Mallard's moas and David Cunliffe's mangled apology are signs that Labour's still slipping off-message too often... and sometimes not even accidentally
Damage from within. David Cunliffe so close to getting it right, but still so wrong. And potentially strong and popular policy undermined by off-message gaffes... When Labour supporters gathered at the party congress this weekend get around to asking why their party isn't doing better, it only has to look back at the past week to see the party's problems laid bare in miniature.
If you wanted proof that the party's internal divisions still aren't resolved, you only have to look at Trevor Mallard's moa comments. Some say he's desperate for attention to keep his Hutt South seat, some say he's just going off as usual. But he's more experienced and strategic than that, and this was a prepared speech he was then ringing round urging media to cover, not some outburst. The imagery of extinction was profound; the impression that Mallard would rather waste another three years in Opposition than see Cunliffe as Prime Minister, hard to ignore. It seems pretty clear that some Labour MPs are happy to lose this one so that they can get their own leader/puppet/fellow traveller in place for 2017. To me, that's disgraceful in any party. If you don't believe strongly enough to fight against three more years of the other guys, you shouldn't be standing.
Hence, if Labour party members want any sort of shot at government, they'd better use this weekend to get the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) club in a corner and tell them to shut up or bugger off.
The ill-discipline was catching, though, and Cunliffe went off-message himself on Friday saying he was sorry for being a man.
Now Cunliffe showing passion and speaking from the heart is a powerful thing. This weekend the party wants New Zealanders to get a sense of him, his roots and values from his speeches. If they don't know him, the logic goes, they won't trust him. And if they don't trust him, no amount of policy of organisation will change the government.
As it stands, voters aren't impressed. 3News-Reid Research figures released on The Nation today showed that last November, soon after he won the party leadership, 42 percent thought he was performing well and 25% poorly. By last month that swung right around -- just 26% thought he was performing well and 50% poorly.
That's got to worry members and MPs at the congress. They will be desperate (at least those who want to win) to convince New Zealanders to take another look at Cunliffe and re-evaluate him. That's a tough ask.
It's made tougher when he apologises for being a man. Why? Not because family violence isn't a serious issue. The second part of his sentence was powerful -- it's a male problem and me need to stand up and stop the bullshit. It's great he's so passionate about tackling this issue head on.
But to start by saying he's sorry to be a man at that moment is sloppy politics and lazy thinking. It takes Labour back into the identity politics territory that isn't what swing voters want them talking about.
But worse for me is that it's just plain dumb. He's stereotyping men in a way he never would women, Maori, gays, immigrants or any other section of society. And he's fallen into the trap of effectively saying 'all cats have paws, therefore every animal with paws is a cat'. Being a man is not the problem per se; it's what you do with it that counts.
Sure, problem of violence is, in part, tied up with gender -- with testosterone and cultural norms playing their role.
But don't apologise for simply being randomly born one gender rather than the other. Don't imply a man's mere gender makes him violent. Don't simplify a complex issue. And don't make lazy generalisations.
Would he also apologise for being a pakeha, wealthy professional because they commit most white collar crime? Or being pakeha because all colonial theft and aggression was committed by pakeha?
The other message Labour needs to nail down is its position on Internet-Mana. Cunliffe told The Nation the door and phone line are both open to a post-election deal with the merged party, but that Hone Harawira and Laila Harre shouldn't expect cabinet posts. (Assuming they even want them, though old Alliance pal Willie Jackson said Harre would certainly want to be around the table).
It's an inclusive and risky choice, because he could rule them out any coalition and trust them to give him supply and confidence regardless. I guess Matt McCarten would have something to say about that, however.
Yet how does that sit with his MPs? Cunliffe's two predecessors as leader have been very open. Phil Goff said the merger was "a rort" and Dotcom is "buying influence". David Shearer said the merger "is going to end badly". What's more, Chris Hipkins said they were "unprincipled sellouts". So how do you work with them? How do you pour such scorn and then argue that a government including Internet-Mana is good for New Zealand? That's something that will continue to haunt them this campaign.