There's a number of basic rules in politics – don't make mistakes, and don't fight needless fights. Labour needs to heed both.
Phil Goff knows what Graham Henry is feeling. Labour is playing politics the way the All Blacks played the Springboks in Bloemfontein. They are trailing by some margin and getting desperate, forcing the play and throwing silly passes.
Embarrassing as Labour’s mistakes have been, they owe more to intense frustration at National’s never-ending honeymoon than to any systemic failure. It was only a few weeks ago, after all, that Labour was all over the government in the House. The fifth Labour government was a popular government for a very long time, but even its honeymoon was over by the first winter. No such luck with this lot.
Yes, they got spanked in Mt Albert, got spanked over Christine Rankin, and have lost a minister already, but John Key’s breezy and approachable style remains, for now, unassailable with no poll slump in sight. The hydro lakes are full, removing a perennial winter bugbear for incumbent governments. And not even the most hardened National-haters blame them for the recession.
What Phil Goff and his team (and the All Blacks) need to do is concentrate on doing the basics superbly – eliminate errors, have faith in their own ability, and play to their own strengths. The win might take a while to come – political cycles move at glacial speed. They have to focus on what they can control – which is there own performance.
There is also, however, a strategic issue which Goff needs to address – Labour’s relationship with the Maori Party.
At the last election, Labour held vague hopes of securing sufficient support to place the Maori Party in the balance of power. It hoped to then negotiate a support deal with them. Those hopes were only ever vague because of the difficult relationship.
That’s not unexpected. The Maori Party was born out of a sense of grievance fostered by decisions made by Helen Clark and her Cabinet. Couple that with the intense rivalry between Labour and the Maori Party for the Maori vote. Add to it the fraught relations between Tariana Turia and Clark (not helped by Tariana’s mistaken impression that Helen had set her up to be photographed skulking out of Premier House at the time she resigned as a Labour Minister) and you have a nice brew of dysfunctionality.
But while there’s considerable distance to the 2011 election, that dysfunctionality needs to be addressed. There is an elemental synergy between Labour and the Maori Party based on the simple premise that Maoridom prefer them both, overwhelmingly, to National. That is why most Maori split their votes between the two.
The continued sniping between Labour’s Maori MPs and the Maori Party is hardly the secure foundation upon which to build a secure working relationship. It’s not helped by Labour’s Maori MPs’ discomfort at the way their Maori Party counterparts outshine them with verve and flair.
Take the furore in Maoridom over the government’s Auckland governance proposals – and the removal of any Maori representation. If there was an issue heaven sent to Labour’s Maori MPs to seize and lead, it was this. What happened? The Maori Party managed to rewrite the Cabinet Manual and head the opposition to the plans despite being part of the government that introduced them. Labour’s Maori MPs did get some publicity; but that was after being spotted chowing down in a McDonalds while the hikoi was inching up Queen St.
Take also the proposal to allow Maori to choose a flag to fly over the Auckland Harbour Bridge on Waitangi Day. Labour’s Shane Jones says the hui being held to discuss which flag should fly ‘reeks of shallowness and insularity’. In fact, the process is being led – harmoniously and sincerely – by Pita Sharples. It will result in, most likely, the tino rangatiratanga flag being flown from the bridge beside the New Zealand flag on Waitangi Day. And with scarcely any angst. Remarkable. And commendable to anyone with a vaguely liberal bent.
Designing a framework for a more harmonious relationship won’t necessarily be easy but it can be achieved. It might mean some sort of non-aggression pact outside election campaigns, when both parties will heartily contest the Maori vote.
It’s certainly not beyond Goff to come to an arrangement. It would be a welcome diversion after the travails of recent weeks.