Chris Carter: what next for Labour?

It's not the first time an MP has fallen apart under the public's gaze, but under the Labour Party constitution Chris Carter's breakdown creates new political challenges

I thought I knew Chris Carter well. He's my local MP and I've broken bread with him on several occasions. I've been to his home and know his partner.

This week he undertook a course of action which was cowardly, dishonest, stupid and utterly counter-productive, and which will almost certainly haunt the Labour Party for many months.

For once, perhaps, the wisdom of the street is right.

In a Herald on Sunday vox pop Fay Jarman, retired, of Henderson put it simply: “He’s gone mad”.

I met Chris for lunch after the mad media chase around Parliament Buildings. He seemed OK but I was disturbed by how skeletally thin he’d become.

I know him to be not stupid, not dishonest, and certainly not a coward. So what happened?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he has had what our parents used to call a “nervous breakdown”.

This is something that Josephine and Joe Public can get away with in the privacy of their lives, but a Member of Parliament can’t usually pull one off without career consequences.

However, it can be done. Lianne Dalziel went through a rough patch many years ago, found a peace of mind (and a lovely bloke) and went on to solid career success as a minister in the Clark government.

Nick Smith too had a fairly public meltdown – and two weeks' stress leave – after his mate, Bill English, was rolled by Don Brash. He’s revived his career and apart from suffering the odd barb in the bear pit, soldiers on pretty well. 

So what happens now?

The Labour Party is 94 years old and has seen many such disturbances. The distilled wisdom of this long experience is to be found in the disputes resolution clauses of the Party’s Constitution.

I became intimately familiar with these verses on several occasions.

The constitution says that first the Party Council must recognise a dispute; presumably this will be raised by the leader.

It then envisages a process of reconciliation, at first undertaken by a New Zealand Councillor.

If this fails, then a panel of three party members, not necessarily councillors, looks at the evidence, hears the arguments and reports an appropriate resolution strategy to the Party Council.

Only at this point is expulsion, expressed as a revocation of membership, on the table.

In early 2001, when Dover and Helen had a meltdown, the Council did not even recognise a dispute, but sent me to Matauri Bay to begin the reconciliation process.

In this instance, in the fullness of time, no further action was required.

This can be a lengthy process, and my belief is that this is exactly the intention of the Labour grandparents who devised this response to indiscipline so long ago.

This will not be understood by the bulk of the media, and will be interpreted as a limp wristed response by the Party Council, and possibly worse, a defeat for the leader, Phil Goff.

It isn’t either; it’s just the workings of an old and tested formula.

This process will be delayed but not arrested by Chris Carter’s leave of absence from Parliament for stress.

This is a recognition by the MP’s closest friends that Fay Jarman, retired of Henderson, is a least somewhere close to the mark, but it still leaves a conundrum for the Party Council.

Chris Carter is the selected Labour candidate for Labour in 2011.

Does the Council leave that stone unturned, or does it reopen nominations as a signal to Goff and the world that whatever happens to Chris’s health, his career as a Labour MP has ended?

This will be the real debate in Wellington on Saturday. Welcome to world of politics, Andrew Little, and good luck.