So earlier today, there was a Labour Party reshuffle, and as literally one person has asked me about my opinion on in, I thought I’d write about it here. When I read through Michael Parkin’s tweet, which had a picture of the shuffled list, I was pretty alarmed. The earthquake spokesperson wasn’t in the 13 top names on the paper. Turns out that the spokesperson hasn’t changed – it’s still Lianne Dalziel – but she’s dropped out of the top 20. I was pretty fucked off, to be honest. I care a lot about this city, and I’ve obviously written a lot about the way I think we are heading in the wrong direction, possibly towards a destination that is very bad indeed. I want to see Christchurch well represented in Labour.
I disconnected from twitter for a bit, and wandered off to do something at the bank. I calmed down a bit, and started to think of a way to put my thoughts into words.
It’s worth starting off by looking at what Labour has done since the quakes. Initially, Clayton Cosgrove was earthquake recovery spokesperson, up until the 2011 election. Since then, Dalziel has been spokesperson. As a strategy, this hasn’t worked. Labour is seen to be too negative, to have no ideas for Christchurch. The government is perceived to be doing a good job of the rebuild – as reflected in the hammering Labour got in Christchurch at the 2011 general election. What was done, first with Cosgrove, then with Dalziel, was to put someone in a role directly counter to Gerry. Cosgrove didn’t work as he was too similar (there was a fantastic line from one commentator – I think it was Jane Clifton – who said that if you squint, he could be a member of the National Party). Dalziel hasn’t worked as she’s seen as too negative, when people want positive (if you’ve read anything of this blog, you’ll know that I’m far more critical of the direction that the city is going in that Lianne has been. Another who is seen as being too negative is City Councillor Yani Johanson. It’s a perception problem, but more on this later.)
The problem with this strategy is that it feeds Gerry. The things that opponents see as his flaws – dictatorial, uncultured, not following due process – are things that his supporters see as strengths – decisive, straight-talking, getting things done. We’ve built up this caricature of him as Bulldozer Brownlee, that like Crusher Collins, is incredibly powerful as a narrative, not only for him, but for the National Party as whole, to get all the horrible things that they want done done. He’s making the tough calls. He’s not afraid to ruffle some feathers, to pull down some dungas. His image is so strong, I’d argue, that he can do all these terrible things, and they actually feed the beast. He has extraordinary powers, and yet he still managed to break the law (and I’m not talking about the time he pushed a pensioner down some stairs either). He heads a government department – the EQC – that has registered 11,000 official complaints, and yet there is no talk about the minister taking responsibility and stepping down. Even the story about his efforts in a 1980 talent quest – which sounds unremittingly horrible – serves to enhance his reputation.
Going at him headfirst has frankly played straight into his hands. The collective opposition – in and out of parliament, at the Council, at the protests around town – have helped to build this giant up. Now, he’s too big to taken down. Certainly not by one person. If we want to take him down, we have to do it Lilliput Style.
That’s why I think that the reshuffle could actually work out well for Christchurch. Dalziel still runs the earthquake issues – those around insurance, EQC, zoning. Gerry has unreal powers, and it is the responsibility of the opposition to make sure that he is held to account for them. Labour cannot shy away from criticising the decisions he makes – but they also need to counter it with a vision, with something that people of Christchurch can get behind. Phil Twyford comes down and talks about Kiwibuild and affordable housing, Chris Hipkins continues to press on the closure of schools and the process around that, Grant Robertson talks to the Council about how we might be able to get the Art Gallery open sooner than 2015, Megan Woods outlines why Labour thinks the University of Canterbury is too critical for the government to let it fail. None of these MPs have been around Parliament for too long, so they have a lot to prove – and now would be a good time to deliver. All the while, Dalziel, Woods and Ruth Dyson continue with their remarkable, largely unreported efforts in their own electorates.
This might be a naive, or an optimistic take on the situation. But these are the cards that Labour was dealt at the 2011 election, and they have to play them. I’m not convinced that reshuffling the earthquake spokesperson would have made any difference. Labour needs a new strategy to take back Christchurch, and this might actually turn out to be a round-about way to find one.