Hard News by Russell Brown


Calling the race before it's over

I trust I'm not upsetting anyone in my trade too much if I venture that the most incisive coverage of the weekend's Labour Party conference was not anything anyone wrote or said but photographer David White's portfolio for The Listener on Saturday.

White's ability to capture intimate moments in public settings was with him that day: David Shearer, pensive and alone; David Cunliffe, beaming as a remit was debated. But there were also pictures of something less tangible but equally real -- the actual processes of what, on the evidence of the #Labour2012 hashtag on Twitter, was a lively and democratic affair. The kind of pictures you can only get when everyone forgets you're there.

There was little danger of that in the case of another journalist at the conference. In this four-minute report on Saturday evening, 3 News' Patrick Gower asks Cunliffe to affirm his support for Shearer eight times and gets the same answer each time: that's no what this conference is about. The aggressive confrontations between Gower and Cunliffe are effectively, the main point of this story and subsequent reports, and the basis for the declaration that the conference had become "an absolute disaster" for Shearer.

Pretty much all the Gallery regulars at the conference were rushing to name this thing. "David Shearer's leadership appears fatally wounded after his part yesterday voted to give a minority of MPs the power to bring him down," bellowed Tracy Watkins in the Star Times' front page lead, under the headline 'Angry vote damns Shearer'.

This morning, Watkins writes that Shearer -- "fatally wounded" just yesterday -- will approach any vote on his leadership "from a position of strength".

Inside the Star Times, Vernon Small was even more apocalyptic, declaring that Labour "may have just pushed its current leader over the cliff."

Today in the Herald, John Armstrong contemplates the constitutional changes which make it easier for Cunliffe to put his leadership challenge to a vote amongst party members and declares "the party will be the better for it - at least in the longer term". But he also compares party bosses to "lemmings" for allowing the changes to happen and slams the party's "predilection for such self-destructive behaviour." On the other hand, he says, "the debate was always going to be messy." Nonetheless it's all the fault of party president Moira Coatsworth and general secretary Tim Barnett. Etc. There's something for everyone in that column.

It says something when Bomber Bradbury offers a calmer and more restrained voice than the MSM, but that's effectively the case in this blog post, where he strongly defends the controversial leadership remits as an exercise in grassroots action and throws his support, emphatically, behind Shearer. It does bear noting that that the 40% caucus threshold for a wider membership vote applies only once per election cycle -- and that the Greens seem to get by electing or re-electing their leaders every year.

Scott Yorke praises Shearer's speech but notes that one swallow does not a summer make.

Toby Manhire, whose reporting was down a notch or five in tone from that of some of his colleagues, and rather lighter on the cliches, wrote that "overall Shearer’s supporters will be thrilled" by his speech. I suspect you had to be in the room to be as roused by Shearer's speech as the delegates seem to be, but it seemed quite strong.

I think its key proposal -- for the government to build standardised low-cost housing on a substantial scale and make it available to entry-level home buyers -- has a great deal to recommend it. One less Road of National Significance could make a substantial difference to Auckland's housing problem.

In other years, the journalistic set-piece would be (and frequently has been) a lament about the stage-managed nature of the conference. What happened on Saturday certainly wasn't stage-managed, but I'm not sure it was the suicidal chaos reported in the headlines, either. Delegates seemed far more excited about what was taking place than they were angry.

In the event, the headline on the Herald website this morning, since 8.24am, has been Cunliffe backs Shearer as leadership crisis calms. The absolute disaster may not have been quite so absolute after all.

It may be that Cunliffe has already lost his battle for the leadership and can expect to face the wrath of his fellow MPs. That would be a shame not only for the party, but for the country -- Cunliffe has an intelligence and a grasp on policy enjoyed by few other members, of any party. But his apparent inability to take his colleagues with him in his ambitions surely speaks to leadership. You can't convince the voters if you can't convince your own caucus.

In a perfect world, Cunliffe would be in a senior and influential role in the Parliamentary Labour Party, perhaps directly taking on Steven Joyce as minister-of-everything. And in a perfect world, the people we rely on to tell us what is happening would spent more time reporting what they see and hear, rather than what's been whispered urgently in their ears.

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