Robertson's 'safety-first' leadership pitch fraught with risk

It's impossible to disagree with anything Grant Robertson says.  That's a problem. 

When Grant Robertson tweets that he wants the government to "get alongside communities", I am not at all sure what he means.

The phrase "get alongside" evokes the image of a teacher's aide discreetly positioning him or herself next to a struggling student, i.e. "would you get alongside Johnny? He's having trouble concentrating”.

If Robertson believes that the ‘government’ should adopt the posture of a teacher's aide to ‘communities’ of troubled Johnnies, the metaphor was apt. If, as seems more likely, that was not the intended meaning, what was? The answer is nothing; nothing, that is, beyond the lukewarm fuzzies you get by placing inoffensive words in a pleasing formation. You could rewrite the phrase "government blah blah communities blah blah" without sacrificing an ounce of substance or impact.

There is nothing especially egregious about this one anodyne phrase out of hundreds like it, but it’s a decent example of a much broader problem – with political communication generally, and with Grant Robertson's bid for the Labour leadership in particular.

Here are Robertson's 'five commitments' as laid out at his campaign launch in Auckland today: to listen to New Zealanders; to ensure the party is ready for the future; to stand for workers, entrepreneurs and small businesses; to focus on health, education and housing; and to stand for Labour values.

Who could object to a word of that? In fact, I find it impossible to disagree with anything Grant Robertson says – and that’s a problem.

Just as Karl Popper established that scientific claims must be falsifiable in order to be valid, an effective political argument must be objectionable. Politics in a democracy is about pitting your ideas against others and thrashing it out until one side wins or an acceptable compromise is reached.

The forces aligned against universal suffrage were formidable but nonetheless capitulated because Kate Sheppard and others had better ideas.  Labour won the nuclear free debate so comprehensively that, to this day, National has to pretend they agree. Likewise, the 40 hour working week, free hospital care, the old age pension, gay rights; these only became reality after reformers, armed with the better argument, took on the forces of the status quo and won.

If you want to see what happens to political language when it's reduced to only those elements anyone can agree with, look no further than the drivel New Zealand will be complicit in generating at the UN Security Council from next year. Flavourless word soup gushes from the United Nations like a mighty river, and so it should. Diplomacy demands it.

But diplomats and politicians aren’t in the same business: one concerns itself with avoiding conflict and uses language to obscure differences; the other is overtly, unavoidably, confrontational. To invert the aphorism made famous by Prussian General, Carl von Clausewitz, politics is the continuation of war by other means.   

Grant Robertson was a diplomat before he became a political adviser before he became an MP, and he hasn’t lost the knack for pleasant-sounding but hollow eloquence. And yet I sense something else at work: Team Grant may think an inoffensive-at-all-costs strategy is essential for a campaign already weighed down by doubts over the electability of a gay candidate. This is consistent with Robertson’s highly defensive approach towards the sexuality question since last year’s leadership contest, including the bizarre contention that people should be less bothered by his gayness because he watches rugby and drinks beer (Toby Manhire’s skewering on that point is superb).  

It’s worth remembering that the claim that Robertson’s sexuality is a deal-breaker among sections of Labour’s base was put about by people whose favoured candidate led the party to the worst electoral result in 92 years.  There is no valid reason to believe New Zealanders would block an otherwise qualified and compelling contender from becoming Prime Minister on the basis of his or her sexual orientation.

Robertson’s muddled pandering on the gay question, as well as pretty much everything else, points to a deeper weakness: it is not an aversion to the opposite sex that calls into doubt his ability to lead Labour out of the wilderness, but a chronic and debilitating aversion to risk.