When is a secret ballot not a secret ballot? When you want to get rid of David Cunliffe of course!

Dr Brian Edwards

In February of next year the Labour Party caucus is constitutionally obliged to conduct a secret leadership ballot. The key word in this simple statement of fact is “secret”. No caucus member will be required to say who he or she voted for.

None, that is, except David Cunliffe. Talk of Cunliffe’s demotion or exclusion from Labour’s shadow cabinet and, beyond that, of his possible expulsion from the parliamentary Labour Party, revolves largely around the issue of his refusal to say whether he will support David Shearer in that February ballot. Cunliffe is being asked to say how he will vote in a secret leadership ballot three months from now. His failure to do so is being taken as evidence of his disloyalty to Shearer and possible grounds for his expulsion from the Labour caucus.

This is not merely entirely unreasonable, it is a major breach of Labour’s own constitutional rules. A caucus member is being asked to declare in advance how he will vote in a secret ballot.

This fact seems to have escaped the country’s political journalists who could see nothing wrong in demanding that Cunliffe tell them who he intended to vote for in a secret ballot three months from now. Leaving aside the constitutional absurdity of the question, it seemed to escape their notice that Cunliffe does not have a crystal ball to tell him what the state of the parties will be in February 2013, how well Shearer will be faring in the preferred prime minister polls or anything at all about the political landscape against which the ballot will be conducted.

I have no crystal ball either, but it’s clear to me that if Shearer’s and Labour’s poll ratings were dire next February there would be adequate grounds for even the most loyal caucus member to consider whether Shearer ought not to be replaced as leader.

While they were demanding transparency and openness from Cunliffe, some members of the fourth estate had no such requirement of Cunliffe’s detractors. In an interview with Rachel Smalley on this morning’s Firstline, Patrick Gower thought it acceptable journalism to repeat for the amusement of viewers the tirade of abuse which an unnamed front-bench Labour MP had heaped on Cunliffe’s head.  Refusing to say how you are going to vote in a secret ballot three months from now is, it seems, unacceptable conduct in an MP; not having the guts to put your name to your opinions apparently isn’t.

As for Shearer, his conference speech on Sunday was clearly brilliant. He has looked and sounded better in interviews than I have seen him to date. He is no doubt feeling supported and confident. But in considering Cunliffe’s fate he would be wise to consider Helen Clark’s approach to dealing with the malcontents who invited her to step down as leader in mid-1996. Three years later they were all senior ministers in her cabinet; one of them, Michael Cullen, was deputy Prime Minister. As Lyndon Johnston observed, ‘Better to have them inside the tent p*ssing out, than outside the tent p*ssing in.’

Shearer cannot rely on everything being rosy in Labour’s garden in February 2013; and his position has been weakened by the constitutional changes which the party has just made to how leadership spills are conducted. He may feel he has no alternative but to demote Cunliffe, but he ought to think very carefully about the extent of that demotion. Cunliffe is Labour’s most effective  spokesman and debater. No-one comes within cooee of him, least of all on economic policy. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater may satisfy the ABC brigade, but it may not be a sensible long-term strategy.

And then there’s the final solution – expelling this turbulent priest from caucus. That would no doubt please Patrick Gower’s gutless informant. But it would please John Key more. The Labour Party would split in two. A National victory in 2014 would be all but inevitable.

Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards blogs at Brian Edwards Media

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25 Comments & Questions

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it's simply disgusting that they're carving up the cake ahead of fruition of the cake. If they keep this up, there will be no cake.

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There's cake?? Fruit Cake??? This just got more interesting.

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Give ME cake!

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Shearer is an old fashioned bully boy.
He has p*ssed off the membership.
He is now going to split the party?

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On the contrary, Shearer has played the "nice guy" too much, has been too much of a 'diplomat' rather than the decisive visionary leader who takes action.

Cunliffe is a a destructive force, a charlatan. Even though I am a centre-right voter I feel Cunliffe is much more polarising and will be destructive to NZ politics if put in a position of increased power. Kick him out.

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By the very fact that the rule change pushed through by "Camp Cunliffe" at the Labour Party Conference where a challenger will need just 40% of caucus support to call a leadership vote should provide Shearer with all the "intuition" he needs to know Cunliffe is lining him up and wont support him in Feb 2013.

Based on gut instinct, Shearer should act swiftly and decisively or suffer the consequences of his inaction in February.

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The Tyranny of the Caucus: Maryan Street and Chris Hipkins screamed accusations of tyranny at the membership on the Saturday vote. All the members were doing was implementing the instructions of their LECs.

The vote is private. No one has the right to force an MP to disclose how he will vote. Every MP should protect this right. The old guard of the Caucus are having a hissy fit at the membership's victory.

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When they run amok slashing each other's veins, how could you trust them in government, not to sever the country's arteries?

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Well, oh course yes, because what have we now? A two time failure finance minister who has learnt nothing from his dismal failure when Shipley was boss and so repeats his failure under Key.

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The best placed party capable of keeping Labour out of Government in 2014 is quickly becoming the Labour party itself.

