Be­van Rap­son on Labour’s ris­ing star – and Na­tional’s fall­ing one.

As a proven Labour front­bencher makes way for a fresher face, a long-stand­ing Na­tional min­is­ter ploughs on de­spite mul­ti­ple blun­ders.

North & South - - Columns - by be­van rap­son

The Mt Al­bert by-elec­tion had all the mak­ings of a non-event. In a safe Labour seat and trig­gered by David Shearer’s re­cruit­ment to lead a UN mis­sion in South Su­dan, it had none of the fris­son gen­er­ated when an MP de­parts in more dra­matic cir­cum­stances or when a tight race is in prospect.

Nor was the mid-sum­mer tim­ing, as Auck­lan­ders en­joyed sul­try days at the beach or got to grips with the de­mands of a new year, con­ducive to a surge of in­ter­est in pol­i­tics. Na­tional sucked fur­ther life from the con­test by de­clin­ing to par­tic­i­pate, leav­ing Labour’s Jacinda Ardern and the Greens’ Julie Anne Gen­ter to car-share their way through the tamest of cam­paigns.

Shearer’s ap­point­ment was ap­par­ently a feather in his cap, but tax­pay­ers could be for­given for feel­ing a lit­tle miffed at hav­ing to stump up a mil­lion dol­lars to elect a re­place­ment so close to a gen­eral elec­tion, es­pe­cially when the out­come was broadly pre­dictable and the main con­tes­tants so pal­sy­walsy. Ac­cord­ing to Gen­ter, it was “a con­ver­sa­tion” rather than a con­test. So much for talk be­ing cheap.

Af­ter Ardern had won com­fort­ably, we might have ex­pected the by­elec­tion to be a quickly for­got­ten po­lit­i­cal foot­note. Yet in the days fol­low­ing her vic­tory, mo­men­tum gath­ered to present her with a greater prize – deputy lead­er­ship, along with the prime po­si­tion­ing that job of­fers, should yet an­other new leader be re­quired. Could the limpest of by-elec­tions yet come to be re­garded as the cat­a­lyst for gen­er­a­tional change and a lon­gawaited rise in Labour’s for­tunes?

Ardern has al­ways had her sup­port­ers. They value her rel­a­tive youth and dis­in­cli­na­tion to en­gage in old-fash­ioned po­lit­i­cal rough and tum­ble. Her pre­sentabil­ity is an as­set recog­nised by the edi­tors of women’s mag­a­zines, who like to think they know a star when they see one.

But her per­ceived pas­siv­ity and fail­ure to land “hits” on the gov­ern­ment has counted against her in other cir­cles. Her suc­ces­sive de­feats to Nikki Kaye in Auck­land Cen­tral and be­lit­tle­ment at the hands of Paula Ben­nett in Par­lia­ment haven’t helped shake the scep­tics’ doubts.

The spot­light of Mt Al­bert, faint as it seemed at the time, turned out to be a timely re­minder of what she might bring to the worn Labour brand.

Us­ing just her first name on bill­boards might have been read as pre­sump­tu­ous. It turned out to be a mas­ter­stroke. That “Jacinda” sug­gested an un­ex­pected con­fi­dence

– and a level of recog­ni­tion in Auck­land that most MPS could only fan­ta­sise about. Could even the deputy prime min­is­ter pull it off? Prob­a­bly not, sweetie.

Win­ning an elec­torate proved Ardern could ap­peal to ac­tual vot­ers, not just those who rank the Labour list, and it gave her a solid home patch on which to base the rest of her ca­reer. Don’t for­get, her two most re­cent pre­de­ces­sors in the seat, He­len Clark and Shearer, both led their party, even if their records don’t oth­er­wise stand com­par­i­son.

Is it pos­si­ble the high pro­file of Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau played a part in en­hanc­ing Ardern’s ac­cept­abil­ity to the doubters? He’s an international re­minder that good looks and a friendly de­meanour can be highly ef­fec­tive po­lit­i­cal as­sets.

Sud­denly, the time seemed ripe for Labour to take full ad­van­tage of Ardern’s ap­peal, even though leader An­drew Lit­tle was ini­tially un­equiv­o­cal that no va­cancy for deputy leader ex­isted and me­dia clam­our for her pro­mo­tion prompted in­cum­bent An­nette King to level a charge of “ageism”.

Both quickly came around, how­ever, galling though it may have been to fall into line with ad­vice be­ing of­fered by arm­chair ex­perts in the me­dia. Labour’s mori­bund opin­ion-poll rat­ings meant ar­gu­ments to stick with the sta­tus quo rang hol­low.

