Time running out for Labour

It's now or never for Labour, starting with monetary policy and legal highs

With two big announcements in the next few days, Labour has a chance to change the conversation away from its own self-destructive nature to its hopes for New Zealand. This is an essential pivot week for Labour, because with just 20 weeks until election day it's running out of last chances.

The loss of Shane Jones this week could be a liberation of sorts for the party; while he had found his mojo and a new sense of relevance since the Labour leadership race he had also been muddying the message about a change of government.

Having said that, if David Cunliffe had wanted Jones to stop bagging the Greens he would have ordered him to. So presumably the tension between the parties -- and Labour's strategy of trying to cannibalise the Greens' vote -- will not disappear.

But mostly the loss does damage via perception -- the sense that Labour is a house divided and certainly not a government-in-waiting. Voters won't listen to its ideas about housing or tax or education if it doesn't think the party is fundamentally competent to run the country. David Parker said on The Nation that Labour will rally because people vote for parties and policies not people; that's wishful thinking. Voters need to think the people in charge have the wherewithal to make the policies count.

And at the moment it looks a long way from that.

Compare that to National and its current rejuvenation drive. Today the party announced its new Wairarapa candidate. I know nothing about Alastair Scott, his politics, personal life or communication skills. But aged 48, the former investment banker runs his own winery. Look at his CV as reported by 3News:

The father-of-three is also chairman of Henergy Cage Free Eggs, a Transpower director, Massey University councillor, and trustee of Wairarapa Region Irrigation Trust and NZ Scout Youth Foundation.

At face value Scott ticks a lot of boxes - a father under 50 with considerable experience in business, education, power generation and public service; there's even a hint of greenness in there re the happy chickens.

But I digress. Labour's acid test this week is to make their two big announcements count. Parker's speech on monetary reform is taking on massive proportions because Labour needs a win, especially on the economic front. National is at its weakest on housing, exports and the cost of living, and Reserve Bank reform encompasses them all. It's also near the top of New Zealand First's priority list.

Parker told The Nation that the Reserve Bank will be required to look beyond inflation. In its 2011 manifesto Labour talked about "employment, economic prosperity and the health of the export sector" as being "as least as important". But Parker's proposal this time could be more narrow; economic credibility is everything for Labour and it can't afford to look too woolly.

Interestingly, when asked if we can assume it would make employment a priority for the Reserve Bank (in Australia, "full employment" is a target), Parker said it's unlikely to be that "blunt". But he did say that with new targets come new tools. That is, if the Bank is told it has to get the New Zealand dollar within a certain band, it will be given the tools to do that.

Parker said there would be "one big new tool" for one major new target. We'll hear what that is on Tuesday, but he's obviously keen to get our current account deficit down.

Whatever the reveal, it has to feel relevant to Kiwis' hip-pockets. Also this week Labour will lay out its approach to legal highs. Peter Dunne's mishandling of the issue -- and the huge public outcry for a ban -- hasn't seeped through to National. Yet. But the government is in an uncomfortable corner on legal highs and there are votes to be won on that issue. (Although Labour's more liberal position on drug reform means it's not best placed to harvest them).

With only weeks to the Budget and National's ability to talk about its sound economic management and success in reaching surplus, Labour's time is running out. It needs to forget Jones and look like a party of leadership this week. Or else.