Russell Marshall’s Column

Russell Marshall honours a great educationalist
Russell Marshall honours a great educationalist

Former Cabinet Minister outlines a way forward for NZ Labour Party

By Russell Marshall
Former Labour Cabinet Minister

In the course of researching some family history around the top of the South Island one thing which has struck me is the quality and wisdom that some early settler leaders showed.

I am not referring to the Wakefields, but to people such as Alfred Domett, Edward Stafford and even Frederick Weld.

Edward Stafford
Edward Stafford

Admittedly they were all men, as was to be the case for more than another century.  They were also well educated and relatively well off.

For their times they were surprisingly enlightened  on issues relating to Maori, though Weld perhaps somewhat  less so –and Stafford was a pioneer in the establishment of free compulsory education .  It seems to have been a time when the ablest settlers were prepared to play a major part in the development of systems and an ethos in the newly European dominated New Zealand.

Who would wish to go into politics now?

nz mp's going into parl

One hundred and fifty years on, who in their right mind would wish to go into politics? As with most other countries especially but not confined to the western world, we have developed long established political parties, whose raisons d’etre keep evolving.

When I entered parliament in 1972, Labour’s trade union beginnings were still very visible and audible, especially in the party at large.  Farming interests were much more heavily represented in the National Party than is the case today, presumably because the number of farmers is so much less.

There were few university graduates, and my sense is that the average age was significantly higher.

All had life experience outside Parliament

Everybody had other life experience. Going into parliament is a much less attractive in today’s world.

Much more of what happens here is controlled offshore. The media, to its shame , is markedly more populist and often less well john keyinformed; Parliament itself, thanks in no small measure to John Key’s own behaviour, often acts like a bunch of fourth formers, and is thereby diminished;  time seems more precious and to pass more quickly than in the days when people would wait  a decade or more to get into office.

Two decades ago MMP brought about change to a parliament much more visibly multicultural and gender representative. My misgiving with Germany’s Bundestag under MMP was the disproportionate power it gave to the minor party.  Our system turned out even worse. It is to be hoped that the government will finally accept the key recommendations of the  review they commissioned.

What can Labour do?

Where can Labour start in today’s more complex world?

A few tentative thoughts:

  • A much sharper focus on a few key issues and not too much else, with everyone on top of the detail.
  • A tough review of candidate selection and retention and on local election campaigns.
  • Review content of advertising.
  • Find an imaginative way to cope with the 4th form behaviour of the Prime Minister in the House, especially at Question Time.
  • Co-operate with the Green Party more closely.

My top 10 for the front Labour bench, in rough order –  Grant Robertson, Andrew Little, Jacinda Adern, David Parker, Chris Hipkins (senior whip), Nanaia Mahuta, Kelvin Davis. Louisa Wall, Phil Twyford, David Shearer.   (Sorry  about  the South Island though!)