As all parties of all persuasions will tell you, a bad loss, or any loss in an election is time for renewal and revitalisation. From the ashes of one election can come a brand new party full of brand new people to sweep into power three years later. It’s important to point out that despite the National Party tumbling to a catastrophic 21% in the 2002 elections, they managed to bring in a few new faces. Those faces included John Key, Judith Collins and Don Brash, the latter of whom increased National’s vote share by around 18% in a year and a bit, the former is currently the most popular Prime Minister New Zealand has ever seen, and the middle one has just fallen from grace after 6 years of absolute domination, and may be on the up and up again with the failure of Steven Joyce and Paula Bennet to fire in the Northland by-election. Not a bad set of new entries.
Thing is, the National Party know how to do succession planning. Labour don’t. The party welcomed a few new MPs into its depleted ranks: Carmel Sepuloni, Kelvin Davis, Stuart Nash, Peeni Henare, Adrian Rurawhe and Jenny Salesa. Most or all of these new additions are promising, with Sepuloni and Davis immediately taking front bench positions, and Henare touted as a future Labour superstar. There are also recent additions in Meka Whaitiri (who will hopefully be given more to do, because she seems super talented) and Poto Williams, both exceptional figures in their respective areas before their ascension to Parliament. So that’s not so bad – Labour has plenty of new talent to feed off. Hopefully Little recognises this and will afford these new MPs the credit they will most likely be due in good promotions to good portfolios during his time as leader (and Prime Minister).
However, succession planning requires more than just being lucky enough to get a good group of new faces. It requires careful planning to ensure that the Labour Party is covering all of its policy bases. There are a few MPs in the Party who are rapidly approaching the end of their careers. People like Phil Goff, Trevor Mallard and Ruth Dyson will be moving on soon for sure. Hopefully Goff will become Mayor of Auckland, while Mallard probably wants a term as speaker. Then there are other figures such as Clayton Cosgrove and Damien O’Connor who were visibly given a nudge towards the door by Little when he demoted them in the caucus reshuffle. There are also some MPs who have arguably not reached the natural end of their cycle in Parliament but are rumoured to be looking to exit as well, such as Davids Parker, Cunliffe and Shearer. If all of this comes to pass, then over the next 6 years Labour could be looking at 6 new electorate and 2 new list MPs – a fantastic and much needed opportunity for party revitalisation.
However, some of these MPs are going to leave massive gaps in their portfolios, and there is no one in the party that can currently fill them. Say both Goff and Shearer exit over the next few years. This seems likely for Goff given the large numbers of people from all areas of the public and political spheres urging him to run for Mayor of Auckland. Shearer also just seems to not be particularly enjoying Parliamentary politics and it may be that he would rather go back to dodging real bullets, or to a good job at the UN.
Both MPs are Labour’s resident experts in the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade portfolios respectively, and both do a good job. However, there is no one currently in caucus that possesses the right skillsets to take on those portfolios. If Labour was doing its succession planning right, then someone in the party would have noticed it, and we would be seeing an MP, or several MPs being trained up to step into this international-oriented portfolio sector. It’s worth noting again that if Goff leaves then there are no ethnic MPs to take on his Ethnic Affairs portfolio too. Perhaps one of the only people in the Labour caucus with any experience in the Trade and Foreign Affairs areas is David Cunliffe, with his years of international business and diplomacy. However, Cunliffe may well also be looking to make an exit from Labour in or before 2017.
The same goes with David Parker, perhaps one of the only remaining caucus members who could perform the role of Attorney-General in a Labour-led Government after 2017. If I had said this 15 years ago I would have been laughed out of the room – but maybe Labour needs more lawyers. One of the only other people in caucus with significant legal experience is Andrew Little, but it seems a little strange and perhaps inappropriate for the Prime Minister to also be Attorney-General.
Labour risks a serious skills shortage with the departure of some of its older MPs, or MPs with unique backgrounds and skill sets. Without some kind of succession plan in place, Labour is facing a collapse in positions like Foreign Affairs, Trade and Attorney-General. This issue extends beyond just caucus problems and into the wider lack of strategic planning and direction that has plagued the party since the departure of Helen Clark. We need to see some MPs coming through with solid experience in a more diverse range of expertise, or the credibility of the Party will take another enormous hit.