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Dunne: Beware the politics of the warm glow

Labour may be basking in the glow of thinking its bad years are behind it, but warm words and cosy yearnings for the past do not win elections, warns former Minister Peter Dunne.

Last weekend’s Labour Party conference in Dunedin was a far cry from the previous time the Party held its conference in that city, way back in 1988.

Then, Labour was at the peak of its internecine wars over Rogernomics, with a bitter Presidential election contest between former president Jim Anderton (due to leave the Party a few months later to form New Labour, forerunner of the Alliance) and Ruth Dyson, incredibly the Rogernome candidate, to replace Engineers Union Secretary Rex Jones.

Meantime, Mike Moore was wandering around hawking his own economic policy, the so-called Compact between business, unions and government, based on the Hawke/Keating Government’s successful Accord in Australia. (I remember that conference for another reason too - as the Caucus Secretary at the time I was returning officer for the party elections, and discovered that all the union block votes had been submitted under the signature of Mr Jones, not the president and secretary of the particular union as specified in the Party rules, so to great consternation, had ruled them all invalid. I was never asked to act in that role again!)

Whether by intent or accident, this Dunedin conference was Labour’s final burial of its last thirty years.

This latest conference appears to have been very tame by comparison, exactly what the party hierarchy would have hoped for. Most of it was behind closed doors, enabling the Party to manage prudently the media coverage to ensure it focused on the Prime Minister and selected others, as they wanted, rather than any pesky delegates (if there were such) creating minor sideline embarrassments or awkward squabbles. A far cry from Labour Party conferences of the 1980s, where brawling had broken out between delegates on one occasion!

Whether by intent or accident, this Dunedin conference was Labour’s final burial of its last thirty years. The Prime Minister ever so modestly compared herself to the great Labour heroes, Michael Joseph Savage and Norman Kirk, and omitted any reference to any of the Party’s leaders since Kirk, nearly half a century ago.

In so doing, she was picking up on a strand of Labour thinking that has persisted since Kirk’s death in 1974.

That holds that the Kirk Government was the last great Labour Government - bold, visionary, compassionate and progressive - derailed only by his premature death and Rob Muldoon’s barnstorming 1975 campaign which cowered New Zealanders into delivering him a landslide victory.

Moreover, the thinking goes, while successive National-led Governments have done what National Governments always do, the last two Labour-led Governments through their pursuit of economic orthodoxy and eye for the middle ground squandered unforgivably the opportunity to be a real Labour Government once more, and pick up where Kirk left off.

... invoking the name of Kirk without too much regard for the small matter of the record may just be enough, in pretty much the same way as the canonisation of Savage was for an earlier generation.

The Prime Minister’s message in Dunedin was very clear that this is precisely the path she intends to follow, and with it the implicit expectation that this will be welcomed by New Zealanders. While the approach is undoubtedly inspirational to a Labour Party grateful that the schisms of the last thirty years are finally behind it, it is not yet clear it is necessarily the path down which today’s voters wish to travel.

Most New Zealanders who will vote in the 2020 election were not alive at the time of the Kirk Government, so have absolutely no recollection of those allegedly halcyonic days, let alone the double digit inflation, rising Government Budget deficits and mounting debt brought on by deteriorating international circumstances, which accompanied them. However, that may work to the Prime Minister’s advantage - invoking the name of Kirk without too much regard for the small matter of the record may just be enough, in pretty much the same way as the canonisation of Savage was for an earlier generation.

The politics of the warm inner glow, if you like, where if something feels right, that is all that matters.

Perhaps the more significant question, though, bearing in mind that Labour was not actually the outright first choice of voters at the last election, and came to office as a consequence of installation not acclamation, is whether the voters of 2020 will be as impressed by the claims to the Savage and Kirk legacies as their parents might have been, or whether they are seeking an entirely different, more individually focused message.

However, these questions pale into insignificance behind the real point at issue. The blunt truth is that the Prime Minister can say and promise whatever she likes to an adoring Party audience, but, under current governing arrangements, she cannot deliver any of it without the support of New Zealand First, and more particularly its leader, who has a very different view of yesteryear. They, not the Labour Party conference delegates, nor even the Prime Minister, will have the final say in determining how many of her dreams ever see the light of day.

For that reason, while Labour can feel delighted at how this conference played out, and that some unpleasant memories of the past have been laid to rest, it cannot feel complacent.

Although the flailing about within National as the tawdry Jami-Lee Ross affair winds on will provide further short term relief and a welcome contrast in the moods of the two main parties - one enthusiastic and positive, while the other is bogged down in internal division and doubt - the ongoing Lees-Galloway botch-up is a further reminder of the inexperience and fragility of Labour's Ministers which could cause the government serious problems at any unexpected time.

In that context, warm words and cosy yearnings for the past, in the absence of not much as yet observable action may not prove enough to hold voters’ attention and commitment in 2020.

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