Will Grant Robertson get the chop?
The relationship between Labour’s finance spokesman David Parker and its economic development spokesman David Cunliffe is warming.
This matters because Labour leader David Shearer and Green co-leaders Russel Norman and Metiria Turei may well form a government in two years.
The rapprochement between Mr Shearer’s two economic spokesmen, both former leadership contenders, is good news for him but may be bad news for his deputy, Grant Robertson.
The bad blood from Labour’s public leadership contest in 2011 rivalled that from National’s Bill English/Don Brash struggle in 2003.
Shearer loyalists even advised the new leader to try to drum the New Lynn MP out of parliament the way John Key did to Dr Brash in 2006.
Behind the scenes, Mr Cunliffe was described as arrogant, lazy and hen-pecked.
Nor was Mr Cunliffe blameless.
He never accepted his colleagues’ judgment and spent most of 2012 undermining his leader, with list MP Moana Mackey trying to do his numbers.
A series of speeches, purportedly about economic policy, were obvious leadership bids. It was put about that a coup would be launched just ahead of next month’s party conference, which will consider rule changes to make future Labour leaders more secure.
Mr Robertson sat out the 2011 leadership race, calculating it was too soon for him.
Instead, he opted to become deputy and his appointment was positioned as unifying the party’s left and right.
Mr Robertson, though, has conspicuously failed to express unqualified public support for Mr Shearer. Instead, he has slotted his loyalists into all important roles through the party, including the top jobs in the leader’s office.
Mr Shearer naively accepted these impositions and has tried to work constructively with Mr Robertson, accepting his advice and that of his acolytes on all matters of political strategy and day-to-day media tactics.Mr Robertson has not reciprocated, keeping an eye out for a moment to seek the leadership himself.
Through the year, it has become obvious to Mr Cunliffe that neither Ms Mackey nor anyone else can deliver him the numbers. The so-called ABC faction – Anyone But Cunliffe – remains a majority in the caucus, especially as the polls continue to move in the right direction for Mr Shearer, indicating Labour has won over 135,000 new voters since he took over.
Mr Cunliffe’s realisation his leadership ambitions were going nowhere coincided with Mr Parker making a new effort to include him in policy development.
Mr Cunliffe responded positively, being enthused by Mr Parker’s interest in a new economic model.
No longer sacrosanct are things like price stability and the Reserve Bank Act or the general principle that New Zealand should be an open and lightly regulated economy.
Instead, Mr Parker and Mr Cunliffe are heavily influenced by the likes of Joseph Stiglitz, the former lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who was briefly Chairman of President Clinton’s Council for Economic Advisors, before being manoeuvred by his administration critics into the World Bank, from which he was fired.
Nevertheless, Mr Parker and Mr Cunliffe are taken by Professor Stiglitz’s latest arguments that governments must impose greater equality to achieve a more dynamic economy. Working together has gone a long way to restore their personal relationship and Mr Shearer is prepared to forgive Mr Cunliffe’s earlier disloyalty.
Video set up?
The situation is not so positive for Mr Robertson.
His advice, and that of those he has placed around Mr Shearer, is seen to have been so poor that there was speculation after the latest fiasco – Mr Shearer’s false allegation about a GSCB video – that perhaps Mr Robertson had deliberately set Mr Shearer up.
The conspiracy theory is unlikely. More probable is that, in seeking too much control, Mr Robertson has bitten off more than he can chew.
Mr Shearer cannot of course fire Mr Robertson as part of his forthcoming reshuffle but the role of the deputy will surely be considered.
Were Mr Parker to replace Mr Robertson, while retaining finance, he would become for Mr Shearer what Michael Cullen was for Helen Clark and Mr English is for Mr Key – the deputy of unquestionable loyalty, whose own leadership ambitions have been extinguished by bitter experience, and trusted with a wide brief.
Mr Cunliffe would then move into number three, and play the role of Bill Birch in Jim Bolger’s government, Steve Maharey in Ms Clark’s and Steven Joyce in Mr Key’s.
Along with Dr Norman, the three Davids – Shearer, Parker and Cunliffe – would form the big four in the new Labour/Green government, as Mr Key, Mr English, Mr Joyce and Gerry Brownlee do in the current government.
That prospect is surely more attractive for Mr Cunliffe than that of saboteur.
Such new arrangements would also free Mr Robertson to concentrate fully on his passions of tertiary education and advocating for the Wellington public service.
Don’t bank on it just yet. But don’t rule it out either.