Labour stagnates as National renews

Matthew Hooton

Never heard of Katrina Shanks?

The National list MP announced her immediate resignation from Parliament this week to become chief executive of the Funeral Directors Association. The jokes about moving from one dead-end job to another were predictably lame.

Ms Shanks joins a long list of National MPs calling it quits in 2014. Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson, who were sacked from the cabinet in January to make way for Simon Bridges and Nikki Kaye, are now leaving Wellington all together.

Poor old Paul Hutchison, who has done excellent bipartisan work on child health, is retiring, sadly having never made the cabinet. Jim Bolger’s protégé in Taranaki-King Country, Shane Ardern, is off too, having never done anything at all.

Others walking the plank are Local Government Minister Chris Tremain and list MPs Chris Auchinvole and Cam Calder. Other near-certain retirements are John Hayes, Lindsay Tisch and Eric Roy. iPredict is forecasting that long-serving ministers Maurice Williamson and Murray McCully may also call it a day. The utterly uninspiring Kaikoura MP, Colin King, is being challenged for his seat. A number of others will soon get the hint.

Rejuvenation DNA

Previously, a party losing a quarter of its MPs would be signalling it faced certain defeat. In fact, the large number of retirements is a sign of National’s strength.

In 2001, Michelle Boag stormed to the National Party presidency with a promise to stop the rot. The new president did not prune with dainty secateurs but brutally hacked away with an axe. Don Brash, John Key and Judith Collins entered Parliament on her watch – potentially three leaders in a row.

Sadly, Ms Boag’s aggressive approach so traumatised the party that it was in no state to face Helen Clark in 2002, but her long-term impact was vital: Ms Boag hard-wired into National’s DNA a constant demand for rejuvenation.

National, of course, no longer has a president worthy of the name, with Mr Key and Steven Joyce having taken over that function, but there is no doubt they have carried forward the Boag tradition much more deftly than she could ever manage. Even if the party goes into opposition next year, National will have a dozen new MPs ready to take it into the 2020s and nobody will have much noticed the transition. The caveat is that the quality will need to be better than the bland intake of 2011.

Stagnating Labour

The Labour Party has yet to make the same cultural change.

In Mr Key’s cabinet, only Mr McCully entered Parliament before the 1990s. A quarter of his cabinet – Mr Joyce, Mr Bridges, Ms Kaye, Hekia Parata and Amy Adams – is from the class of 2008. Treaty of Waitangi and international trade specialists Chris Finlayson and Tim Groser have only been around since 2005. The same is true of Welfare Minister Paula Bennett and Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman.

Of today’s cabinet, only Bill English, Tony Ryall, Nick Smith and Mr McCully were part of the National government of the 1990s and the first three only towards the end. Of them, only Mr McCully was a genuine supporter of the Bolger/Richardson regime. One of the most important factors in Mr Key’s success is that his government was genuinely new and it has kept renewing over its five years.

In contrast, two of the top performers in David Cunliffe’s opposition, Phil Goff and Annette King, were ministers in the Lange/Palmer/Moore government of the 1980s. Ruth Dyson was party president during that era, and Maryan Street in the early 1990s. Mr Cunliffe and his deputy David Parker were two of Helen Clark’s favourite ministers, while Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern were on her staff. Party strategist Trevor Mallard first became an MP in 1984, before even Mr McCully. The only confirmed Labour retirement for next year is its racing spokesman, Ross Robertson.

Green energy

Mr Cunliffe would say this just demonstrates his team is confident of victory in 11 months, and there is something in that. But his political danger is that his government will look old before it is even sworn in. And the danger to New Zealand is that all its ideas and energy will come from the Greens. Enjoy the new job, Ms Shanks.

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3 Comments & Questions

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If Labour were loosing this many MPs Hooton would describe it as a meltdown. DNA renewal? More like rats deserting a sinking ship with the shipping line $60 billion in debt .

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I would call it a meltdown if senior people were going (like, from memory, Birch, Graham, East etc from National in 1999) but the people going are mostly nobodies, with only one minister (Tremain) indicating his retirement. Yes, if we see, say, Ryall, McCully, Williamson or other ministers all announce they are going, that might indicate rats leaving a sinking ship, but you can't say that as yet.

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The question of a "meltdown" is less about defection en masse of Labour's senior people as it is about -- Has Cunliffe managed to arrest Labour's slide into political irrelevance? "Man-ban" aside, the short answer is, "No, he hasn't".

Labour is still shamelessly mining for political capital where none exists, ergo, undertaking to compensate Pike River bereaved families, should they become the Government, and Goff's embarrassing gaffe praising the trio who leaked confidential papers on the downsizing of MFaT, as "whistleblowers".

When the senior Labour cadre consists of those who are, indeed, very senior in age and the promising talent is the likes of Kris Faaafoi, whose TVNZ career trajectory peaked at being assigned the urban beat as a reporter for west and south Auckland, things look grim.

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