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Who said that the voting rules changes were pushed through by "Camp Cunliffe"? My take on this is that the changes were pushed through by the membership of the Party - by people who wanted a greater say in its direction. NOT by Cunliffe & indeed not by anyone in the Labour caucus given that it diminished ALL caucus members' power.

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From the NBR: Of particular interest is paragraph 2.

Labour activists arrive at their annual conference this weekend seemingly determined to get rid of Mr Shearer. The signs of a coup attempt are unmistakable.

All year, those close to challenger David Cunliffe have said privately that a coup would be mounted from November, to coincide with the conference.

So, in reply, its simple to see that once the seed was sown, it was then a matter of influencing the membership of the Party to get the desired result. Pretty simple if the premise you use is Shearer remains- chance at govt in 2014 lost; whats more motivating to the party faithful than that belief.

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Never would Cunliffe try that at Conference: there was no forum to do so. That is the story Trevor is framing now. They are charachterising the Members taking a role in the leadership selection as a move by Cunliffe. And the press has swallowed it. (except for Brian Edwards).

All year long the whole party was involved in developing the new constitutional rules. That is all there was on the agenda.
The members won: the Caucus lost and now Shearer is blaming Cunliffe.
Also all year long Shearer fluffed and flopped. He was ineffective and irrelevant inside Parliament and outside.

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It didnt need a formal forum to do so and that wasnt the purpose. There is no better time than when the party faithful are all gathered together to float the concept of a coup by "working the room" to feel the mood for change that you plan to execute in Feb.

Stage 1; reduce your chances of failure by first checking your support numbers through informal discussion the first night.
Stage 2: knowing your support numbers, push through the 40% of caucus support to call a leadership vote (bypassing the fundamental principles of democracy and majority rule)
Stage 3: Start working on your plan to execute the coup in Feb

Major Oversight: Your current party leader calls for a caucus vote to bring things to a head. Assuming he wins and based on probablility he will, known possible dissenters panic and support to protect their own positions and portfolios rather than risk demotion and the instigator is left standing on his own and becomes a simple and quickly forgotten blip in NZ's political history.

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This article can be seen as nothing more than "red neck Brian" using the media for free publicity to influence his lefty views. Next he will be seeking a party seat with the Cunliffe brigade. Go back to retirement Brian.

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Seems Brian has become Cuniliffe's main advocate and apologist with the most dubious of rationales.

One of the growing dislikes about Key is he's all sizzle and no sausage and that one only has to watch questions in partliament, to see this manifest.

Cunliffe has a similar slippery persona and perhaps both should form a new coalition of the "creatures of the swamp" i.e. eels. ughh!

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Isn't it awful, someone who actually dares to have passionately held ideas and opinions and thinks he can lead, OMG that is shocking and completely unacceptable in New Zealand. Be honest compare what you hear Cunliff say and what you hear Shearer say, who sounds like they have a better grip of things, who sounds like they have thought long and hard how to run a country better than it's run now? we don't need 'Mr nice guy', we need "Mr get the job done guy' and clearly on every level except mildmanneredness and being 'a nice guy' Cunliff wins. I heard Phil Goff say on RNZ focus on Politics that Labour would win the next election because people would more and more dislike National and John Key as if some big pendulum was about to swing back the other way if they just waited, and that sums it up, no fight for ideas, no compelling policy framework that makes sense put forward, no passion, nothing... just sit around and wait, you don't deserve to govern with an attitude like that, I don't hear Cunliff sounding like that.

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The fundamental problem is (if you want to ask the general public and not simply the converted) that Cunliffe doesnt come across as trustworthy.

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Where does the public get it's lead? how can they make an accurate judgement on charactor from the reportings of excitable teenagers who mistake normal political manoeuvrings for some story of the century.

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No, simply on the way Cunliffe portrays himself each time he opens his mouth on TV

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Brian... you hit it right on money here

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David Cunliffe is a really good Sign shaker .. So is his son..
Maybe if he shakes that sign so well in New Lynn so well he might be good at other things.. Come on give him a chance.. Maybe him and Shearer could make up with a double hand shake hahah

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amazing how it all works...in 48 hours david shearer has made a bigger rising from the dead than even lazarus and has morphed into someone credible...if i didn't know better i would've thought it was all a dastardly plan to suck the evil cunliffe out of hiding and then waste him!

the mighty shearer is back !!....long live the Shearer !!

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Brian, the left doesn't "do" secret ballots. I am sure you have noticed by now. It was like that in my union days and I am reliably informed that the recent votes by the teachers unions were pretty much the same. If it was secret and/or your neighbor couldn't see the box you were ticking on the form, some silly billys might vote the wrong way. And we can't have that, can we?

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Shearer would make a better ambassador for New Zealand than PM.

But, in trying to unseat Key, I paraphrase from Aereon, in the "Chronicles of Riddick"...

"Sometimes, the only way to stop [ego] is not with good. You must confront it with a different kind of [ego]".

Thinking along those lines, whose name comes to mind?

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