am delighted in this appointment. Matt may have skills, Prebble may not be match fit, but the voters do not want union left. if this is what it takes to keep Cunliffe in power – very cool indeed.

    • It seems Prebble is match fit. Like it or not. I’m here to tell you that already new policy initiatives are gaining traction – three strikes for repeat burglaries will likely gain them their 5% in just one stroke.

      This is what Labour lacks at the moment – innovative policy ideas that work for the centre ground. It’s simply no good appealing to the Far Left – Labour & the Greens own them already. The people whose votes they have to capture are in the middle ground.

      So go dream you Red Revolutionary dreams, but mathematics is against you.

  9. Yes Hooton certainly is all a dither.This is exactly what he feared all along and tried every transparent shallow trick in the book to prevent with his mad radio rantings.David Cunliffes intellectual firepower. Even bubble wrap Key with all his media padding will be powerless.The problem for Key is that while he was studying market manipulations Cunliffe was studying Socrates and the like.True broad intellect will out no matter what and the culturally hollow Key will be found out.This is a brilliant move by Cunliffe. As for Prebble.Saw him the other night on TV.Looked more like a Bijon Frise than a Junk yard dog and a toothless one at that.Same tired old line.Flat tax Flat tax Flat tax,Blah Blah Blah.Forgetting that our tax take has plummeted under Key and English and there’s nothing left to sell.Roll on the election for N.Z’s sake.

  10. Ok, I’ll admit to being an unreconstructed Tory but that doesn’t prevent me from shaking my head in disbelief that Cunliffe should be so incredibly stupid as to appoint McCarten as his CoS.

    For both National and Labour elections are won and lost in ‘middle’ NZL. Anyone who thinks McCarten talks the talk of middle NZL needs their heads read. Cunliffe has presented National with a HUGE club to beat him around the head with. You argue for a redistribution of the tax burden yet your boss appoints as his right hand man a person who failed to pay tax. You argue that the Mana Party is ‘the last cab off the rank’ yet your boss appoints a person who stood for the Mana Party less than two years ago … spot the inconsistency there.

    The perception out there in voter land is that the appointment represents a lurch to the left and no doubt National will roll out many quotes from Matt to reinforce that view.

    And, by the way, it was dumb politics for Cunliffe to claim, as reported by Barry Soper, that he had cleared the appointment with Jim Anderton only to have Anderton deny it.

    That along with Cunliffe’s musings that Labour might not win the election and, if I were a Labour activist, I’d feel betrayed.

    • When people like you write like you do The veteran, then I know the left has done something right. Such a fubar arguments – I love it – no one on the left is convinced by this shit anymore.

    • @ The Veteran: “The perception out there in voter land is that the appointment represents a lurch to the left…”

      It’s certainly the line taken by Dear Leader and some in the media, who have been talking up that trope for all they’re worth.

      But there’s no reason to suppose that everyone in “voter land” views with trepidation a shift to the left. Many are likely to think that it’s about bloody time; this of course will be what’s worrying said Dear Leader. And his media hangers-on, doubtless…

  11. “lurch to the Left” – hah! Right wing talking heads on ZB over that like a rash. Even, however, DPF says the Nats should be ‘concerned’ – to Larry tonight on the (exclusively right wing as usual) Huddle.

    For once, he may well be right.

  12. Yawn.

    Unite, radical? Really?

    If that’s what you and the main stream of the “left” think then no wonder they lost votes.

    Labour lost votes because it has little differential to National. Simple. And while Goff and the rest of Roger Douglas’ mates remain firmly ensconced within Labour it will continue to lose votes. Cunniliffe most probably knows this. And that’s probably why he has McCarten on board.

    And… in all of this posturing and commentary on “politics” where is the real story? More on actual policies; what they are, how they’ll work, and how they’ll change NZ to a more free and egalitarian country.

  13. For a while now, I’ve been watching McCarten moderate his views and mover towards the mythical centre. Now I know why. He’s no great revolutionary, but he will inject a bit of life into a moribund Labour. If he’s used as an attack dog to get rid of Mallard, Goff and the raising of the retirement age, he’ll help Labour’s electoral chances. Overall, from Cunliffe’s point of view, I think it’s a positive choice.

  14. Most exciting thing I’ve heard all year, and best thing from Labour in forever. Finally. Now keep on bringing out positive policy announcements one every week or three until the election

  15. Matt will change things for the better.

    There is no taking votes off national, no fight for the middle/swing voter. There is only building support…

    The Labour party will hopefully drop the delusional charade of being all things to all people, it should decide where its support base is derived from… either that or change its bloody name to ‘the compromised middle party of New Zealand’?

