David Cunliffe's shadow cabinet reshuffle has been seen as quite measured and Cunliffe himself says it puts Labour on a war footing. But perhaps the most telling appointment has gone largely unremarked
The rise of Sue Moroney and Louisa Wall, the predictable demotions of Clare Curran and Trevor Mallard, the left-right tension on Labour's "economic team", the redeployment of David Shearer and Jacinda Ardern, plus the wink to Phil Goff that 30 years is long enough alongside the nod to Annette King that there's still work for her to do after almost as long... these are all intriguing talking points from David Cunliffe's reshuffle of his shadow cabinet. But the most telling point for me is in the portfolios retained by the leader himself.
When I say portfolios, I really just mean the one. ICT – meh. You can bang on about copper taxes, and most people will just wonder why anyone wants to tax the police (ba-dum-tsh). Sure, he'll be drawing on minsterial experience and good networks (tsh... I just can't help myself). But no, I'm talking about regional development.
Cunliffe's decision to put the regions in the leader's office can only be seen as an aggressive and significant strategic move. Aggressive, because the provinces belong to National and this is a signal Cunliffe thinks he can take votes off the centre. Stategic, because it moves Labour's focus away from the urban voter, and Aucklanders in particular. It's a theme Shane Jones picked up on during his leadership run and it seems to have struck a chord.
The old adage that elections are won and lost in Auckland is still true, but perhaps a little less true than in recent years. I haven't seen regional polls and I don't get out of Auckland much these days, but my political spidey sense tells me the regions could make a huge difference in the election next year.
There's New Zealand Post shutting centres and other governmental closures that have had Key confessing he wouldn't rule out moving some head office functions to the provinces, as has been done in Britain. And look at the anger in Dunedin over Invermay. It's an issue that has political clout and Cunliffe seems eager to leverage that to his advantage.
In short, Labour can't do much worse outside the main centres, as it holds only Palmerston North and West Coast-Tasman, while National has taken its eye off the regional ball. There's a sense of the old anti-Auckland frustration round the country, which could well be expressed at the ballot box, and at the government's expense.
John Key's comment earlier this year that "Wellington is dying and we don't know how to turn it around" is indicative of the hole National's in over the non-Auckland economy. Dairy farmers are still in good shape, but outside of that it's a struggle.
I talked to a number of mayors preparing for the 'Auckland is sucking the life out of New Zealand' debate on The Vote in August. Some saw Auckland as akin to an export market, saying it was a good place for wanna-be exporters to practice and its success would trickle down. But most argued that the lack of regional development was the biggest issue facing the country, full stop.
Northland and the East Coast have long suffered, but it's not just there now.
Take Hawkes Bay, a region many big city types dream of escaping to for the quality of life. It has some of the lowest growth rates in the country and has had for four years. Whanganui and even Manawatu are struggling. The economic exceptions are Taranaki and the West Coast, which explains National's commitment to mining. But is mineral exploitation really the regions' only hope?
Demographer Natalie Jackson has found that a third of our provinces are shrinking and in 86 percent of our territorial authorities, the only population growth they can expect until 2031 will be people aged over 65. In other words the provinces are getting smaller and older.
In contrast, Auckland is projected to grow by a million people in the next 30 years.
Few realise the unusual scale of Auckland's dominance. Sure, most countries have kingpin cities, but few have just one so much bigger than the rest. London and Paris are real super cities, but still are home to only 18-20 percent of their country's population. Auckland has over 30 percent of New Zealand population and rising. Only Dublin in the developed world has a greater percentage and we're expected to over that it in the next decade as Auckland rises to around 38 percent of New Zealand's population. That has dangerous repercussions for the economy. Already, economists such as Gansesh Nana fret that monetary policy is being used to damp down Auckland's property market rather than spur exports. Auckland is being catered for at the expense of NZ Inc... and the regions.
The thing about getting growth in the regions is that it helps deal with a number of New Zealand's most pressing issues at once – Auckland's rapid and expensive growth and its risky bubblish housing market, a lack of rate-payers in the regions, an over-reliance on dairy, more jobs and potentially more exports (given much of our exports come from the regions).
In the leadership campaign Cunliffe mentioned a railway link from Auckland to Northland – while they could be decried as pork barrel politics or Labour spending money it doesn't have, if Labour comes to the election next year with a few visionary projects that boost and connect the regions, it could be a voting boost as well. Not least it might encourage some of that "lost tribe" to the polls.
You can be pretty sure the Gisborne rail line will feature, but there will surely be other infrastructure projects as well, which Cunliffe will get to announce... and defend against claims of big-spending lunacy.
By keeping regional development to himself, I suspect Cunliffe is signalling he's got a big idea or two up his sleeve and sees a chance not only for a Labour government to spark jobs and growth in the regions but for it to regain some lost votes there as well.