Labour rushing towards the cliff
When a political party elects a new leader, the change is supposed to inspire the rejuvenated team to carry the fight to their rivals. No such luck for Labour. Since David Cunliffe became leader last September, Labour has rarely been able to get up over the advantage line.
In World Cup terms, Labour has spent 2014 defending desperately around its own goalmouth, at constant risk of putting the ball into its own net, while appealing to the ref about the tactics of its opponents.
Cunliffe’s team has rarely been able to turn the spotlight on to those issues where the Government is known to be vulnerable.
They might include the social effects of income inequality, the bungled asset sales programme, the unmet needs in health and education, and the failure of the much- vaunted recovery to put more money into the wage packets of most New Zealanders.
Arguably, these are more substantial issues than whether the Prime Minister has a more likeable personality than the leader of the Opposition.
Regardless, Labour spent last week in its usual defensive crouch, complaining about being the victim of a smear campaign.
The controversy could hardly be less relevant to the concerns of most voters. Namely, had Cunliffe ever (a) advocated with the Immigration Service on behalf of the wealthy Chinese businessman Donghua Liu, and (b) had the Labour Party ever received money from him?
By week’s end, Cunliffe’s forthright ‘‘No’’ on both points had come down to a very fine distinction between asking immigration officials when Liu’s residency would be finalised – which Cunliffe did in 2003 – and ‘‘ advocating’’ on Liu’s behalf, which he claimed he hadn’t done.
Publicly, Liu stated that he had donated to both major parties, while Labour maintained that because it couldn’t find any record of such a donation, it stood by its claim that no Liu donation had ever been received. Simultaneously though, Cunliffe had been arguing that since Liu was being short on specifics, that should signify that Liu’s donation to National was probably bigger than any he’d made to Labour.
Reportedly, Liu gave $15,000 and $ 100,000 respectively to Labour, via bids for items at a fundraiser in 2007.
Labour continued to argue that it could find no record of such payments, and challenged Liu to come clean with evidence of his generosity.
Even as a mere distraction, the Liu fracas has been a godsend for National.
Ironically, the issue had arisen only because of Maurice Williamson’s sacking from Cabinet after his meddling in a police investigation into Liu.
Labour had then chosen to treat Liu as the poster child for National’s links with its wealthy donors, links that Labour may (or may not) have shared with this particular donor.
Whatever the outcome, the fallout appears bound to be negative.
Any lingering faith held by voters in the trustworthiness, competence and relevance of politicians would have been shaken by last week’s events.
The Liu affair coincided with a poll result showing Labour’s support dropping to only 23 per cent, and with Internet Mana seeming to erode support for the Greens.
Labour has roughly three months left to prove it can lead a credible alternative government.
If, however, the next political polls confirm Labour’s downward trend, the election campaign may effectively be over even before it has officially begun.