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Labour lists new faces as Muller starts anew

Labour's list for September's election mixes predictability with a few exciting new faces. But while the party introduces some likely new MPs, National leader Todd Muller has been trying to reintroduce the nation to himself, as Sam Sachdeva writes

It’s not quite a team of five million, but the list of 83 candidates who will join Jacinda Ardern in competing to be part of Labour’s caucus after the election is perhaps a sign of the party’s outsized expectations.

With sky-high polling giving the party a faint hope of holding a parliamentary majority by itself, the names lower down the list take on added importance.

The baked-in Cabinet rankings apparently gave the party little room for a dramatic shake-up among incumbent ministers - a fact surely embraced by Phil Twyford, who not only failed to drop but in fact went up a spot to fourth from 2017 despite the KiwiBuild fiasco.

By far the most notable newcomer was Dr Ayesha Verrall, the epidemiologist whose knowledge of contact tracing processes made her popular with the Government and media alike - Newsroom included

Verrall, a Labour member of the Capital and Coast District Health Board, had been rumoured as a potential candidate in recent weeks, but reaching the heights of 18th place - and breathing down the neck of embattled Health Minister David Clark, who occupies 17th spot - was inevitably going to create a stir.

She acquitted herself relatively well, although her claim that she had stopped making media appearances regarding Covid-19 since putting her name forward did not seem entirely accurate.

Ibrahim Omer is just one of the fresh faces who may make their way in on Labour's list. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

But the suggestion that she is ready to usurp Clark and take on the health ministry after September 19 seems highly premature, given how many seasoned politicians have struggled with what can be a hellish portfolio.

A high placing is no guarantee of the baubles of office: Labour MP Priyanca Radhakrishnan also attracted attention in 2017 after being placed 12th on the party’s list, yet has had to settle for a parliamentary private secretary position in lieu of any ministerial role this term.

There are other compelling candidates lower down the list, too, such as 44th-placed Ibrahim Omer, a refugee from Eritrea who spoke of going from scrubbing floors to graduating from university and helping others like himself through the Changemakers Resettlement Forum.

That does not address the relatively high number of pale and/or male faces in Labour’s top 20, a weakness that Ardern has faced for some time.

But even if, as is likely, Labour descends from its stratospheric heights in present polling, Omer and other fresh faces are still likely to enter Parliament come the election.

Muller feels the love

Issues of diversity have also dogged National leader Todd Muller, who sought to move on from a shaky few weeks atop the party with a ‘get to know me’ speech on Sunday afternoon - the venue, Te Puna Rugby Club, serving to reinforce his small-town bona fides to the wider electorate.

“We’re not going to draw the raffle and we’re not going to name the player of the day,” club member Tommy Wilson proclaimed as he warmed up the crowd.

But the somewhat askew, distant camera angle for the party’s Facebook livestream felt less homespun and more lacklustre.

Then there was the backdrop, a Tino Rangatiratanga flag not only upside-down, but back-to-front.

While the flag had reportedly been the wrong way around for at least a year before Muller’s speech, the fact nobody on his team identified and remedied the error - at a time of heightened sensitivities over National’s relationship with Māori in the wake of Goldie-gate - does not speak volumes about their attention to detail.

But the content of the speech itself was solid, a continuation of efforts to move National away from its more hard-edged tendencies under Simon Bridges.

The word ‘love’ appeared 17 times - including a reference to his birth in Te Aroha, “a town called love” - along with an unlikely shout-out to Labour icon Michael Joseph Savage.

Muller's vision - of Kiwis “living our lives with genuine love for our country and our neighbours”, “grounded in a history to which we are all reconciled” - is not that far removed in tone from Ardern, even if they have vastly different approaches to execution.

Muller did offer up criticism, of course, citing Labour’s failures with KiwiBuild and light rail as he suggested it was ill-equipped to see the country through the dark economic storm clouds gathering on the horizon.

But sunniness was still the order of the day, with the National leader’s vision - of Kiwis “living our lives with genuine love for our country and our neighbours”, “grounded in a history to which we are all reconciled” - not that far removed in tone from Ardern, even if they have vastly different approaches to execution.

In evoking the struggles of New Zealand’s “underclass”, the topic of a 2007 speech from John Key in opposition, and Bill English’s social investment approach as a means to help them, Muller is clearly hoping to benefit from favourable association with the prime ministers, while also returning to the two leaders’ themes of “compassionate conservatism”.

Whether such a tack back towards centre ground will work against Ardern is far from clear, given the commanding lead her party enjoys and the Prime Minister’s own popularity with the (somewhat mythical) Middle New Zealand.

But with little time left to change course again, Muller may have to cross his fingers and hope for the best.

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