Un­for­tu­nately, the ca­su­alty was King, one of the party’s stead­i­est per­form­ers. Af­ter bridling at the idea, she sud­denly em­braced it, an­nounc­ing her res­ig­na­tion and en­dors­ing Ardern as her suc­ces­sor.

It was en­tirely her own de­ci­sion, King said, but it seemed an in­glo­ri­ous and un­fair end to a three-decade ca­reer of ded­i­ca­tion to the party. Her ev­ery­woman sure­foot­ed­ness has been one of Labour’s re­li­able strengths, whether in gov­ern­ment or op­po­si­tion. In re­cent times, she has helped hold it to­gether in the face of bit­ter fac­tion­al­ism and ri­valry.

Some­times it seemed as if she was one of the few Labour MPS who knew how to “do” pol­i­tics. Say­ing the right things at the right times with­out sound­ing like a pre-pro­grammed ro­bot is not as easy as it looks, if not quite as hard as Lit­tle and a cou­ple of his pre­de­ces­sors have made it ap­pear.

King’s fi­nal self­less­ness was en­tirely in keep­ing with her pre­vi­ous record of loyal ser­vice to Labour and its causes. If Ardern’s el­e­va­tion is a win­ner for Labour – and that’s no cer­tainty – King’s de­par­ture is a re­gret­table loss.

Keith Holyoake, one of our most suc­cess­ful prime min­is­ters, was said to be fond of re­mind­ing mem­bers of the Na­tional cau­cus that an ounce of loy­alty was worth a ton of clev­er­ness.

But in pol­i­tics, loy­alty has to have its lim­its. Suc­cess­ful lead­ers – and fol­low­ers – have to recog­nise when it’s time to pull the pin on a col­league’s hopes and dreams. Some­times even a fig­ure as re­spected as King falls vic­tim to cir­cum­stance.

John Key, one time “smil­ing as­sas­sin” of the cor­po­rate world, turned out to be a mas­ter of mov­ing on MPS he deemed in­suf­fi­ciently use­ful. They may have been per­fectly loyal but some­thing else – pos­si­bly an ounce or two of clev­er­ness in some cases – was miss­ing. Key’s own pop­u­lar­ity re­moved the need for him to ex­hibit any par­tic­u­lar loy­alty in re­turn.

It re­mains to be seen whether Bill English can be sim­i­larly hard-nosed, though one close mate and col­league may al­ready be of­fer­ing a test for the strength of their per­sonal bond.

English and Nick Smith go way back. They came into par­lia­ment to­gether as 20-some­things in 1990, form­ing half of the “brat pack” elected that year. They be­came matey enough to do the Coast to Coast en­durance race to­gether and have rid­den out a ca­reer’s worth of po­lit­i­cal ups and downs in each other’s com­pany. Smith, along with other brat pack­ers, has even made it a tra­di­tion to head south to the English spread in Dip­ton dur­ing the Christ­mas break.

Back in Welling­ton, how­ever, Smith has a re­cent min­is­te­rial record of se­rial cack-hand­ed­ness, given ex­tra promi­nence by his high-en­ergy, high-vis­i­bil­ity style. He has be­come the face of Na­tional’s in­ef­fec­tive­ness in hous­ing, partly thanks to a 2015 bus tour of Auck­land land sup­pos­edly ear­marked for new hous­ing, some of which turned out not to be the Gov­ern­ment’s to use. As Min­is­ter for the En­vi­ron­ment, Smith planned a Ker­madec Ocean Sanc­tu­ary that foundered on Maori ob­jec­tions he prob­a­bly ought to have fore­seen.

And this year, a pledge to make 90 per cent of rivers swimmable by 2040 has been over­shad­owed by ve­he­ment de­bate about how those stan­dards are mea­sured. If Smith thinks his lofty dis­missal of crit­i­cism as “junk sci­ence” has won the ar­gu­ment, he clearly hasn’t no­ticed the many car­toons and satirists hav­ing a field day at his ex­pense. E.coli is com­edy gold, ap­par­ently.

Fac­ing a re­freshed Labour lead­er­ship team, English might con­sider whether he can af­ford to stick with a min­is­ter who seems to at­tract more bad head­lines than good. Will he be tempted to at least get Smith to take a back seat and let some of the cab­i­net’s younger faces en­joy more air­time?

Al­low­ing fur­ther mishaps by his old friend would show great loy­alty. It could also even­tu­ally leave them both pad­dle­less up one of those unlovely, unswimmable creeks.

It re­mains to be seen whether Bill English can be as hard-nosed as John Key, though one close mate and col­league may al­ready be of­fer­ing a test for the strength of their per­sonal bond.

Go­ing up... Labour’s Jacinda Ardern.

Go­ing down? Na­tional’s Nick Smith.

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