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.

Comments (13)

by Alan Johnstone on October 19, 2014
Alan Johnstone

The strategy appears to be "Let's do nothing, just wait till John Key gets bored and goes away".

It's not going to work; Labour needs a massive "mea culpa", the new Labour leader needs to take on the vested interests that are dragging the party down. 

The problem is to govern, Labour needs to appeal to the 330k people who voted for it in 2005, but didn't in 2014, trying to do that will be fatal in the primary.

I think they are screwed

 

 

by Rae on October 19, 2014
Rae

@Alan Johnstone, why wouldn't doing nothing work? Seems to be fine for National. What they have to do is dump this whole presidential way to elect a leader, and let caucus decide, the people he/she will have to lead

by Alan Johnstone on October 19, 2014
Alan Johnstone

But National aren't doing "nothing", they are running a ruthlessly efficent political operation that has parked it's tanks on the vote rich middle ground.

Labour can't wait this out; if they attempt to they will die waiting, they need to fight for this. The lesson of the last election is you can't win from the left (or the right).

In retrospect the dirty politics scandal has been fantastic from National, it's removed the prospect of a Collins succession; she may have been stupid enough to throw it all away.

Paula will not. 

 

 

by Charlie on October 19, 2014
Charlie

Rae: National doing nothing? Please reivew this list:

https://www.national.org.nz/plan

A government that is the envy of our neighbours over the Tasman:

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/theres-much-tony-abbo...

"That [election]result attests to the merits of Key’s policies: a prudent fiscal strategy, which will see New Zealand return to surplus sooner than Australia, despite being harder hit by the global financial crisis and having to bear the immense costs of reconstructing Christchurch; far-reaching tax reform, which reduced income taxes and raised the GST; and a continued emphasis on controlling public spending, including by better targeting social welfare.

Together with cautious changes to industrial relations, injecting greater flexibility into the Employment Relations Act Key inherited from Labour, those policies have helped lift the country’s growth rate to a stellar near 4 per cent.

However, Key’s victory also reflects the effectiveness with which his government operates."

You don't know how lucky you are!  ;-)

 

by Alan Johnstone on October 19, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Rae is kind of right, National is doing nothing meaningful in policy terms. History will not judge Key any more kindly than Muldon.  He's kicked all the big decisions into the long grass. He's done nothing with power, but in terms of raw political cunning and communication he's sui generis. 

by Ross on October 20, 2014
Ross

True, Charlie, National isn't doing nothing. It's continuing to borrow tens of millions of dollars per week and has partially sold off state assets to a select few.

It it refuses to make the hard but necessary decisions regarding Supper and capital gains, among other things. If you want a weak, ineffective Government, then National is your choice!

by Tom Semmens on October 20, 2014
Tom Semmens

"...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...."

This odd muddled fear was perfectly reflected on the TV News launch last night. Robertson launched his campaign last night on the telly at a K Road pub, not exactly at Family bar but right across the road. Close enough to get the point across, but far enough away to also some across as dishonest. Lots of bright young Rainbow things excitedly hanging about, who looked nice, but then he and Adern did an odd married couple routine that was just weird. I was worried he was going to put his arm around her waist, because she looked like she would pepper spray him if he tried.

Robertson has a tim ear on these issues because he actually has no idea what makes most New Zealander's tick, and unlike our mega-millionaire PM he can't afford to get David Farrer to tell tell him. An out-of-touch palace politician who is to afraid to even take the risk of just saying he is gay and telling everyone to build a bridge and get over it is a hopeless leadership prospect.

by John Hurley on October 20, 2014
John Hurley

"get alongside communities"

..........

maybe he means explain why first home buyers must now buy an apartment?

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=1134...

by John Hurley on October 20, 2014
John Hurley

It isn't such a long shot to infer that NZ Labour was any different to U.K Labour in it's objectives

The release of a previously unseen document suggested that Labour’s migration policy over the past decade had been aimed not just at meeting the country’s economic needs, but also the Government’s “social objectives”.

The paper said migration would “enhance economic growth” and made clear that trying to halt or reverse it could be “economically damaging”. But it also stated that immigration had general “benefits” and that a new policy framework was needed to “maximise” the contribution of migration to the Government’s wider social aims.

The Government has always denied that social engineering played a part in its migration policy.

However, the paper, which was written in 2000 at a time when immigration began to increase dramatically, said controls were contrary to its policy objectives and could lead to “social exclusion”.

Last night, the Conservatives demanded an independent inquiry into the issue. It was alleged that the document showed that Labour had overseen a deliberate open-door ­policy on immigration to boost multi-culturalism.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/7198329/Labours-secre...

Now in the U.K only one in 5 whites vote Labour.

Good luck explaining all that Robertson.

by Ross on October 20, 2014
Ross

out-of-touch palace politician who is to afraid to even take the risk of just saying he is gay

Have you ever heard John Key say he is straight? Saying that Robertson must declare his sexuality is just dumb. It's like Obama declaring he is black...talk about scraping the bottom of the barrel.

by Charlie on October 21, 2014
Charlie

Ross:

True, Charlie, National isn't doing nothing. It's continuing to borrow tens of millions of dollars per week and has partially sold off state assets to a select few.

It it refuses to make the hard but necessary decisions regarding Supper and capital gains, among other things. If you want a weak, ineffective Government, then National is your choice!

Wow! So am I one of the select few? Because I was one of the hundreds of thousands of Kiwis who bought shares.

Other policy initiatives from National include: the change to the GST rate, lowering personal income taxes, changes to DPB rules, the national standards for rivers and lakes, the reintroduction of youth rates, charter schools, the 90 day trial period, getting ACC back in the black and the 3 strikes rule for violent offenders.

I like all those initiatives. You may not. But on election day my view was in the majority,

 

 

 

 

by Ross on October 21, 2014
Ross

I was one of the hundreds of thousands of Kiwis who bought shares.

113,000 thousands NZers bought Mighty River shares. That is less than 3% of the population...

The other partial asset sales were less well subscribed.

It's funny you mention the "change" to the GST rate. John Key promised not to increase GST. Tell me what happened.

by Charlie on October 22, 2014
Charlie

Ross: I chose not to down down the pub with my money and bought some shares instead. It's a matter of personal choice I suppose.

You're also forgetting institutions who bought shares on behalf of their clients.

But getting back to your choice of words: "sold off state assets to a select few" implies that that the sale was somehow selective, and that's not the truth, is it?

 

 

 

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