    I know I’m being harsh, its just really hard hearing intellectually compromised media hack’s groan on about appeasing the business minded people within the ‘LABOUR’ party….

    FFS theres a certain limit to political positioning, remaining compromised in this way only undermines any chance of dividing Nationals ‘coalition of dogma’. IMO its held together by SFA, set one knife in motion & they’ll all be stabbing each other in the back…..See ya Key, 30% of the current cabinet & 15% of their party vote to the next version of ‘small government=more profit’ party….ARHHHHGGG!

    • @ Todd: “The Labour party will hopefully drop the delusional charade of being all things to all people, it should decide where its support base is derived from… either that or change its bloody name to ‘the compromised middle party of New Zealand’?”

      Quite right too. Labour should shuck off all that centrist hokum and unequivocally state its position as a party of the left. And be unashamed about it, for god’s sake!

      But they could take one last leaf out of the Nats’ book and have a wholesale renewal of MPS. Tony Ryall’s the latest to announce his retirement; it’s past time that the old guard of Labour took the hint and retired to the seaside to play boules.

  16. I’m hoping that McCarten is there to be the conduit out to the ‘rank and file’ and beyond, to the unaffiliated pro-Labour voters. An accurate finger on the public pulse – which Heather Simpson never seemed to have.

    With the perennial concern about all those skittish ponies in the middle-class centre – how many voters are we actually talking about? How influential are they? Can their voices really be heard past the lobbyists and cronies? Do they form a homogeneous bloc – or are they as varied in their politics as the rest of us?

    Perhaps Mike Williams, with his fine recall of numbers and trends (or even the egregious Hooten) could put a few sacred facts there for reference before we start the ‘will no one think of the centre-ground middle class?!’ nonsense.

  17. On one hand this looks like a smart move by Cunliffe, to get on board a Chief of Staff, who has decades of political experience, has led a successful Unite Union, has networks that includes many committed activists and who is a good strategist, tactician and “executor”.

    Matt McCarten has not just been appointed as COS for his political and other leadership experience, but surely also for his personal political convictions and commitment. David Cunliffe is clearly sending out the message where Labour will stand under his leadership, which is left of centre, and Matt will do more than just perform as the COS in David’s Office, that is no secret.

    There is a worry though, and this could cause issues that may do serious harm for Labour for years to come. Certain caucus members will be shocked and totally dismayed about having to work with Matt McCarten, who comes from Mana into David’s office. There will be those that will not accept this appointment, and if so only grudgingly.

    Even some of the ordinary Labour members will be irritated and unhappy, as they perceive Matt as too much of an abrasive risk factor. So I expect that there will be some internal frictions, and if they cannot be sorted out one way or another, or if some caucus members may not realise that they better move on or shift out, then be can have a worse split in Labour than there appeared to have been in the last couple of years.

    So I will wait and see, how this will evolve or pan out. It makes the election year the more interesting though, that is for sure.

    Personally my preference has for some time been with another party but Labour, so I will not feel directly affected by this new appointment. But as Labour is expected to be leading the opposition, I will nevertheless hope that Labour will improve their voter support base, otherwise we will have a third term for Key and Nats, which will mean dreadful times ahead for me, in many ways.

    But as we have had a Labour struggling to come to terms with itself and find direction for too long, there cannot be much looking back and regretting anything. The only way can be ahead now. If it all messes up, we will inevitably need to look at a new left party, to bring the whole left together, and prepare for a fresh start after 2014.

    Better get this working out, David and Matt! Too much is at stake to stuff anything up.

  18. There is a whole generation (maybe even two) who have no idea what left means other than it is something that could be found under your bed and is very very scary.
    Labour is going to have to understand that the non-voters may know want a different sort of left from the one that we had all those years ago.
    As jobs that we can expect to be able to build lives on, especially if we are not IT or brain surgeon material, are getting fewer and fewer then we have to look at other ways to make our way in life.
    Of course getting more people into apprenticeships is an absolute must, but what I would like to see is a return to a society where the small businessman is the backbone.
    I fear we are heading to a world, though, where the big corporations have control of just about everything (ala McDonalds and burgers) and people are confined to the low wages on offer from them and subject to the bully boy tactics to take the small guy out of the play.
    Please Labour, look at what your role could be in the twenty first century

  19. Good move by Cunliffe I regularly read his views in the Herald and he is streets ahead of the other aged senile political commentators.

    Key is bagging him already on the radio this morning, obviously Key is worried and running scared already. Good advertising for McCarten.

  20. Bad move of Labour election labour/greens/Mana/Maori parties will need NZ First AND Winnie(loser) will not work with Macarten..end of story. so will Winston be able to wipe the smile off his face when he has the Blue V the red/green/brown/black Phone
    I don’t think soooooo

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